|REFUGE, CITIES OF |
To provide security for those who should undesignedly kill a man, the Lord commanded Moses to appoint six cities of refuge, or asylums, that any one who should thus shed blood might retire thither, and have time to prepare his defence before the judges, and that the kinsmen of the deceased might not pursue and kill him, Exodus 21:13 Numbers 35:11-34. Of such cities there were three on each side Jordan. On the west were Kedesh of Naphtali, Shechem, and Hebron; on the east, Golan, Ramoth-Gilead, and Bezer, Joshua 20:7,8. These cities served not only for Hebrews, but for all strangers who resided in the country, Deuteronomy 19:1-10. The Lord also commanded that when the Hebrews should multiply and enlarge their land, they should add three other cities of refuge. But this command was never fulfilled.
The custom of blood-revenge appears to have been an institution or principle very early introduced among the nomadic oriental tribes. So firmly was this practice established among the Israelites before their entrance into the promised land, and probably also even before their sojourning in Egypt, that Moses was directed by Jehovah not to attempt to eradicate it entirely, but only to counteract and modify it by the institution of cities of refuge. The custom of avenging the blood of a member of a family or tribe upon some member of the tribe or family of the slayer, still exists in full force among the modern Bedaweens, the representatives in a certain sense of the ancient Israelites in the desert. They prefer this mode of self-vengeance. Niebuhr informs us that "the Arabs rather avenge themselves, as the law allows, upon the family of the murderer; and seek an opportunity of slaying its head, or most considerable person, whom they regard as being properly the person guilty of the crime, as it must have been committed through his negligence in watching over the conduct of those under his inspection. From this time the two families are in continual fears, till some one or other of the murdererís family be slain. No reconciliation can take place between them, and the quarrel is still occasionally renewed. There have been instances of such family feuds lasting forty years. If in the contest a man of the murdered personís family happens to fall, there can be no peace until two others of the murdererís family have been slain." How far superior to this was the Mosaic institution of cities of refuge, where the involuntary homicide might remain in peace till the death of the high-priest, and then go forth in safety, while a really guilty person did not escape punishment.
Among most of the nations of antiquity, temples, and particularly the altars within them, were regarded as proffering an asylum for fugitives from violence. Among the Hebrews we find indications of the custom on the part of the culprit of fleeing to the Lordís altar. But this was not allowed to screen the guilty from deserved punishment, Exodus 21:14 1 Kings 2:28-34.
There is an appointed city of refuge for sinners exposed to the second death, and an altar of refuge sprinkled with atoning blood. Happy the soul that flees and is safe in Christ, ere it is overtaken by the avenging law of God.