In Numbers 35:9-15, God commands the people to create cities of refuge in the Promised Land. The notion behind the cities of refuge-where one could claim asylum or sanctuary-is a construct that has found itself reinterpreted throughout the ages. What follows below is a brief exploration into the way the biblical text has been (re)interpreted from the Rabbinic period up until the present day. Examining the way a text has been received and interpreted is called "reception history," which is a form of higher criticism.
In the biblical text, the cities of refuge act as a sanctuary for one who had committed murder (rotzei-ach), but who had done so unintentionally ( makeih-nefesh bish'gagah). The issue here is blood vengeance. Numbers 35:16-21 explains that a person committing murder should be put to death (as murder violates the sixth commandment). Furthermore, a member of the family of one who was intentionally murdered has the right to act as the executioner. The kinsman carrying out this duty is called the go-eil hadam, the blood-avenger. However, if the murder happened by accident, then the murderer is allowed a trial, and the assembly shall decide whether or not the manslayer should die (Numbers 35:22-24). If the assembly finds in the person's favor, the manslayer shall live in one of the cities of refuge until the High Priest dies.1 At this point the man is free to return to his home (Numbers 35:28). If the manslayer sets foot outside the city before then, he opens himself up to the retribution exacted by the blood-avenger.2 So ends the biblical law.
The Rabbis had much to say about the cities of refuge. Of particular concern to them was how a person running from the blood-avenger would be able to find one of the cities. According to B'midbar Rabbah 23:13, God told Moses to set up road signs inscribed with the word "manslayer" that would point the person in the correct direction. So too, R. Avin stated every mile along the way there would be a station with a person pointing toward the city of refuge.3In case this was not enough, the roads leading to the cities of refuge should be extra wide, 16 cubits, not the regular 4 cubits. 4 The Rabbis were also interested in what a city of refuge would look like: a mid-size city, near water and markets, of a decent size population, and free of traps, nooses, and weapons.5
During the Middle Ages, the church was used as a place of asylum. This practice may have been rooted in biblical text and also in Greco-Roman influence. The Bible suggests that grabbing the horns of the altar kept a person safe (Exodus 21:12-14; I Kings 1:50-51; 2:28-24). Because the altar was sacred, shedding blood in a holy spot would desecrate it, and thus a person grasping the horns of the altar was safe (for the moment). This was also the case in Greece where temples, altars, and other sacred spaces became places where slaves and criminals fled for asylum.6 In his Institutes, the Byzantine emperor Justinian notes the extension of asylum to the churches.7 Throughout the course of the Middle Ages, laws regulating the practice of asylum within churches, as well as the rights of the fugitive and the pursuer, became well developed.8 Such laws stood in England until they were revoked in 1623 by King James I.9 Since the seventeenth century CE, the place of asylum has moved away from sacred space and into the political realm. Now, states create places of asylum that protect a person from the reach of another sovereign state.10 Consider, for example, the creation of embassies within foreign countries.
In today's American society, the term "sanctuary city" has a much different meaning: it designates cities in which law enforcement is not allowed to ask about immigration status when arresting a person.11 These cities include Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Detroit. Recently, the concept of sanctuary cities has come under attack by various factions in government.
As we can see from the discussion above, the creation of sanctuary cities was an important development and one that is still functioning (albeit for different reasons) in the United States. Sometimes we encounter a biblical law we find difficult to relate to in modern society and we are left trying to figure out how to make it applicable in our lives today. For some laws, such as those governing slaves and indentured servants, goring oxen, or vows (Exodus 21; Numbers 30), we simply say "that was then and this is now" or try to draw out spiritual or allegorical meanings. With the cities of refuge, however, the situation is different. While the function of the cities may have changed throughout time, the intention behind them has remained similar: to protect those who need protection.
- "Only death could compensate for a loss of life, and thus the death of the High Priest became the symbol of communal expiation," W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Ed. (New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 1,130
- Deuteronomy 19 also deals with cities of refuge, murder, and manslaughter. There it makes no mention of the High Priest.
- Midrash Tehillim, ed. Solomon Buber (1827-1906), Vilna, 1891; The Midrash on Psalms, trans. William G. Braude (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 1959
- Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 100a-b
- Babylonian Talmud, Makot 10a
- Servius' Commentary on Virgil's Aeneid, column 2 line 761
- Justinian, Institutes, Book I, Title 8, Sentence 2
- See for example, the fifth century CE Codex Theodosianus, books 9 and 16
- C. Bryant, Handbook of Death and Dying (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003), p. 911; K. Shoemaker, Sanctuary and Crimes in the Middle Ages, 400-1500(New York: Fordham University Press, 2011)
Kristine Garroway received her Ph.D. from HUC-Cincinnati in 2009 and recently joined the faculty of HUC-JIR Los Angeles as visiting assistant professor of Hebrew Bible. Her research concentrates on children in the ancient Near East and the Deuteronomistic Histories.
Professor Garroway’s exploration of the “reception history” that has evolved from the commandment in Parashat Mas’ei to establish cities of refuge calls to mind two additional Talmudic teachings with contemporary implications.
As noted, the one who killed someone accidentally could find asylum as long as he remained within the boundaries of one of the designated cities. While he was not incarcerated as a prisoner might be today, his life was still restricted and confined. General clemency would occur only after the death of the incumbent High Priest (Kohein Gadol). The sense was that only the High Priest’s death could atone for the original blood that had been shed.
But the Talmud wonders whether this injunction might be dangerous for the Kohein Gadol. The concern wasn’t assassination, but that someone might pray for his death in order to permit the early release of the one in exile. As a result, the passage describes the mother of the High Priest distributing food and clothing in the cities of refuge so that no one would pray for the premature death of her son (Babylonian Talmud, Makot 11a). There may have been ulterior motivation for taking care of those exiled, but compassion and concern for the isolated and imprisoned was firmly established.
In addition since the biblical text says the unintentional killer was “to live” in exile (Deuteronomy 4:42), the Talmud also suggested that since learning was key to living, his teacher was to accompany him to the city of refuge. And similarly, according to Rabbi Yohanan, if a teacher was exiled his students were obligated to join him (Babylonian Talmud, Makot10a).
From our ancient interpreters we find both a powerful message about the needs of “prisoners” who are separated from the community and a vivid reminder of the sacred relationship between student and teacher.
Rabbi James Prosnit is a rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, Connecticut and an adjunct lecturer at Fairfield University.
"Mas'-ei, Numbers 33:1-36:13
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,222-1,250; Revised Edition, pp. 1,117-1,133;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,013-1,036"