#346. Does Yahweh establish the cities of refuge for “every murderer” OR for only those who have killed another unintentionally? (Deut 19:4-12 vs Num 35:9-15; Josh 20:2-3)


Working from the previous entry (contradiction #345), the Torah, or Hexateuch to include the book of Joshua, speaks of the tradition of asylum in a number of different places. Arranged in roughly chronological order these are:

  • Exodus 21:12-14 from the 9th-8th century Elohist tradition (see #345)
  • Deuteronomy 4:41-43 & 19:1-13 from the 7th century Deuteronomic tradition
  • Numbers 35: 9-28 from the 6th century Priestly tradition
  • Joshua 20:1-9 which looks like a Priestly redacted text mixed with elements from the Deuteronomic tradition

I’ve already treated the Exodus tradition and its reference to Yahweh’s altars as a place of asylum rather than the later established cities. In this post and the two to follow, I’d like to look at the differences between the three remaining passages where this asylum tradition is spoken of.

The tradition preserved in Deuteronomy 19:1-13 is unique when compared to the other two passages. For it explicitly states that these cities of refuge are for any/every/all murderers to flee to.

“You shall distinguish three cities within your land which Yahweh your god is giving you to take possession of. You shall prepare the way and parcel out the territory of your land, which Yahweh your god will grant to you as an inheritance, [into three parts] so that every murderer (kol ratsach) may flee there.” (Deut 19:2-3)

The Hebrew adjective kol seems to be intentionally used here by the author and expresses the entire class of the noun modified, in this case murderers—so all, every, any murderer.

The text then continues by making a distinction within this category of “all” murderers.

  1. Those who commit murder unintentionally or by accident may flee to one of these cities and live there (vv. 4-10).
  2. And those who commit murder with intent and/or hatred who flee to one of these cities are to be dragged out and put to death (vv. 11-13).

The second case is not even permitted in the Priestly version (Num 35). But before I get there it should be noted that the second case in the Deuteronomic tradition above is similar to what we found in the Elohist version where the murderer who with intent and guile murdered another was dragged from Yahweh’s altar and put to death.

  • Exodus 21:14: “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.”
  • Deuteronomy 19:12: “But if there will be a man who hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and gets up against him and strikes him mortally and he dies, and he will flee to one of the cities, then his city’s elders are to send for him and take him from there and place him in the hands of the avenger of blood so he will die.”

As noted in Contradiction #345, the earlier asylum at Yahweh’s altar is here replaced by asylum at one of the cities of refuge, seeing that according to the Deuteronomist there was now only one altar at Jerusalem (see also Contradiction #117).

city-of-refuge-2Another feature unique to the Deuteronomic tradition, which we will look at in the next entry, is that there doesn’t seem to be any judicial proceedings here. Any and all murderers are to flee to one of the cities of refuge; and those who are found to have murdered intentionally are to be taken from the city of refuge and handed over to the avenger of blood to be, in turn, murdered themselves.

Contrary to the Deuteronomist’s claim that all (kol) murderers are to flee to a city of refuge, the versions represented in Numbers 35:9-15 and Joshua 20:1-9 are different. Both of these later passages immediately distinguish between murders done by mistake and those done intentionally and with malice. That is to say in these versions the cities of refuge are not open to “all” (kol) murders but only to those that happen by mistake or accident. These later versions, therefore, seem to be a further amendment on that of the Deuteronomic tradition.

“You shall establish cities: they shall be cities of refuge for you, and a murderer (ratsach) who strikes a life by mistake shall flee there.” (Num 35:11)

“These cities shall be for refuge for the children of Israel and for the alien and for the visitor among them, for anyone who strikes a life by mistake to flee there.” (Num 35:15)

5 thoughts on “#346. Does Yahweh establish the cities of refuge for “every murderer” OR for only those who have killed another unintentionally? (Deut 19:4-12 vs Num 35:9-15; Josh 20:2-3)

  1. Let me first say that I greatly enjoy your site and appreciate that you share your thoughts openly for all to engage with. Through your posts and comments, you’ve given me new insights and areas to explore deeper in the Hebrew bible.

    In this post, I do wonder whether you may be placing too much emphasis on the single word any/all (kol)?

