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Asylum, Cities of


Designated sanctuary cities in Israel that took the place of local altars in offering protection to the involuntary manslayer who fled for his life from the blood avenger. Among many ancient peoples, the inviolable right of asylum at a designated sanctuary for the fugitive was a common institution (Tacitus, Ann. 3.60; Strabo, 16.2.6; 1 Mc 10.43; 2 Mc 4.33). As part of their culture, the Israelites inherited the ancient nomadic custom of blood vengeance, imposed as a duty on the nearest of kin, the gōēl. He was held responsible to execute the capital punishment by killing the murderer in retribution and avenging the blood of his slain kinsman. As a means of preventing undue blood vengeance, the law provided six cities of refuge to be administered by the Levites (Nm 35.6). The place of refuge took the manslayer from the personal police action of the avenger (gōēl ) and gave him an opportunity for an orderly trial. Such a sanctuary was meant only for the unintentional or accidental manslayer (Dt 4.42; 19.4). He was safe in the city of refuge as long as he stayed there, but outside of it, he could be put to death by the avenger. Once the prevailing high priest died, the manslayer could return home and have no further anxieties (Nm 35.2528). Of these six cities, Deuteronomy represents Moses himself selecting three in Transjordan, namely, Bosor in the tribe of Reuben, Ramoth in the tribe of Gad, and Golan in the tribe of eastern Manasse (Dt 4.43). On the western side of the Jordan, three other cities were chosen, namely, Cedes in Nephthali, shechem in Ephraim, and hebron in Juda (Jos 20.19).

Bibliography: r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions (New York 1961) 160163, 276, 414. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible 164165. n. m. nicolsky, "Das Asylrecht in Israel," Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 48 (1930) 146175. j. p. e. pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture, 4 v. in 2 (New York 192640; repr. 1959) 1:396397, 425. m. greenberg, "City of Refuge," in g. a. buttrick, ed., The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible 1:638639; "The Biblical Conception of Asylum," Journal of Biblical Literature 78 (1959) 125132. m. haran, "Studies in the Account of the Levitical Cities," ibid. 80 (1961) 4554.

[j. e. steinmueller]

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