City of Refuge

City of Refuge
Parshat Matot-Masei – פרשת מטות-מסעי August 6, 2016 – ב אב תשע"ו   This essay is sponsored by David Tantleff in memory of his father, Milton Tantleff משה מרדכי בן אהרן; and by Jay Berkowitz in memory of his mother, Miriam Berkowitz מרים בת מאיר.   Seeking Asylum   Numbers 35 sets forth the law of asylum for an accidental manslayer.  Six cities of refuge, three in Transjordan and three in Cisjordan, were to be established to provide safe haven for those fleeing from the redeemer of blood.  The asylum seeker was effectively incarcerated in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest, at which point he could return home because he was no longer a lawful target of the redeemer’s rage.   Moses is credited with designating the three Transjordanian cities of refuge:  Bezer, Ramoth, and Golan in the territories of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh, respectively (Deuteronomy 4:43).  Yet, according to other Biblical passages, the cities of refuge would not function until after a) the Israelites had crossed the Jordan River into Canaan (Numbers 35:10) or b) the conquest of the land and the dispossession of its inhabitants had taken place (Deuteronomy 19:1).  Traditional Biblical chronology assigns fourteen years to “conquest and settlement,” though history and a careful reading of the Bible indicate that it took considerably longer.  The Mishnah acknowledges that the Transjordanian cities of refuge, despite their earlier designation, were inoperative until cities of refuge were established in Canaan (Mishnah 2:4).  The Talmud explains that Moses knew his East Bank safe havens would be inoperative in his lifetime, but acted nonetheless out of his love for the performance of mitzvoth (Makkot 10a).   Rabbinic literature concedes, at least to a limited extent, that the cities of refuge were not part of the lived experience of ancient Israel in its earliest phase.  Academic Bible scholars take this notion far further.  They assert that some form of asylum for manslayers existed from ancient times, but that cities of refuge emerged only during the monarchic period.  A major disagreement among scholars is whether cities of refuge came into existence in the early First Temple period during the reign of Solomon, or instead centuries later during the reign of Josiah.   Concerning the fate of the accidental manslayer and willful murderer, Scripture states: “If he did not do it by design, but it came about by an act of God, I will assign you a place to which he can flee.  When a man schemes against another and kills him treacherously, you shall take him from My very altar to be put to death (Exodus 21:13-14).”  Scripture does not explicitly identify the place to which the manslayer may flee.  Ibn Ezra and Rashbam read the verse as foreshadowing the notion of the cities of refuge elaborated upon in Numbers and Deuteronomy.  Yet a plain reading of the text seems to imply that the altar itself is the place of refuge.  Clinging to the altar is efficacious for a manslayer; however, it fails to provide protection for an outright murderer.   But the idea of the altar itself as affording asylum is difficult.  One major problem is that the Tabernacle’s altar was off-limits to non-priests.  Accordingly, the Talmud suggests that in the Wilderness period the entire Levite camp functioned as a place of refuge (Makkot 12b).  Alternatively, the reference in Exodus 21 to the altar has nothing to do with identifying the place of refuge.  Rather, it serves to teach that even if the murderer in question is a priest in the process of conducting the Temple service he is interrupted and is taken for execution (Sanhedrin 35b).   It is well attested in the history of ancient and classical civilizations that holy places also functioned as asyla for people accused of serious crimes (see Thucydides 4:98).  Hence, in the English language, “sanctuary” can refer to a physical location in which worship occurs, or an asylum for those evading justice or to the entirely unphysical idea of seeking safety (that is, the transgressor “seeks sanctuary” by fleeing to the physical structure of the house of worship and, more specifically, the altar thereof).   The Psalmist speaks of finding personal safety in God’s house (Psalms 84:3-5), while the prophet noted that the Temple had become a “den of thieves” (Jeremiah 7:11). [The word מקום used in Exodus 21:13 in connection with an asylum location might be understood to mean a mundane place.  However, often in Scripture מקום has a sacral connotation.  מקום is used to describe: a) Abraham’s first stop in Canaan where he built an altar at Shechem (Genesis 12:6), b) the place of Abraham’s second altar, between Beth-el and Ai (13:3), c) Mount Moriah in the Akeidah narrative (22:3), and d) the place where Jacob had his dream about angels ascending into Heaven by climbing a ladder (28:11).]   The idea of the Temple as refuge has both sociological and theological underpinnings.  According to Ancient Near Eastern mores of hospitality, the asylum seeker becomes a guest of the shrine and comes under the protection of its patron deity.  It would grievously dishonor the deity for the avenger to kill one of the deity’s guests.  Moreover, upon arrival at the shrine, the refugee makes himself holy unto God.   For the avenger subsequently to act maliciously toward his target would be to violate the Herem.  William Propp has advanced another theory: God destroys whatever violates His sacred space (Exodus 19:12).  The asylum seeker who touches the altar and is not smitten has, in effect, survived a trial by ordeal and has proven his innocence.  He thereby ceases to be a legitimate target for the avenger.  In other words, that person, as an innocent, has not violated God’s sacred space and, accordingly, has notbeen destroyed; an avenger who would nevertheless seek to pry the innocent from the altar would be violating God’s sacred space.   Seeking safety from Saul’s wrath, David fled to the Tabernacle at Nob (I Samuel 21:2).  Adonijah, who lost his bid for the throne to his half-brother Solomon, held onto the horns of the altar in a desperate attempt to save his life (I Kings 1:50).  