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City of Refuge

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(usually in the plur. עָרֵי הִמַּקְלָט, arey' ham-miklat', from קָלִט contracted, Gesenius, Thes. Heb. p. 1216; Sept. πόλεις τῶν φυγαδευτηρίων, φυγαδευτήρια, φυγαδεῖα; Vulg. oppida in fugitivorum auxilia, prvesidia, separata, or urbesfugitivorum).

I. Among the Hebrews, six Levitical cities specially chosen for refuge to the involuntary homicide until released from banishment by the death of the high-priest (Numbers 35:6; Numbers 35:13; Numbers 35:15; Joshua 20:2; Joshua 20:7; Joshua 20:9). SEE BLOOD-REVENGE. There were three on each side of Jordan.

1. KEDESH, in Naphtali, now Kedes, about twenty miles E.S.E. from Tyre, twelve S.S.W. from Banias (1 Chronicles 6:76; see Robinson, 3. 355; Benj. of Tudela, in the Early Trav. p. 89).

2. SHECHEM, in Mount Ephraim, Nabulus (Joshua 21:21; 1 Chronicles 6:67; 2 Chronicles 10:1; see Robinson, 3:113). 3. HEBRON, in Judah, el-Khulil. The last two were royal cities, and the latter sacerdotal also, inhabited by David, and fortified by Rehoboam (Joshua 21:13; 2 Samuel 5:5; 1 Chronicles 6:55; 1 Chronicles 29:27; 2 Chronicles 11:10; see Robinson, 1:314; 2:454).

4. On the E. side of Jordan BEZER, in the tribe of Reuben, in the plains of Moab, said in the Gemara to be opposite to Hebron, perhaps the later Bosor, and the present Burazin (Deuteronomy 4:43; Joshua 20:8; Joshua 21:36; 1 Maccabees 5:26; Josephus, Ant. 4, 7, 4; see Reland, p. 662).

5. RAMOTH-GILEAD, in the tribe of Gad, supposed to be on or near the site of es-Szalt (Deuteronomy 4:43; Joshua 21:38; 1 Kings 22:3; see Reland, p. 966).

6. GOLAN, in Bashan, in the half-tribe of Manasseh, a town whose site has not been ascertained, but which doubtless gave its name to the district of Gaulonitis, Jaulan (Deuteronomy 4:43; Joshua 21:27; 1 Chronicles 6:71; Josephus, Ant. 4, 7; see Reland, p. 815; Porter, Damascus, 2, 251, 254; Burckhardt, Syria, p. 286). The Gemara notices that the cities on each side of the Jordan were nearly opposite each other, in accordance with the direction to divide the land into three parts (Deuteronomy 19:2; Reland, p. 662). Maimonides says all the forty- eight Levitical cities had the privilege of asylum, but that the six refuge- cities were required to receive and lodge the homicide gratuitously (Calmet On Numbers 35).

The directions respecting the refuge-cities present some difficulties in interpretation. The Levitical cities were to have a space of 1000 cubits (about 583 yards) beyond the city wall for pasture and other purposes. Presently after, 2000 cubits are ordered to be the suburb limit (Numbers 35:4-5). The solution of the difficulty may be, either the 2000 cubits are to be added to the 1000 as "fields of the suburbs" (Leviticus 25:34), as appears to have been the case in the gift to Caleb, which excluded the city of Hebron, but included the "fields and villages of the city" (Joshua 21:11-12, Patrick), or that the additional 2000 cubits were a special gift to the refuge-cities, while the other Levitical cities had only 1000 cubits for suburb. Calmet supposes the line of 2000 cubits to be measured parallel, and the 1000 perpendicular to the city wall; an explanation, however, which supposes all the cities to be of the same size (Calmet On Numbers, 35). II. Places of refuge where, under the cover of religion, the guilty and the unfortunate might find shelter and protection were not unknown among the ancient heathen. The jus asyli, or right of shelter and impunity, was enjoyed by certain places reputed sacred, such as groves, temples, and altars. This protective power commonly spread itself over a considerable district round the holy spot, and was watched over and preserved by severe penalties. Among the Greeks and Romans the number of these places of asylum became in time very great, and led, by abuse, to a fresh increase of criminals (Tacitus, Ann. 3. 60, 63). Tiberius, in consequence, caused a solemn inquiry into their effects to be made, which resulted in a diminution of their number and a limitation of their privileges (Suetonius, Tib. 37, compared with Ernesti, Excursus ad h. l; Osiander, De Asylis Gentium, in Gronov. Thesaur. t. 6). In the Apocrypha (2 Maccabees 4:33) mention is made of a city having the jus asyli "Onias withdrew himself into a sanctuary at Daphne that lieth by Antiochia." The temple of Diana at Ephesus (Acts 19:27) was also a heathen asylum, whose privileges in this respect increased with the progress of time.

