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Parashat Matot-Mas'e 5758/1998
The Reason for Cities of Refuge
Department of Bible
The importance of cities of refuge in biblical thought is attested by the numerous references to them in the Bible. They are mentioned four times in the Torah: briefly in Exodus 21:13; in this week's reading, Numbers 35:9-34; with regard to Moses establishing cities of refuge in Transjordan, Deuteronomy 4:41-43; and the command to establish such cities in Canaan in the future, Deuteronomy 19:1-13. They are also mentioned in the Prophets and Hagiographa: Joshua 20 recounts how the commandment was fulfilled; Joshua 21, in the context of listing the levitical cities, mentions the cities of refuge among them (vv. 13, 21, 27, 32, 36); and I Chronicles 6:42, 52. The passage on cities of refuge in this week's reading is the longest of all and provides the most extensive statement of the principles involved.
It is customary to explain the cities of refuge as places established to protect a manslayer from revenge by the victim's family. This is true, but only with regard to the first stage--the flight to the city of refuge--as set forth in verses 9-12 of chapter 35. After this stage, once the safety of the killer has been assured, he is returned under guard to his own city for trial, as stipulated in verses 16-24. If the person is found guilty of premeditated murder, he is put to death; if it is shown that he slayed a person unintentionally, then the manslayer is returned to the city of refuge. This is the second stage--a prolonged stay in the city of refuge "until the death of the high priest" (v. 28).
Clearly this second stage of "exile," as the Sages called it (galut), is not for the sake of the manslayer's safety, after it has been proven that he killed without intent. If the victim's family still has any claims, it is reasonable to assume that they would be settled through ransom, as is attested by the proscription that appears near the end of this section (v. 32): "Nor may you accept ransom [in lieu of] flight to a city of refuge, [enabling one] to return to live on his land before the death of the priest." That is to say, once the accidental killer has been relegated to the city of refuge, ransom may be negotiated. Moreover, if we assume that the second stay at the city of refuge was also to protect him from avengers, how could the death of the high priest, which terminates the manslayer's exile, eliminate the danger of a blood feud?
Jewish exegesis has offered several explanations for freeing the manslayer to return home after the death of the high priest. For example, Rashi (in accord with Sifre Numbers 160, p. 220), says, "Because of the contrast between the two; one defiles the people and the land, whereas the other purifies them. Therefore, it must be made impossible for the two to meet." In his second comment (based on Makkot 11a): "The high priest did not pray as he should have, that such a mishap not take place during his term of service." Rashbam, as well as Hizkuni, viewed it as a general pardon or clemency granted upon the death of the high priest and appointment of a new high priest, since they were in charge of the cities of refuge, which were among the levitical cities. Sforno viewed it as Divine Providence coordinating the death of the priest with the severity of punishment due the manslayers.
Ibn Ezra aimed at the plain sense of the text when he pointed to the general role of the high priest in expiation. So we find in verse 33, at the conclusion of our Parasha (vv. 30-34), which sums up the general principles of manslaughter: "You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it." This verse is aimed primarily at one who murders intentionally-- the defilement that he caused his nation and his land can have no correction or expiation save through the death of the murderer. This is not out of vengeance, which is a matter between one person and another; but, as made clear by the commandments given the descendants of Noah, because injury to human life is like injury to the Creator, "For in His image did G-d make man" (Gen. 9:6).
The defilement of the land is stressed also in cases of killing without intent, and perhaps this is the focus of the verse that concludes this section: "You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I the Lord abide among the Israelite people" (34). Thus we see that shedding innocent blood contaminates and defiles the holy land, polluting it so that it cannot give forth fruit.
This general principle, reflecting a sort of spiritual ecology, is set forth in the beginning of the Pentateuch, when the first slaying of mankind occurred: G-d said to Cain, who had slain Abel, "Hark, your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground... If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth" (Gen. 4:10,12). Cain could be considered to have committed manslaughter, insofar as there was not yet a precedent for murder, and it was not known how one kills. What was said at the beginning of Creation with regard to the entire face of the earth bringing a curse on the murderer because of its defilement, so that he be exiled from the land, was then applied to the Land of Israel, which was set aside for the Jewish people to worship the Creator. Therefore, we are commanded in this week's reading that one who murders with evil intent must be slain, measure for measure. One who kills without intent is to be exiled from his homestead to a city, a place where the soil is not tilled and the land not blessed.
This is where the role of the high priest fits in. His sacred duty is to atone for the sins of Israel, especially in the service on the Day of Atonement. In this service, setting the Azazel-goat free in the wilderness, so that "the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region" (Lev. 16:22), tangibly removes all the sins from the inhabited regions of tilled soil to the wilderness of the desert, as if to say that after the people are forgiven and expiation is made for them, the land as will be purified from the guilt of innocent blood having been shed on it without intent.
We do not know when the land will be purified from any specific killing, for we do not know the severity of the act in the eyes of the Creator; we have no "index" of atonement. But (optimistically) we may assume that by the time the high priest finished serving he would have managed to make expiation for the sins and impurities that occurred during his term of duty. Therefore, by the time he dies, the land would surely have been atoned for and purified. Therefore, "after the death of the high priest, the manslayer may return to his land holding" (v. 28), in order to "return to live on his land" (v. 32).
In conclusion, in other religions sacred sites serve as places of refuge for criminals, on the assumption that temples, churches and the like are sacred precincts beyond the jurisdiction of the secular state and of human justice. This notion also found its way among the Israelite people, but was rejected (Exodus 21:14; I Kings 2:28-34); for the Creator rules everywhere, and justice belongs to the Lord. According to the law of the Torah, refuge is actually found in a place that is relatively secular and non-sacred, in an urban setting where the issue of purity vs. impurity and defilement of the land does not apply, as it does on agricultural land.
So much for the national level. On the personal level, the Torah places judgment of murderers in the hands of the official bodies, removing it from the realm of arbitrary revenge by the blood-avenger. But the Torah does leave in his hands the role of prosecutor (24-25) and executioner (v. 19) in the case of premeditated murder. Likewise, the blood-avenger retains the right to revenge in the case of the accidental manslayer, if the latter leaves his city of refuge. Here we can see an element of "measure for measure": insofar as the manslayer killed out of gross negligence and lack of awareness, so too the avenger may act "in hot anger" (Deut. 19:6), when not in full control of his emotions.