In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cities of Refuge

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Classic Discussions
  • Refuge and Asylum in the Larger Ancient Near Eastern World
  • Cities of Refuge and the Biblical Laws
  • Levinas, Derrida, and Others on Cities of Refuge
  • Contemporary Applications of Cities of Refuge and the Idea of Asylum

Biblical Studies Cities of Refuge
John R. Spencer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0263


Within the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament there is a provision for six cities of refuge (“cities of intaking” [ערי מקלט]), where someone who has unintentionally committed murder can go and not be subject to blood revenge (Exodus 21:12–14; Numbers 35:9–34; Deuteronomy 4:41–43, 19:1–13; Joshua 20; 1 Chronicles 6). This practice has been described as refuge, asylum, and sanctuary, and the cities have been given all three of these labels, which has resulted in differing understandings of the intention of these cities. The basic legal issue is the distinction between intentional and unintentional killing. For most societies in the ancient Near East, including ancient Israel, the idea of “blood revenge” (an “eye for an eye”; lex talionis) was the way in which the killing of a member of your clan or family was avenged (Exodus 21:23). The distinction made in association with the cities of refuge/asylum was how to deal with an individual who accidentally, without intention, killed another (Exodus 21:12–14; Number 35:16–28). Also associated with this idea is the nature of sanctuary or asylum that one can obtain when one reaches a cultic center with an altar (1 Kings 1:50–53; 2:23–24). One should also note that all the cities of refuge are also Levitical Cities (1 Chronicles 6), but it is not clear what the role of the Levites was in such a city of refuge. Among the issues associated with these cities are the following: Did they actually exist, or were they simply a fiction created at a later period of time? If they were real, what was their historical context? Was it premonarchic, the time of David and Solomon, related to the centralization of Josiah, or postexilic? When were the texts composed (a question associated with the previous issue and raising wonderings about different hands in the composition of the texts associated with the idea of asylum cities)? What is the connection between altars of sanctuary and the cities of refuge, and why the apparent replacement of altars with cities? Who and how was the validity of the claim of unintentional killing (Numbers 35:24–25; Joshua 20:4) decided, even if the killer was a “sojourner” (gēr) (Joshua 20:9) (see Oxford Bibliographies in Biblical Studies article Sojourner)? What was the consequence of the death of the high priest (Numbers 35:27; Joshua 20:6), and how it was related to some concept of atonement? What was the relationship between the different biblical presentations of refuge or asylum? What was the connection with the Levites (See Oxford Bibliographies in Biblical Studies articles Levi/Levites) and Levitical Cities (see Oxford Bibliographies in Biblical Studies article Levitical Cities)? Finally, what is the relevance to today’s society with its issues of sanctuary for immigrants and sojourners?

General Overviews

There are several studies that provide a general overview of the topic of cities of refuge or asylum. Some are stand-alone pieces and others appear in various Bible dictionaries. All will give the reader a good introduction to the topic, issues, and past research. Dinur 1954 is primarily in Hebrew but has a good summary in English and touches upon many of the important issues, especially associated with the question of the entry into a city of refuge. Greenberg 1962 presents a good dictionary article on the cities of refuge. Schmid 1997 helps us to understand the Hebrew term (מקלט; miqlāt), which was used to identify a city of refuge. Haran 1985 is more focused on the temples in ancient Israel than simply cities of refuge but provides an important discussion about the relationship of temples and cities of refuge. Mattingly 1989 is concerned to present the issues to a more general, nonacademic audience. Another dictionary article is Spencer 1992, which touches upon the basic concerns associated with cities of refuge. A good summary of past research can be found in Chen 1998. In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Hawk 2009 provides an update of the Greenberg 1962 article. Quant 2015 offers a brief summary of the topic and touches upon the associated topic of asylum in contemporary situations.

  • Chen, Ching-Wen. “The Asylum Cities: A Reconstruction.” Taiwan Journal of Theology 20 (1998): 103–122.