This pagan custom passed into Christianity. As early as Constantine the Great, Christian churches were asylums for the unfortunate persons whom an outraged law or powerful enemies pursued (Smith's Gibbon, c. 20). Theodosius, in 431, extended this privilege to the houses, gardens, and other places which were under the jurisdiction of the churches, and the synod of Toledo, in 681, widened the right of asylum to thirty paces from each church. Since then this ecclesiastical privilege prevailed in the whole of Catholic Christendom, and was preserved undiminished, at least in Italy, so long as the papal independence remained (Hallam's Middle Ages, c. 9, pt. 1). The right acted beneficially in ages when violence and revenge predominated, and fixed habitations were less common than now; but its tendency to transfer power from the magistrate to the priesthood was injurious to the inviolability of law and the steady administration of justice. It has accordingly in recent times been abrogated by most governments (Conversations-Lexikon, s.v.).

III. Among the Jews, the "cities of refuge" bore some resemblance to the asylum of the classic nations, but were happily exempt from the evil consequences to which reference has been made, and afford, even to the present day, no mean proof of the superior wisdom and benignant spirit of the Jewish laws. The institution was framed with a view to abate the evils which ensued from the old-established rights of the blood-avenger, (See AVENGER OF BLOOD), and thereby to further the prevalence in the nation of a mild, gentle, and forgiving spirit. An inspection of the map will show how wisely these places were chosen so as to make a city of refuge easy of access from all parts of the land. To any one of these cities a person who had unawares and unintentionally slain any one might flee, and, if he reached it before he was overtaken by the avenger of blood, he was safe within its shelter, provided he did not remove more than a thousand yards from its circuit, nor quit the refuge till the decease of the high-priest under whom the homicide had taken place. If, however, he transgressed these provisions, the avenger might lawfully put him to death. The roads leading to the cities of refuge were to be kept in good repair. Before, however, the fugitive could avail himself of the shelter conceded by the laws, he was to undergo a solemn trial, and make it appear to the satisfaction of the magistrates of the place where the homicide was committed that it was purely accidental. Should he, however, be found to have been guilty of murder, he was delivered "into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he might die." The benefit of the protection afforded was common to strangers and sojourners with native Israelites.

According to the Rabbins, in order to give the fugitive all possible advantage in his flight, it was the business of the Sanhedrim to make the roads that led to the cities of refuge convenient by enlarging them, and removing every obstruction that might hurt his foot or hinder his speed. No hillock was left, no river was allowed over which there was not a bridge, and the road was at least two-and-thirty cubits broad. At every turning there were posts erected bearing the words Refuge, Refuge, to guide the unhappy man in his flight; and two students in the law were appointed to accompany him, that, if the avenger should overtake him before he reached the city, they might attempt to pacify him till the legal investigation could take place. When once settled in the city of refuge, the manslayer had a convenient habitation assigned him gratuitously, and the citizens were to teach him some trade whereby he might support himself. To render his confinement more easy, the mothers of the high-priests used to feed and clothe these unfortunate fugitives, that they might not be impatient and pray for the death of their sons, on whose decease they were restored to their liberty and their property. If the slayer died in the city of refuge before he was released, his bones were delivered to his relations, after the death of the high-priest, to be buried in the sepulcher of his fathers (Lewis, Origines Hebraicae). If the homicide committed a fresh act of manslaughter, he was to flee to another city; but if he were a Levite, to wander from city to city. An idea prevailed that when the Messiah came three more cities would be added a misinterpretation, as it seems, of Deuteronomy 19:8-9 (Lightfoot, Cent. Chor. 152, 208). Jerusalem, to some extent, possessed the privilege of asylum under similar restrictions a privilege accorded to Shimei, but forfeited by him (1 Kings 2:36; 1 Kings 2:46).

That the right of asylum among the Jews was in later periods of their history so extended as to open the door to great abuses may be inferred from 1 Maccabees 10:43, where unqualified impunity and exemption from both liabilities and penalties are promised, under the influence, not of the Mosaic law, but of heathen morals and ambition, to "whosoever they be that flee unto the Temple at Jerusalem, or be within the liberties thereof." In the words now cited, reference appears to be made to a custom which prevailed from very early times, both among the chosen people and the nations of the world, of fleeing, in case of personal danger, to the altar. With the Jews, it was customary for the fugitive to lay hold of the horns of the altar, whether in the tabernacle or Temple; by which, however, shelter and security were obtained only for those who had committed sins of ignorance or inadvertence (Exodus 21:14; 1 Kings 1:50; 1 Kings 2:28). From the last two passages, it seems that state criminals also sought the protection of the altar, probably more from the force of custom than any express law. Their safety, however, depended on the will of the king; for in the passages referred to it appears that in one case (that of Adonijah) life was spared, but in the other (that of Joab) it was taken away even "by the altar." Compare Matthew 23:35. A similar instance is found in Grecian history, in the case of Pausanias, who fled from the populace, incensed on account of his public treachery, to the temple of Minerva, where he was starved to death by order of the Ephori, by blocking up the entrance and taking off the roof (compare Smith's Dict. of Class. Antiq. s.v. Asylum). (See ASYLUM).


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'City of Refuge'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/c/city-of-refuge.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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