#347. Does the murderer merely flee to a city of refuge OR must his case first be judged at the gate before admittance? (Deut 19:1-10 vs Num 35:9-18; Josh 20:1-6)


This entry follows the previous two entries (#345 & #346) on the Torah’s variant asylum traditions for murderers. It discusses, once again, a unique feature found only in the Deuteronomic tradition, or shall I say a unique silence or omission.

No where does the Deuteronomic tradition (Deut 19:1-13) reference any legal proceedings associated with fleeing to, being admitted entrance in, and residing in a city of refuge. This version of the asylum tradition merely:

  1. States that Yahweh established cities of refuge “for any and all” murderers (vv. 1-3). See Contradiction #346.
  2. Then differentiates between murders committed by accident (vv. 4-10) and those committed intentionally (vv. 11-13) with the commandment that these murderers be taken from a city of refuge and turned over to the avenger of blood.

What is lacking in this tradition is any indication that there were judicial proceedings of any nature. This sharply contradicts with the traditions of Numbers 35:9-18 and Joshua 20:1-6.

And you shall have the cities for refuge from an avenger so the manslayer will not die until he stands in front of the congregation for judgment. (Num 35:12)

If the murder happens by chance. . . then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the avenger of blood according to these judgments. And the congregation shall rescue the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall bring him back to his city of refuge to where he fled and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest. (Num 35:24-25)

These required legal proceedings are more clear in the passage from Joshua.

He [the murderer] shall flee to one of these cities, present himself at the entrance to the city gate, and plead his case before the elders of that city. (Josh 20:4)

Again, the very fact that in the Deuteronomic tradition, and only in this tradition, murderers who killed intentionally or through premeditation were to be dragged out of the city of refuge and handed over to the “avenger of blood” only seems to further the view that legal procedures were absent in determining admittance. The cities were established for “all” murderers (Deut 19:3).

It looks then like the Priestly version of this tradition, which scholars surmise was written later than the Deuteronomic tradition, represents later developments. Under the plume of this author:

  1. The cities of refuge are only there for accidental murders: “for anyone who strikes down a life by mistake” (contra Deut 19; see #346).
  2. The fleeing murderer who has murdered by mistake must nevertheless stand judgement by the congregation of the city of refuge before he is admitted, or perhaps before he is allowed to reside there (Num 35:24-25).

We should furthermore note that these cities of refuge are exactly that: a place to seek asylum from “the avenger of blood,” usually a close relative of the slain victim. What is tacitly implied here in this biblical law is that in all cases of murder a close relative of the murdered victim has the right (legal and natural) to pursue and kill the murderer! These cities of refuge, however, served as places of asylum from the avenging relative for those murders committed accidentally or unintentionally. Moreover, if the murderer leaves his city of refuge for any reason or before the death of the high priest in Jerusalem, the avenging relative has the legal and natural right to kill the murderer (Num 35:26-28). That is in these cases the avenging relative has not sinned; there is no guilt or blood-guilt assigned to the avenging relative in these cases.

Finally, one of the things that I stress in my recent book, in Chapter 2 where I write about this Priestly guild and its religious views and beliefs, is that when studied in its proper context the biblical texts themselves reveal that they express the beliefs, perceptions, and ideologies of the ancient peoples that wrote them. In other words, although following literary conventions of the ancient Mediterranean world in presenting this law of homicide as coming from Yahweh’s mouth, it is not the “word of God.” By contrast, these traditions inform us that they were the laws of men, and laws and perceptions that changed over the course of time and ever-changing religious and geopolitical worldviews. This archaic idea of an avenging relative or Fury that must seek retribution for slain blood is found in nearly every ancient civilization. I am particularly reminded of the great trilogy by Aeschylus, The Orestia, that recounts how a primitive Greek culture moved from the natural law of blood retribution to a socially-established judiciary where guilt is now assessed by a congregation of peers. Although less clear, the biblical canon also seems to hint at this same progression—laws that represent the honoring and upholding of this archaic idea of the natural law of blood retaliation and then laws that represent a movement towards increased cases of judicial proceedings where guilt is determined by a congregation of peers rather than through the act of spilling blood itself (i.e., bloodguilt). In other words the texts of the Bible themselves reveal that they are not a window to God, but a window to an ancient people and culture—their beliefs, perceptions, and worldviews!

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