Stories From The Hebrew Bible
THE AVENGER OF BLOOD AND THE CITIES OF REFUGE
There was among the Israelites one custom which seems so strange and so different from our ways that it will be interesting to hear about it. It was their rule regarding any man who by accident killed another man. With us, whenever a man has been killed, the man who killed him, if he can be found, is taken by an officer before the judge, and he is tried. If he killed the man by accident, not wishing to do harm, he is set free. If he meant to kill him, he is punished; he may be sentenced to die for the other man’s death; and when he is put to death, it is by the officer of the law.
But in the lands of the east, where the Israelites lived, it was very different. There, when a man was killed, his nearest relative always took it upon himself to kill the man who had killed him; and he undertook to kill this man without trial, without a judge, and by his own hand, whether the man deserved to die or did not deserve it. Two men might be working in the forest together and one man’s ax might fly from his hand and kill the other; or one man hunting might kill another hunter by mistake. No matter whether the man was guilty or innocent, the nearest relative of the one who had lost his life must find the man who had killed him and kill him in return, wherever he was. If he could not find him, sometimes he would kill any member of his family whom he could find. This man was called “the avenger of blood,” because he took vengeance for the blood of his relative, whether the one whom he slew deserved to die or not. When Moses gave laws to the children of Israel, he found this custom of having an “avenger of blood” rooted so deeply in the habits of the people that it could not be broken up. In fact, it still remains even to this day among the village people in the land where the Israelites lived.
But Moses gave a law which was to take the place of the old custom and to teach the people greater justice in their dealings with each other. And when they came into the land of Canaan, Joshua carried out the plan which Moses had commanded.
Joshua chose in the land six cities, three on one side of the river Jordan, and three on the other side. All of these were well known places and easy to find. Most of them were on mountains and could be seen far away. They were so chosen that from almost any part of the land a man could reach one of these cities in a day, or at the most in two days. These cities were called “Cities of Refuge,” because in them a man who had killed another by mistake could find refuge from the avenger of blood.
When a man killed another by accident, wherever he was, he ran as quickly as possible to the nearest of these cities of refuge. The avenger of blood followed him and might perhaps overtake him and kill him before he reached the city. But almost always the man, having some start before his enemy, would get to the city of refuge first.
There the elders of the city looked into the case. They learned all the facts; and if the man was really guilty and deserved to die, they gave him up to be killed by the avenger. But if he were innocent, and did not mean to kill the man who was dead, they forbade the avenger to touch him and kept him in safety.
A line was drawn around the city, at a distance from the wall, within which line the avenger could not come to do the man harm; and within this line were fields, where the man could work and raise crops, so that he could have food.
And there at the city of refuge the innocent man who had killed another without meaning to kill, lived until the high priest died. After the high priest died and another high priest took his place, the man could go back to his own home and live in peace.
These were the cities of refuge in the land of Israel: On the north, Kedesh in the tribe of Naphtali; in the center, Shechem, at the foot of Mount Gerizim, in the tribe of Ephraim; and on the south, Hebron, Caleb’s city, in the tribe of Judah. These were among the mountains, on the west of the river Jordan. On the east of the river Jordan, the cities were Golan of Bashan in Manasseh, Ramoth of Gilead in the tribe of Gad, and Bezer in the highlands of the tribe of Reuben.
This law taught the Israelites to be patient and to control themselves, to protect the innocent and to seek for justice, and not yield to sudden anger.
Among the tribes there was one which had no land given to it in one place. This was the tribe of Levi, to which Moses and Aaron belonged. The men of this tribe were priests, who offered the sacrifices, and Levites, who cared for the Tabernacle and its worship. Moses and Joshua did not think it well to have all the Levites living in one part of the country, so he gave them cities, and in some places the fields around the cities, in many parts of the land. From these places they went up to the Tabernacle to serve, each for a certain part of the year; and the rest of the year stayed in their homes and cared for their fields.
When the war was over and the land was divided, Joshua fixed the Tabernacle at a place called Shiloh, not far from the center of the land, so that from all the tribes, the people could come up at least once a year for worship. They were told to come from their homes three times in each year and to worship the Lord at Shiloh.
These three times were for the feast of the Passover in the spring, when the lamb was killed and roasted and eaten with unleavened bread; the feast of the Tabernacles in the fall, when for a week they slept out of doors in huts made of twigs and boughs, to keep in mind their life in the wilderness; and the feast of Pentecost, fifty days after the Passover, when they laid on the altar the first ripe fruits from the fields. These three feasts were kept at the place of the altar and the Tabernacle.
And at Shiloh, before the Tabernacle, they placed the altar, on which the offerings were laid twice every day.
God had kept his promise, and had brought the Israelites into a land which was their own, and had given them rest from all their enemies.