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CITIES OF REFUGE, part 2
Allen Webster
(to read part 1 first, click here)

Manslaughter is accidentally killing someone. Under Moses' Law, even manslayers could be killed by the avenger of death. The avenger did not have to consider motive. His rule was: "As he has done, so shall it be done to him" (Exodus 21:12-25). But God did "look on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7; Matthew 5:21-22; 15:18-20; Proverbs 4:23) and took account of man's intent. He knew that some would take a life through accident or carelessness. Any of us might kill someone we loved very much (cf. Joshua 20:3-5). (We should thank God if this has never been a situation we had to face). God's sense of justice and mercy caused Him to give a reprieve of "life for life" in such cases.

Moses' Sample Case Moses gave an example of two men cutting down a tree (Deuteronomy 19:5-6; cf. 2 Kings 6:5-7). One man swung the ax, and its head slipped off and killed his friend. Suppose the dead man's brother in his grief believed the man meant to do it. How could the manslayer avoid a murderer's fate? When the Israelites were in the wilderness, he could escape the avenger's rage by rushing to the "horns of the altar" until a hearing was held (Exodus 21:13,14)1. But when they settled in Canaan many would live so far front the tabernacle that another solution was needed. Thus God set aside six cities of refuge.

Innocent until proven guilty. Suppose the hunted man arrived panting at the gates2 of a city of refuge, just ahead of the avenger. The city elders held a preliminary hearing. If he appeared to be innocent of murder, he was allowed to enter the city, even without evidence. He was considered innocent until proven guilty. If he could make it to the city, he was kept safe until a formal trial could be held. When the avenger arrived, the other side of the story was heard. Then a complete investigation was made. Next, the case was presented before judges in a formal court setting (to use Moses' terminology, he stood "before the congregation for judgment").

If it was decided that the death was accidental, the fugitive was allowed to return to live in the city of refuge. He was kept safe as long as he remained inside. If he left, the avenger could lawfully kill him without consequences (cf. 1 Kings 2:39-46).

Proven guilty expelled. On the other hand, suppose the man killed his friend on purpose. Would he get away with murder if he fled to a city of refuge? No, his guilt was to come out in a trial. If at least two independent witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15; Hebrews 10:28; cf. Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1; 1 Timothy 5:19) gave explicit evidence that showed intent of murder, he was delivered to the avenger of death to be executed.

Moses' careful instruction kept these cities from being abused by criminals. Murderers have abused other legal systems—and they still do. During the Dark Ages, for instance, some church safe houses became harbors for criminals. Although eventually King Henry VIII put these sanctuaries out of business (Stamford, Pleas of the Crown, lib. II. c. 318),3 we see God's wisdom in setting up His cities in a way that protected the innocent while punishing the guilty. "A man that doeth violence to the blood of any person shall flee to the pit; let no man stay him" (Proverbs 28:17).

Innocent but not guiltless. Notice that the manslayer was not completely guiltless. He was not a murderer, and was not to be executed, but there were consequences to his actions. He could not be freed by paying any bail or fine. He could give "all the substance of his house" (cf. Proverbs 6;31) to the judges, to the country, or to lhe avenger, but it would not be accepted (Numbers 35:32; Psalm 49:64). In a way, he was a prisoner and the city served as a place of detention.4

It may seem harsh to us for a man to be removed from his home and confined for many years—perhaps the rest of his life—all because of an accident. But God was teaching His people to be very careful with life. He wanted them to fear shedding any person's blood, and never to allow oversight or negligence to bring about an avoidable death.

The manslayer had to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest.5 If the high priest died before the manslayer did, the manslayer was allowed to return home, and the avenger could not harm him. During his life, one of the functions of a high priest was to bear the sins of the people (Exodus 28:38).6 Cities of refuge were Levitical: (priestly) cities; therefore the manslayers confined in them could be seen as the high priest's prisoners. Thus the high priest's death allowed them to go free. One principle of law states: "The suit expires with the party." The taking of a life imposed a guilt that could not be paid for by any means short of death. The high priest's death, even of natural causes, fulfilled the penalty. One man had died in place of another.

Glad Tidings of Good Things, Vol. 14, May 8, 2008, page 2