1 Then the Lord said to Joshua, 2 “Say to the people of Israel, Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, 3 that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood. 4 He shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and explain his case to the elders of that city. Then they shall take him into the city and give him a place, and he shall remain with them. 5 And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unknowingly, and did not hate him in the past. 6 And he shall remain in that city until he has stood before the congregation for judgment, until the death of him who is high priest at the time. Then the manslayer may return to his own town and his own home, to the town from which he fled.’” (Joshua 20:1–6 ESV)
The cities of refuge are laid out for Israel in Numbers 35:9–12 and Deuteronomy 19. Six cities in all are set aside for those who kill without pre-meditation or malice, places to flee and find safety from family members seeking vengenace:
9 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. 12 The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment. 13 And the cities that you give shall be your six cities of refuge. 14 You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. (Numbers 35:9–14 ESV)
It’s important to remember that the teaching given to Israel in the wilderness — especially the punishments for sins — are not carried out by some abstract state and its uniformed agents, but by family members, relatives of those aggrieved. This is why the protection of orphans, widows, and wayfarers (to use Qur’anic language) is so important in both the Torah and the prophets — because they have no family, no kin, to act as a deterrent to wrongdoers, no kin to seek revenge, to avenge the blood that has been purposefully or accidentally shed.
So it makes sense that these six cities of refuge — three east of the Jordan and three in Palestine proper — would be set up. Because some who kills isn’t fleeing the state, but a kinsman seeking vengeance.
Because of this, most of the laws about retribution given in the Torah (“But if there is harm, you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” Exodus 21:23–25, also Leviticus 24:17–23 and Deuteronomy 19:21) are designed to limit the damage done by vengeance-seeking rather than encourage retribution. You can take no more than was taken in order to avenge the wrong. No one-upping the damage, no scorched earth in response to a slight. Even Deuteronomy’s command “your eye shall not pity” is a reminder that this vengeance, that this “purging evil for your midst,” is a divine commandment. We may be inclined to flinch — taking limb and life is no small task, and we should never be comfortable with it even when we are right doing it.
This reminds me of story from time at The Saudi Gazette in Jeddah. In the far southwest of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the mountains of Asir province along the mountainous border with Yemen, came a report of a murder. A young man from one family killed a young man from another family. The police, however, were not called, in part because the writ of the government doesn’t run very deep in that part of the country.
Instead, the patriarchs of the two clans agreed to work it out the value of the murdered man’s life according to long-held custom. The murderer was held safely by his family and the clans sat down to deal. Eventually, as I recall, the dead man’s life was determined to be worth two pickup trucks, six camels, and an unspecified number of goats. The negotiations — which everyone in the murdered man’s clan had to accede to — were capped off by big, public feast to solemnize the arrangements.
This is the kind of law that scripture is. Not statues for states, but customs for clans and tribes and an entire people, Israel’s sunnah if you will, it’s way of doing business that limits how much and what kinds of vengeance are acceptable. These are statues for human beings, that remind us who and what we are, rather than the impersonal and mechanistic laws of states and nations.
And the cities of refuge are part of this. A reminder that not all killings, not even all murders, are the same. That everyone is entitled to be heard, and mercy … mercy may not be an entitlement, but there is room for mercy.
There is room for mercy.