“When the LORD thy God hath cut off the nations, whose land the LORD thy God giveth thee, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their cities, and in their houses; Thou shalt separate three cities for thee in the midst of thy land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it. Thou shalt prepare thee a way, and divide the coasts of thy land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee to inherit, into three parts, that every slayer may flee thither.” (Deuteronomy 19:1-3)
The law dealt with the relationship to God, but part of than involves man’s relationship to man as being created in the image of God. Conflicts arise and the law provided guidelines for resolving them. One thing that was especially critical was when someone had been killed.
When they came into the land of Canaan, Israel was to designate three cities as places of refuge where a person who had killed someone could go and be protected until their trial. Three cities had already been selected in the area east of the Jordan, but they did not yet own the land of Canaan. The cities were to be located where one was readily accessible from andy part of the land, and good roads were to be provided to facilitate getting there, decreasing the chance that people seeking revenge would be able to overtake them..
“And this is the case of the slayer, which shall flee thither, that he may live: Whoso killeth his neighbour ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past; As when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the ax to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbour, that he die; he shall flee unto one of those cities, and live: Lest the avenger of the blood pursue the slayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and slay him; whereas he was not worthy of death, inasmuch as he hated him not in time past.” (Deuteronomy 19:4-6)
The cities were there to protect the person who had accidentally killed another person. An axe head can come loose without the user being aware of it and fly off and hit someone, or someone can walk in front of a car. The cities of refuge were there to protect people who had unintentionally caused someone’s death. There had been no planning or deliberate action resulting in the death.
“Wherefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt separate three cities for thee. And if the LORD thy God enlarge thy coast, as he hath sworn unto thy fathers, and give thee all the land which he promised to give unto thy fathers; If thou shalt keep all these commandments to do them, which I command thee this day, to love the LORD thy God, and to walk ever in his ways; then shalt thou add three cities more for thee, beside these three: That innocent blood be not shed in thy land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and so blood be upon thee.” (Deuteronomy 19:7-10)
At some future date, if they had obeyed God commands, he might give them additional land, and if that happened they were to give three more cities as well so that there would always be one within easy access so that innocent people were not unfairly executed, bringing God’s judgment on the nation.
“But if any man hate his neighbour, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally that he die, and fleeth into one of these cities: Then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. Thine eye shall not pity him, but thou shalt put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with thee.” (Deuteronomy 19:11-13)
If a person had deliberately killed another, it didn’t matter what his excuse was, he was not to be protected, but was to be turned over to be executed. Family relationships or sympathy for his reasons was not to influence the results. Failure to do so would make Israel accountable for the murder. Numbers 35:16-21 gives greater detail as to what constituted murder.
“And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. And if he smite him with throwing a stone, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. Or if he smite him with an hand weapon of wood, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. The revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer: when he meeteth him, he shall slay him. But if he thrust him of hatred, or hurl at him by laying of wait, that he die; Or in enmity smite him with his hand, that he die: he that smote him shall surely be put to death; for he is a murderer: the revenger of blood shall slay the murderer, when he meeteth him.” (Numbers 35:16-21)
The use of a deadly weapon implied a willingness to kill and the person was to be considered a murderer and executed. Under this standard, a person who knowingly drove drunk and killed someone would be considered a murder for deliberately endangering the lives of another person.
“But if he thrust him suddenly without enmity, or have cast upon him any thing without laying of wait, Or with any stone, wherewith a man may die, seeing him not, and cast it upon him, that he die, and was not his enemy, neither sought his harm: Then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the revenger of blood according to these judgments: And the congregation shall deliver the slayer out of the hand of the revenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to the city of his refuge, whither he was fled: and he shall abide in it unto the death of the high priest, which was anointed with the holy oil.” (Numbers 35:22-25)
True accidents, on the other hand, where there was no deliberate endangerment was considered manslaughter. Hitting a pedestrian who walked in front of a car or dropping something off a roof and accidentally hitting someone was to be considered manslaughter. The penalty for manslaughter was life imprisonment. Obviously, God takes human life far more seriously than most of us.
“But if the slayer shall at any time come without the border of the city of his refuge, whither he was fled; And the revenger of blood find him without the borders of the city of his refuge, and the revenger of blood kill the slayer; he shall not be guilty of blood: Because he should have remained in the city of his refuge until the death of the high priest: but after the death of the high priest the slayer shall return into the land of his possession.” (Numbers 35:26-28)
If at any time the manslayer went outside the city of refuge, he could be killed as a murderer. It was not up to guards to keep him in, it was up to him to stay inside. Only the death of the priest would obtain parole.
In II Samuel 2, Abner unintentionally killed Asahel when he ran into the haft of Abner’s spear. When Asahel’s brother Joab asked to speak to him privately, Abner foolishly left the safety of the city of refuge to talk to him. David could not punish Joab because Abner had knowingly put his life at risk and the law specified he could be killed for leaving the city.