“You shall make accessible to yourselves towns which will serve you as towns of asylum where a manslayer may flee, one who kills a human being inadvertently. These towns shall serve you as places of asylum from an avenger so the manslayer will not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment.” (Num 35:11-12)
There are a number of traditions in the Torah that speak of a manslayer (that is one who inadvertently murders another individual) being able to seek asylum from the “avenger of blood,” normally the victim’s close relative, by fleeing to one of the cities of refuge. Both the traditions preserved in Numbers 35:11-34 (P) and Deuteronomy 19:1-9 (D) express this basic right of asylum, with minor differences which we will look at in forthcoming entries.
Here, however, I’d like to look at an earlier—indeed perhaps the earliest—rendition of this right of asylum which can be found in the Elohist law code of Exodus.
“He who strikes a man so that he dies, he shall surely be put to death. But a man who did not lie in wait [for him], but God delivered into his hand, I shall set a place among you that he shall flee there. But if a man acting presumptuously comes upon another to slay him with guile, you shall take him from my altar that he may die.” (Ex 21:12-14)
Scholars identify these verses as the oldest version of the asylum tradition in Torah literature, that is it predates the asylum versions of Numbers 35:11-34 (P) and Deuteronomy 19:1-9 (D). In its basic outline, these verses first make a blanket claim about murdering another human being, and then differentiate between those that were not premeditated and those that were planned out presumptuously. In the former case, if an individual kills another human being, not by intention, but rather the murdered individual had been delivered into his hands through an act of God as it were, then he was to seek asylum in the “place” that Yahweh would appoint for this purpose. In the latter case, when the murder was premeditated, where one intentionally sets out to kill another, the murderer after having already sought asylum at Yahweh’s altar is nonetheless to be taken away from the altar and put to death. In other words, there is no right of asylum in these cases; the murderer is to be put to death—same also in Numbers 35:11-34 and Deuteronomy 19:1-9.
By implication, then, verse 14 suggests that it was the practice of murderers to seek asylum at Yahweh’s altar. The above commandment counters by claiming that such individuals, murderers that planned the crime, should be pulled from Yahweh’s altar and put to death! What this older tradition attests to, then, is the practice of seeking asylum, not by fleeing to one of the cities of refuge that our later sources set up, but to one of Yahweh’s altars.
As noted in previous entries, the Elohist source is unique in its references to Yahweh’s altars (see Contradictions #137-138, #141). Unique because one of the contradictions that we looked at in earlier posts highlighted the cultic differences expressed in this older Elohist source, where a plurality of altars throughout the land were used, or alluded to, for cultic, religious, and even judicial purposes (e.g., Ex 20:24-26, 21:14, 22:7-8, 23:17), and those expressed in the later Deuteronomic source where its author argued for one and only one altar “at the place where Yahweh will tent his name” (see Deut 12; Contradiction #117) to which all cultic practices, festivals, and judicial proceedings were transferred (see Contradictions #194-197, #198-204).
Given this later tradition’s push for centralization—only one altar at Jerusalem—it was only natural that the older tradition of fleeing to an altar for refuge needed to be amended, since under the plume of the Deuteronomist there was now only one altar at Jerusalem. So these later traditions now speak of cities of refuge, rather than altars, where a manslayer could flee.
In other words, this older religious practice of not only seeking refuge at one of Yahweh’s altars but the very fact that altars in the plural were permitted “by Yahweh” and established throughout the land (#137-138) is negated in the later traditions of D and P where a process of centralization had occurred, theoretically at least, and there was a recognition that there was only one altar, the one in Yahweh’s temple in Jerusalem.
Given this historical background, we readily see why later traditions needed to establish cities of refuge. Once the Deuteronomist’s religious program of centralization had begun, perhaps as earlier as the reign of Hezekiah, old Elohist laws that permitted a plurality of altars—for celebrating Yahweh’s festivals, for judicial proceedings, and for asylum seekers—were replaced by newer laws that set up more accessible cities of refuge. So the old practice of seeking asylum at Yahweh’s altar was replaced.
There’s an interesting story in Kings that preserves this older tradition, and which again suggests as scholars now concur that the law code of Deuteronomy was a later 7th century creation (see The Deuteronomist). 1 Kings 2:28-34 recounts how Joab sought asylum at Yahweh’s altar for the murders he previously committed: “he fled to the Tent of Yahweh and grasped the horns of the altar.” He was nevertheless dragged away and put to death. This story is quite interesting in light of the older Elohist commandment on seeking asylum at one of Yahweh’s altars. First, the murders which Joab committed readily mesh with the ideas expressed in Ex 21:14—they were done presumptuously and in guile (see 2 Sam 3:27 & 20:10)! Second, rather than fleeing to a city of asylum, of which there is no mention in Kings, Joab flees to Yahweh’s altar grasping one of its horns. The photo to the left is an image of a reconstructed four-horned altar found at Beersheba. Both the Elohist tradition and the archaeological record bear witness to the fact that at an earlier period the land of Israel was populated with many of these four-horned altars. But once centralization of the cult happened under the pen of the later 7th century Deuteronomist, these stone-hewed altars were destroyed. Apparently sources that were used in the composition of the book of Kings preserve this older cultic practice.