Recognizing and Limiting Revenge
Chapter 35 details the rules of cities of refuge that are established throughout the Land of Israel, three on the eastern side of the Jordan and three on the western side. Only one who kills someone by accident is entitled to seek refuge in such a city. If someone has intentionally killed someone, or used a weapon or a dangerous tool to strike someone, he is considered to have killed intentionally and is not eligible for protection.
These six cities of refuge are part of the 48 Levite cities which are set aside within the various tribal territories for the Levites who do not inherit any territory of their own. The Levites’ main job is to serve God in the Temple, but they also teach the people throughout the land.
It is interesting, therefore, that these six cities of refuge are home to two very different sorts of people: accidental killers and Levites. In practice, however, the cities of refuge often offer temporary refuge to intentional killers as well:
Then the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood, in accordance with these rules. And the congregation shall rescue the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge to which he had fled, and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. (Numbers 35:24-25)
When someone has been killed, the killer flees to the city of refuge. However, a trial takes place and the congregation, represented by the courts, will judge according to the rules listed in this chapter, whether the homicide was indeed accidental or not. If they rule it to be accidental, then the killer will be returned to the city of refuge and will, therefore, be protected from the relative who seeks vengeance for the death of his kin. This situation continues until the death of the high priest, at which time the killer is free to leave the city of refuge and the avenger of blood is prohibited from taking revenge.
It is interesting to note that there is full legitimacy for the avenger to take the life of the killer, even if the homicide was accidental. While society judges the killer leniently and his life is spared, the relative is entitled to avenge the death of his relative anywhere outside of the city of refuge.
This arrangement seems odd to the modern ear but is actually quite brilliant. When one’s loved one has died and someone is, in fact, at fault, albeit accidentally, the relative cannot help but blame him and want to avenge his loved one’s death. The Bible does not criticize this very basic feeling; however, it limits it severely. The avenger is not allowed to enter the city of refuge and he is not allowed to avenge the death of his relative after the death of the high priest. While the Bible recognizes the most basic of human passions, in limiting them it is forcing the human being to control his behavior.
However, should the accidental killer leave the city of refuge, he is no longer protected. What would possess the killer from leaving the city of refuge and risking his life? Only if he were so arrogant as to not take seriously the degree of pain that he has caused to the avenger. Forcing him to remain in a city of refuge, therefore, represents a very clear statement to the killer – “you may not have intended to kill someone but as a result of your carelessness, someone lost his life. You must take this seriously. You must understand the pain of the people the victim left behind and you must be exiled from your loved ones yourself. For only in this way can you begin to understand the tragedy that you have wrought upon others.”
The presence of the Levites, therefore, serves a very important function. As teachers of the nation, they are in the best position to assist the accidental killer in understanding the tremendous harm he has caused. The city of refuge, serving as a Levite city as well, is, therefore, the best place for the accidental killer to contemplate his actions and to repent for his carelessness. Upon his departure from the city, he should have achieved a higher spiritual level and be ready to enter society once again.
Shabbat Shalom From Samaria,
Director, Israel Office