Whoever strikes a man and he dies, he shall be put to death. But the one who did not lie in wait, but God by happenstance conveyed it to his hand, I shall set a place for you that he shall flee to. But if a man will plot against his neighbor to kill him with treachery, him you shall take from my altar to die. (Ex 21:12-14)
Ancient cultures typically associated a deity’s altar as a place of sanctuary or asylum for an offender. This is the custom referred to in the last verse. The man who has intentionally killed another is guilty: “he shall be put to death”; “him you shall take from my altar to die.” The individual who without intention kills another, he is to be taken from the altar and placed in one of the cities of refuge.
Since biblical law allowed for a family to take vengeance on the individual who murdered a relative (e.g., Ex 21:13)—an instance of lex talionis, life for a life (Ex 21:23-25; Lev 24:17-22)—the guilty offender, especially if the crime was non-intentional, could opt to run for asylum at one of Yahweh’s altars and seek some sort of judiciary arbitration or even expiation. Ex 21:14 makes it clear that if the offense was premeditated murder, or murder by treachery, then the guilty offender is to be taken from the altar and put to death. In either case, the altar was sought as an asylum. Commentators accredit this text to the traditions of the north associated with the Elohist source.
In the Priestly literature, however, the sheer idea of Yahweh’s altar serving as asylum for an offender of any type would have been unthinkable, even blasphemous. Seeking refuge at the altar would have resulted in that individual’s immediate death. The altar is holy; it has been consecrated. “And the altar shall be holy of holies” (Ex 29:37). If the profane, a commoner, an offender, touches the holy altar it too is at risk of becoming holy, and by that very fact cannot happen; the result is death.
The altar—and there is only one altar in the Priestly view (#138)—is part of the Tabernacle cultic institution, and as such is part of “the holy of holies.” No one is to touch it let alone seek asylum there. P’s emphasis on a separated sphere of purity/holiness dictates that nothing profane can come into contact with the sanctuary or Yahweh’s altar. Not only was no one to touch Yahweh’s altar—upon immediate death—but even the Levites who were assigned to carry the altar, and who had been consecrated and made ritually pure, were not permitted to touch the altar per penalty of death!
And their [the children of Korah's] charge was the ark and the table and the menorah and the altars and the equipment of the Holy with which they minister, and the cover and all of its service. (Num 3:31)
These Levites carried the altar, and the other equipment, only after it had been covered by the Aaronid priests.
And Aaron and his sons will finish covering the Holy and all the equipment of the Holy when the camp is to travel, and after that the children of Kohath shall come to carry it, so they shall not touch the holy and die!” (Num 4:15)
Only the priest, a descendant of Aaron, can touch the altar.
This contradiction goes well beyond the textual level. At core it exposes the different cultic attitudes and theologies that the biblical writers had when compared to one another. On the one hand we have the religious practices of the north—local altars of earth or uncut stone where sacrifices to Yahweh would be conducted (Ex 20:24) and judicial arbitration when necessary (Ex 22:8). It was these altars that served as asylum for an offender. On the other hand, the Priestly literature creates a ritual and cultic space: at the center is the Tabernacle, the holy of holies, where Yahweh’s glory resides—that is God dwells in the camp for this priestly writer—next are the Aaronid priests who have been consecrated (literally “Yahweh’s messiahs”), then the Levites, then the people and the land. Law is given to maintain the boundaries of this pure and holy space from the impure, or to repair them via sacrifices when such boundaries are breached (Lev 1-16). Any individual that sought to approach or touch Yahweh’s altar would guilty of breaching the separation of that which is pure and impure. In the Priestly literature, no one seeks out the altar for asylum.