Matot-Masei: Cities of Refuge

“Select cities to be cities of refuge for you, so that a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be a refuge from the avenger, so that the slayer may not die until there is a trial before the community.”   Num 35:11-12

In Numbers 35, the Torah establishes six cities of refuge, places of asylum where a murderer may flee.   One can view this as an extension of the notion of protective sanctuary offered by an altar in a temple.  Once the cult was centralized in Jerusalem, these towns assumed the function of asylum previously associated with local sanctuaries.

The murderer is fleeing from the “avenger of blood”(go’el ha-dam).   Blood vengeance was a form of vendetta justice executed by the family of the victim.  This word go’el in other contexts is translated “redeemer.”  Milgrom explains the common thread thus: the redeemer is a family memeber who restores the status quo, whether by serving as a substitute for a deceased husband, restoring the freedom of one who has fallen into slavery, or restoring land to its hereditary ownership by the family.  In the case of murder, the redeemer restores a kind of ecological balance: bloodshed pollutes the land (v 33) and makes it barren, but with the blood of the slayer, the go’el neutralizes the deleterious effect.

The laws here try to blend this older system of justice implemented by the family with a system in which justice is administered by courts. Thus, the “community” is given the responsibility for adjudication between the accused person and the blood avenger by determining whether the accused has committed premeditated murder. Milgrom believes that the text thereby assumes a national tribunal which will adjudicate such capital cases.  Even if the homicide is found to be unintentional, the killer is not at liberty, but has to stay in the city of refuge until the natural death of the high priest, which atones for the blood that has been shed.

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