    Chen holds that Josiah’s reform and the centralization of worship are the bases for the establishment of the cities of refuge. Looks at past scholarship, primarily focusing on materials related to lists of Levitical cities.

  • Dinur, B. “The Religious Character of the Cities of Refuge and the Ceremony of Admission into Them.” Eretz-Israel 3 (1954): 135–146.

    In Hebrew; see pp. vii–ix for an English summary. Dinur sees cities of refuge, which were set up to limit blood vengeance, as a historical reality. The unintentional killer had to sever ties with family and go to a Levitical city, similar to the Levites who had to sever family ties to perform religious duties “which included homicide in the name of god.” Argues that Psalm 27 presents steps for person to be admitted to city of refuge.

  • Greenberg, Moshe. “City of Refuge.” In Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 1. Edited by George A. Buttrick, 638–639. New York: Abingdon, 1962.

    Greenberg provides a good overview of concept of cities of refuge. Sees distinction between views of Deuteronomy and Numbers. Argues Deuteronomy is later and the presentation in Numbers is earlier. Mentions other examples of asylum in ancient Near East.

  • Haran, Menahem. Temples and Temple-Service in Ancient Israel. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1985.

    Holds that cities of refuge are also Levitical cities but that neither were “temple-cities.” Argues that altar asylum co-existed with asylum in cities. Not all Levitical cities were asylum cities in Bible, but Talmud holds that all Levitical cities offered asylum.

  • Hawk, L. Daniel. “Cities of Refuge.” In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 1. Edited by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, 678–679. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

    General introduction to topic. Hawk mentions that early idea of asylum at sanctuaries was replaced by cities of refuge. Notes conditions for asylum and how the process handed judicial decision to third party rather than aggrieved. Sees MT (Hebrew text) addition in Joshua 20:4–5 (compared to Greek LXX/Septuagint) as attempt to harmonize Priestly and Deuteronomic legislations.

  • Mattingly, Gerald L. “Israel’s Cities of Refuge.” Biblical Illustrator 15 (1989): 79–83.

    Article is designed to introduce biblical idea to contemporary audience. Good overview but has limited discussion of differences, historical changes, or developments of idea of refuge. Includes a comparison of practice with similar Greek ideas.

  • Quant, John F. “Asylum.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Law. Vol. 1. Edited by Brent A. Strawn, 32–37. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    A good summary of issues. Presents terms involved in cities of refuge. Discusses individual passages dealing with cities of refuge and the laws of asylum. Looks at practices outside the Hebrew Bible (in the ancient Near East) and at practices since the Bible. Notes that contemporary sanctuary for refugees is not fully supported by laws of asylum in Hebrew Bible.

  • Schmid, R. “מקלט, miqlāt.” In Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Vol. 8. Edited by G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, 552–556. Translated by John T. Willis. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.

    A study of the term used to label cities as “refuge” and its use in Bible. The root meaning is “to take up, to harbor.” Schmid holds that it is an old tradition found in Deuteronomy and later modified by the Priestly writer. The two traditions were later harmonized. Deuteronomy changed the places of refuge from sanctuaries to cities because of centralization of worship in Jerusalem. Previously published in German: Schmid, R. “מקלט, miqlāt.” In Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Alten Testament. Vol. 4. Edited by G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, 1132–1137. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1983–1984.

  • Spencer, John R. “Refuge, Cities of.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 5. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 657–658. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    Brief summary of idea of refuge cities. Spencer points out practice in other cultures. In ancient Israel, idea of sanctuary probably existed in time of monarchy and was employed to avoid blood revenge. There was probably some connection between cities of refuge and Levitical cities since all six refuge cities are Levitical.

  • Vasholz, Robert I. “Israel’s Cities of Refuge.” Presbyterion 19.2 (1993): 116–118.

    Raises issue of release from city of refuge at the death of the high priest. Draws upon parallel story of Solomon and Shimei (1 Kings 2:36–37). Vasholz then argues that the death of Solomon would have ended a “judicial era” and thus ended the confinement. This is also true for the death of the high priest and a person confined in a city of refuge.

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