Cities of Refuge

CITIES OF REFUGE. Six cities, three on each side of the Jordan, set apart by Moses and Joshua as places of asylum for those who had committed manslaughter. Those east of the Jordan were Bezer in Reuben, Ramoth Gilead in Gad, and Golan in Manasseh (Deut.4.41-Deut.4.43); those west of the Jordan were Hebron in Judah, Shechem in Ephraim, and Kedesh in Naphtali (Josh.20.7-Josh.20.8). To shelter the person guilty of manslaughter from the “avenger of blood,” provision was made that the principal roads leading to these cities should always be kept open. No part of Palestine was more than thirty miles (fifty km.) away from a city of refuge—a distance that could easily be covered in one day. Cities of refuge were provided to protect a person until his case could be properly adjudged. The right of asylum was only for those who had taken life unintentionally. Willful murderers were put to death at once.

The regulations concerning these cities of refuge are found in Num.35.1-Num.35.34; Deut.19.1-Deut.19.13; and Josh.20.1-Josh.20.9. If one guilty of unintentional killing reached a city of refuge before the avenger of blood could kill him, he was given asylum until a fair trial could be held. The trial took place where the accused had lived. If proved innocent of willful murder, he was brought back to the city of refuge. There he had to stay until the death of the high priest. After that he was free to return to his own home. But if during that period he passed beyond the limits of the city of refuge, the avenger of blood could kill him without blame. See also Avenger.——SB


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CITIES OF REFUGE (עָרֵ֥י מִקְלָ֖ט, LXX Πόλεις τω̂ν Φυγαδευτηρίων). Among many ancient Near Eastern people there was long a custom of understanding that specified shrines were places where criminals could seek safety, and could not be apprehended for their crimes.

In Israel six Levitical cities were set aside as cities of refuge, but only for those who killed another person accidentally. Criminals were not protected in these cities.

The cities of refuge served to modify the harshness of an impersonal application of the law of retribution which demanded punishment equal to the crime committed (e.g., Gen 9:6; Exod 21:12-14; Lev 24:17; Ezek 18:20). An adjunct of this law was the duty of a relative of the dead man to kill the murderer. No consideration was given to the nature of the act, whether deliberate or accidental.


There were six cities of refuge named by Joshua (20:7, 8): (1) Kedesh, which is located about fifteen m. N of the Sea of Galilee in the mountains which border the W side of the Hula Valley, in the territory assigned to the tribe of Naphtali; (2) Shechem, which was located at the E end of the V-shaped valley which runs on a W-E line between Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim, in the range called the hills of Ephraim and within the territory given to the tribe of Ephraim; (3) Hebron, also known as Kiriath-arba, which was located in Judah about twenty m. S of Jerusalem; (4) Bezer was located in the highland E of the Jordan River’s entrance into the Dead Sea, which was in the territory of the tribe of Reuben; (5) Ramoth was about fifty m. farther N in the highlands of Gilead which had been assigned to the tribe of Gad; (6) Golan was somewhere in the highlands E of the Sea of Galilee within the tribe of Manasseh, but its exact location is presently unknown.

According to Exodus 21:14 a murderer could not find sanctuary at the altar. The implication is that the person who killed another accidentally could find temporary asylum at the altar. In Exodus 21:13 there is a vague promise that a place would be provided for a more adequate asylum.

The promise for asylum in a “place” is presented with some detail in Numbers 35:9-34. Actually, there was to be more than one place for the man who killed another accidentally. In fact, there were to be six cities, three on the E side of the Jordan River and three on the W side, which would serve as cities of refuge. This arrangement would remove the responsibility for avenging the accidental death of a man from his family to the larger context of the congregation.

With some detail, this passage makes a sharp distinction between willful murder and accidental death. In the latter instance, the congregation, presumably the people who lived in the home town of the man who killed accidentally and did not belong to the dead man’s family, intervened, made an investigation and judgment on the matter, and delivered the unfortunate man to the nearest city of refuge.

The city of refuge was to serve as an asylum from the wrath of the avenger. It was also to be a modified form of expiation from blood-guiltiness. Since the Israelite religious law did not provide for any sacrificial or ritualistic removal of guilt for the manslayer, the guilt of the man who killed accidentally was removed by the natural death of the high priest. Whether this man was the national high priest, the chief priest of the man’s home town, or the chief priest of the city of refuge is not clarified in the text. After the death of the priest the man was free to leave his “prison” without the burden of the accident resting on him. Paying a fine or ransom could not free him sooner.

The short passage in Deuteronomy 4:41-43 is concerned only with the designation of the three cities of refuge on the E side of the Jordan. On the other hand, Deuteronomy 19:1-13 points to the three cities to be set up on the W bank of the Jordan, with the possibility that three more might be added later. Mention is made that roads leading to the cities must be kept in good repair. Qualifications for obtaining refuge are given in some detail; the elders of the congregation were designated to take charge of the investigation and to decide concerning the worth of each case.

It was only during the United Kingdom period that all six of the cities of refuge were actually under the control of the Hebrews so that they could function. During the remainder of independent Heb. history, only Shechem and Hebron had continuous Heb. control until they were destroyed in 722 and 587 b.c. respectively. Curiously, there are no stories in the OT which illustrate the functioning of these cities as places of refuge.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

`are ha-miqlaT; poleis ton phugadeuterion (compare 1 Macc 10:28), and other forms):

1. Location:


2. Purpose:

From time immemorial in the East, if a man were slain the duty of avenging him has lain as a sacred obligation upon his nearest relative. In districts where more primitive conditions prevail, even to this day, the distinction between intentional and unintentional killing is not too strictly observed, and men are often done to death in revenge for what was the purest accident. To prevent such a thing where possible, and to provide for a right administration of justice, these cities were instituted. Open highways were to be maintained along, which the manslayer might have an unobstructed course to the city gate.

3. Regulations:

The regulations concerning the Cities of Refuge are found in Nu 35; De 19:1-13; Jos 20. Briefly, everything was to be done to facilitate the flight of the manslayer, lest the avenger of blood, i.e. the nearest of kin, should pursue him with hot heart, and, overtaking him, should smite him mortally. Upon reaching the city he was to be received by the elders and his case heard. If this was satisfactory, they gave him asylum until a regular trial could be carried out. They took him, apparently, to the city or district from which he had fled, and there, among those who knew him, witnesses were examined. If it were proved that he was not a willful slayer, that he had no grudge against the person killed, and had shown no sign of purpose to injure him, then he was declared innocent and conducted back to the city in which he had taken refuge, where he must stay until the death of the high priest. Then he was free to return home in safety. Until that event he must on no account go beyond the city boundaries. If he did, the avenger of blood might slay him without blame. On the other hand, if he were found guilty of deliberate murder, there was no more protection for him. He was handed over to the avenger of blood who, with his own hand, took the murderer’s life. Blood-money, i.e. money paid in compensation for the murder, in settlement of the avenger’s claim, was in no circumstances permitted; nor could the refugee be ransomed, so that he might "come again to dwell in the land" until the death of the high priest (Nu 35:32).

A similar right of refuge seems to have been recognized in Israel as attaching to the altar in the temple at Jerusalem (1Ki 1:50; 2:28; compare Ex 21:12 f). This may be compared with the right of asylum connected with the temples of the heathen.