In my last post, I started writing about the Cities of Refuge, which provided safe havens for accidental killers/CADIs back in the biblical era (BCE or Old Testament days). Although I am not conventionally religious, it means a lot to me that even God finds accidental killers like me deserving of asylum. You can read about them in the Book of Numbers, in Deuteronomy, and the book of Joshua.
The way it worked was that immediately after the incident, the accidental killer would flee to the city of refuge. If the victim’s relatives caught up with him before he reached the city, they could kill him with impunity. Once he got to the city, however, he was safe from revenge attacks. He would stay in the city until his trail before an assembly of elders.
If the assembly decided that the victim’s death was intended, the person was put to death for murder. If the assembly agreed that the death was unintentional, the accidental killer then returned to live in the city of refuge to live.
In order to stay safe, the accidental killer had to stay in the city of refuge until the High Priest in Jerusalem died. When the Priest died, the accidental killer could leave the city of refuge and return to his home, and anyone who attacked him in revenge would be punished. If he left before the High Priest died, however, he was on his own. A “blood-avenger” could murder him without consequence.
If my accident happened a few thousand years ago, though, I could have rushed away from the accident scene and found safety in a City of Refuge. Instead of struggling to put on a good face and move on, I could have stayed in the City to heal and to strengthen myself psychologically and spiritually.
I especially like the fact that the cities of refuge were not restricted to Israelites, but provided sanctuary to all accidental killers, citizen or alien. A civilized society, one that met God’s expectations, took care of those who unintentionally killed.
At first, there were just six cities of refuge, but eventually there were 48. That way, accidental killers had a good chance of reaching the city before any vengeful relatives or friends of the victim could catch up to him. To make sure the accidental killer could reach a city of refuge before the blood avenger overtook him, the roads leading to the cities were supposed to be twice as wide as a regular road, free of obstacles, and level so that the killer wouldn’t trip or turn his ankle. If the road passed over water, there had to be a good bridge. Clear signage was required at every crossroad, so the accidental killer would not get lost. The courts were responsible for making sure the road was kept in good repair and dispatching workers to fix any problems that might slow someone down.
Accidental killers were not allowed to leave the city of refuge for any reason and could not buy their freedom with ransom or bail money. Separation from friends, relatives, job, home, and all the places and activities that add up to one’s life must have been terribly lonely. Yet life inside the city was kind. The accidental killer’s immediate family typically accompanied him there. Rather than being relegated to a ghetto and shunned, the accidental killers took part in all aspects of community life. In fact, they could even receive honors and high office in the city. The Cities were medium sized – not so big that the blood avengers could sneak in unnoticed, and not so small that the blood avenger could storm in and overcome the residents. There had to be fresh water and there had to be markets, so the accidental killer could live without leaving the city. Certain trades were prohibited because they risked bringing blood avengers into the community – this included manufacturing glassware, textiles and ropes; the sale of arms and hunting tools was also prohibited.
Most of all, from my point of view, the safety of the city allowed the accidental killer to move beyond fear for his own survival to a deeper consideration of life, death, and personal responsibility. He had no choice about where to live, but inside the city he had other, more important choices. He could choose bitterness for being punished so harshly. Or he could choose acceptance and determine to honor his victim in the way he lived.
The commentaries I’ve read assume that, once the immediate risk of violence passed, accidental killers did not want to live in a city of refuge. Most Biblical scholars seems to consider life in the city to be a harsh punishment.
What these rabbis missed, in my opinion, was that at least some accidental killers might prefer to live in a City of Refuge. I sure would have. There, I could have received support from others who had been through similar experiences. I wouldn’t have been afraid of physical or verbal attacks. My accident would not have become a dark, painful secret. If I had been exiled to a City of Refuge, I might not have needed exile from myself.