Solomon temporarily spared his rival.  The altar was an effective form of sanctuary for Adonijah because his crime was merely political; he was not guilty of murder.  In contrast, Joab’s attempt to secure asylum by holding onto the horns of the altar was unsuccessful, because he was guilty of killing Abner and Amasa (2:28).  Unconcerned about ritual defilement of the holy place, and seemingly in violation of Exodus 21:14, which mandates the physical removal of the murderer from the altar before carrying out the execution, Solomon ordered Benaiah to kill Joab on the spot (2:34).   Considering that these last two episodes transpired early in Solomon’s reign, and before he constructed the Jerusalem Temple, the commentators differ in their identification of the altar mentioned in each.  Rashi understood the altar to be that of the temporary Tabernacle of Gibeon.  Radak, however, held that since these events occurred when High Places (במות) were permitted, the altar was situated in Jerusalem and was not that of the central national shrine.   Radak’s comment is key to understanding how critical scholars explain the evolution from altar/sanctuary/asylum to cities of refuge.  For much of the First Temple period, the High Places continued to function, generally with the acquiescence of the Judahite kings.  Those local shrines could function as places of asylum for manslayers and other criminals so long as the public recognized their sacred status and considered it taboo to breach the sacred spaces to apprehend a suspect.  In predicting doom for the Northern Kingdom of Israel, the early prophet Amos recognized the cultural significance attached to the “horns of the altars” of the local shrines (3:14).   With the centralization of worship during Josiah’s reign (late 7th century BCE), the local shrines finally were shuttered.  They could no longer function as places of refuge.  Instead, a system of regional cities of refuge was implemented.  Precisely because the cities of refuge were successors to the network of sanctuary asylums, several of the details governing the cities of refuge relate to the Priestly and Levitical castes.  a) The six cities of refuge are actually six of the forty-eight Levitical cities.  Baruch Levine posits that the Ir Miklat was one neighborhood within a larger city administered by the Levites.  The incarcerated population paid their way by working for the Levites in a capacity similar to the Nethinim.  b) The manslayers go free upon the death of the leading ecclesiastical functionary.  c) The three Cisjordanian cities of refuge (Joshua 20:7) were all former holy places.  Kedesh, in the northern region of Naphtali, as its name indicates, was once sacred territory.  Shechem was long regarded as a holy place, from Patriarchal times through the end of the Biblical period and the emergence of the Samaritans.  Hebron was the city of the Patriarchs and their eternal resting place.  The selection of formerly sanctuary cities to serve as official cities of refuge prevented, at the time of the institutional shift, a gap in coverage for those seeking protection.   Nahum Sarna noted that the description of the cities of refuge in Numbers and Deuteronomy served to clarify the ambiguities inherent in the concept of the altar as asylum briefly mentioned in Exodus.  Did the manslayer literally have to be in continuous physical contact with the altar to be safe?  Could he move about a small area to take care of basic human needs and still be afforded protection?  Who was financially responsible for his maintenance?  For how long, if not indefinitely, did the manslayer have to absent himself from society?  Considering these questions, the city of refuge would seem to be virtually an inevitable outgrowth of the notion of the physical altar as asylum, else the institution of asylum would not have been practical.   Jacob Milgrom rejected the theory that the cities of refuge were established as successors to the altar asylum network in the wake of Josiah’s centralization of worship.  He emphasized that three of the six cities were in Transjordan and thus outside of the Holy Land proper.  No shrine to the Israelite God could exist in such an impure land (Joshua 22:19).  Moreover, the asylum cities are identified as ערים and never by the sacred term מקום.  The private administration of justice, especially the blood feud, was symptomatic of the chaotic pre-monarchic era.  With the establishment of a national state, crime was to be punished by an official judiciary.  Scripture credits David with establishing magistrates throughout the land (I Chronicles 23:4).  Yet the blood feud was too firmly established to be suppressed easily.  The altar asylums represented an anarchic threat to the throne and the stability of the state.  Milgrom theorized that Solomon implemented a program of refuge cities as a means of restoring order and royal authority.  Solomon was able to eliminate the concept of the protective power of the altar because, as the builder of a grand new Temple, he was in a position to dispense with much of the Tabernacle tradition.   The various scholarly opinions on the origins of the cities of refuge must offer an interpretation of the verse “Seven days you shall perform purification of the altar to consecrate it, and the altar shall become most holy; whatever touches the altar shall become consecrated (Exodus 29:37).”  Does the latter part of the verse mean that (a) only sacrificial limbs or (b) all things, including living people, are susceptible to the altar’s sancta contagion?  If people are included, that would explain the lasting power of the altar asylum and the chronologically later emergence of cities of refuge.  Milgrom posits, however, that the priestly code is intent on keeping impurity and the dregs of society physically distant from the sacrificial cult.  Exodus 29:37, in this view, did not extend sancta contagion to people.  Accordingly, the universal institution of altar asylum had to give way, early in Israel’s history, to the Torahitic concept of cities of refuge.