ASYLUM ă sī lum. The right of asylum is codified in four Biblical passages (Exod 21:12-14; Num 35:9-34; Deut 19:1-13 and Josh 20:7-9). The purpose of this law was to provide a place where the accidental homicide might dwell. This asylum takes two forms: the altar of Yahweh and the City of Refuge (see Cities of Refuge). The former is illustrated in the case of Adonijah who entered the house of God and clung to the horns of the altar for fear of Solomon’s wrath (1 Kings 1:50; 2:28), while the latter is seen in the passages mentioned.

M. Greenberg has pointed out that contrary to the commonly accepted view of Wellhausen, the cities of refuge were not conceived by the Deuteronomic reformers as a replacement for the “local” (?) altars, but they were early and necessary adjuncts to the asylum offered by the altar since that was only a temporary expedient. Further, since critical scholarship noted only the humanitarian and political grounds for the law of asylum, it missed the ancient religious reason for granting asylum (viz. Gen. 9:5, 6). Even shedding an innocent man’s blood unintentionally still involved blood-guilt for which no kinsman of the slain could even pardon or ransom (Num 35:31). Nothing can expiate an accidental homicide except the death of the high priest (35:25)! Life cannot be tr. into any other terms.


G. T. Manley, The Book of The Law 1957, 119, 120, 125; M. Greenberg, “The Biblical Conception of Asylum,” JBL, 78 (1959), 125-132.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

a-si’-lum: The custom of fleeing to specially sacred places to obtain the protection of a deity is found all over the world (Post, Grundriss, II, 252 ff). In ancient Israel we meet with it in two forms--the asylum of the altar and the asylum of the cities of refuge. The altar at the House of God was a place to which persons in danger fled for protection (1Ki 1:50; 2:28). It had horns and must not be confused with the altars of earth or stone that were used for lay sacrifices. See Altar; Sanctuary. Ex 21:14 provides that a murderer is to be taken from the altar to be put to death. The law of the cities of refuge proceeds upon a somewhat different principle. Its objects are

(1) to shield a homicide from the avenger of blood until trial, and

(2) to provide a refuge for the manslayer who has not been guilty of murder. There is one reference to the institution in the history of the kingdom (2Sa 14:14). For the legal and geographical information, see nodetitle; Homicide.

Harold M. Wiener

See also

  • nodetitle