Cities of Refuge - Origin and Development

Origin and Development

In many ancient cultures, the inviolability of deities was considered to extend to their religious sanctuaries and all that resided within, whether criminals, debtors, escaped slaves, priests, ordinary people, or, in some cases, passing cattle; biblical scholars suspect that Israelite culture was originally no different. In general, the area covered by these rights of sanctuary varied from a small area around the altar or other centrepiece to a large area beyond the limits of the town containing the sanctuary (the limits often being marked in some way), depending on the significance of the deity and the importance of the sanctuary; it was considered a greater crime to drag an individual from the sanctuary or to kill them there than it was to defile the sanctuary itself.

Biblical scholars perceive this simple right of asylum at sanctuaries as being presented by the Covenant Code, which textual scholars attribute to the 8th century BC. Biblical scholars also believe that this right was the context underlying the account in the Books of Kings of Joab and Adonijah each fleeing from Solomon to an altar, with their opponents being unwilling to attack them while they remained there; textual scholars regard these passages as being part of the Court History of David, which they date to the 9th century BC, or earlier.

Over time, these general rights of asylum were gradually curtailed, as some sanctuaries had become notorious hotbeds of crime; in Athens, for example, the regulations were changed so that slaves were only permitted to escape to the sanctuary of the temple of Theseus. This is considered by scholars to be the reason that, in Israelite culture, the rights were restricted to just six locations by the time the Priestly Code was compiled—the late 7th century according to textual scholars — and it is thus regarded by biblical scholars as being no coincidence that the three cities of refuge to the west of the Jordan were also important ancient religious sanctuaries; little is known about the cities of refuge to the east of the Jordan (as of 1901), but scholars consider it reasonable to assume that they were once also important sanctuaries.

The Deuteronomic Code is regarded by textual scholars as dating from the reign of Josiah, which postdates the fall of the Kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians; this is considered to be the reason that only three (unnamed) cities of refuge are mentioned in the Deuteronomic Code, with a further three only being added if the Israelite territory was expanded, as by the time of Josiah's reign, the cities east of the Jordan were no longer controlled by the Israelites. The lack of importance given by the Deuteronomic Code to the identity of the cities of refuge is considered by scholars to be an attempt to continue the right of asylum, even though the sanctuaries (apart from the Temple in Jerusalem) had been abolished by Josiah's reforms.

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