    For example, in Num 35:6 the Hebrew also does not qualify what kind of murderer is referred to, just that it says “the” murderer (or “a” in many English translations):

    “The towns that you give to the Levites shall include the six cities of refuge, where you shall permit a slayer (ha ratsach) to flee, and in addition to them you shall give forty-two towns.” (Num 35:6 NRS)

    One might have been tempted to argue that Num 35:6 means any murderer, if it wasn’t for the later clarification e.g. Num 35:11. The point being that the single “the/a (ha)” is not enough to determine what is meant. The same can be argued for Deut 19 and “all/any (kol)”, the later verses show that the intentional murderer must be “…taken from there and handed over to the avenger of blood to be put to death. Show no pity; you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel” (Deu 19:12-13 NRS).

    From reading Num 35, even though the case is not specifically mentioned, it is clear that an intentional murderer who would seek refuge in a city would still be killed because, the city is only for the unintentional murderer (e.g. v.11) and intentional murderers are to be killed (e.g. v. 16-21)

    To me, both Deut 19 and Num 35 explain who the city is for and also who it is not for and I think they both agree on this.

    1. Damian, thanks for chiming in.

      OK, I’m willing to grant you this criticism—maybe I do place too much emphasis on kol here. One of the reasons for this was that I perceived in these traditions a legislative progression:

      1) The Exodus tradition preserves a remnant of legislation/rituals where murderers ran to one of “Yahweh’s altar” for asylum (#345)
      2) The Deuteronomic tradition seems to present the same only now they run to cities of asylum (#346)
      3) And the Priestly tradition then seems to emphasize judicial proceedings and the fact that these cities were off limits to murderers who committed their crime with intent or hatred (#347)

      It is still curious that Deuteronomy 19 consciously wrote kol into the verse, while Numbers 35:6 doesn’t. In light of this absence in the latter case one might be tempted to read “any” or “all” here, but as you note, that silence quickly gets defined below. In Deuteronomy 19 it never does, and the kol therefore seems to stick out.

      Baruch Levinson has a brilliant book, Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation, where he textually shows his readers how the Deuteronomist borrowed the vocabulary and lexical features of the earlier Elohist tradition when he rewrote the Elohist’s tradition of many altars (Ex 20:24-25) to one sole altar at Jerusalem (Deut 12). So in similar fashion I wonder if the Deuteronomist’s kol here is a borrowed lexical feature from an original Elohist legislation on Yahweh’s altars as asylum for “all” murderers (see the case of Joab in 1 Kings 2:28-34). This is purely a speculative question; there’s no textual support nor indication of this. Just a curious thought.

  2. When establishing that rule in Deut 19:2-3 the scribe from “7th century Deuteronomic tradition” wrote “prepare the way and parcel out the territory of your land, which Yahweh your god will grant to you as an inheritance” as if they still were on the desert…

    Or was that “will grant you” line added by latter scribes (the ones that compiled the law and the prophets) honestly thinking it happened that way?

  3. The Talmud goes into excruciating detail about this. They have no problem with the fact that if a guy accidentally kills another, if he doesn’t make it to a city of refuge, he can be killed. The court (according to them) can then summon him for trial. If he is found guilty, he is executed. If innocent of murder, but guilty of manslaughter (unintentional), then he has to return there and the relatives of the deceased can sit outside, waiting for the moment when he pokes his head outside the gates. In other words, retribution killing was acceptable. When one of the Kohen Gadol died, the man in the city of refuge could finally leave – supposedly without fear of being murdered himself.

    Again, it is covered in the Talmud within a *LOT* of pages. Now, granted, there are contradictory passages, and, as they often do, they “tweak” the words so that it is devoid of contradiction,,,sort of.

    Yes, the Deut. texts came centuries later and appear to cut some more slack than the earlier books. That is not always the case (such as when dealing with rape issues).

    1. Elisha, nice to hear from you. This ruling looks to be representative of the Priestly legislation on the matter in Numbers 35. These same ideas are expressed in this passage. The issue in the biblical canon—and perhaps for these later rabbis—was keeping the land pure of blood guilt. Since the priestly community conceived that Yahweh dwelt among them on the land itself (e.g., Num 35:33-34), these homicide laws in part were written to identify those cases where murder did not lead to bloodguilt, of the land or of an individual. So right, the avenging relative had the legal and natural right as it were to kill the slayer if that slayer did not seek asylum on one of these cities or left his asylum city prematurely. I just recently posted another contradiction on this tradition, #347.

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