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Itamar Kislev





Revising the Laws of Murder to Accommodate Blood Vengeance





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Itamar Kislev





Revising the Laws of Murder to Accommodate Blood Vengeance








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Revising the Laws of Murder to Accommodate Blood Vengeance

The author of Numbers 35 uses an existing set of laws that distinguish between murder and manslaughter to determine what kind of killer may escape to a city of refuge. This creates confusion about what it means to be a rotzeach (“murderer” or “killer”) and who executes the murderer: the assembly or the blood avenger?


Revising the Laws of Murder to Accommodate Blood Vengeance

The City of Refuge, Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster, 1897. Wikimedia

Towards the end of the book of Numbers is a long passage—26 verses—concerning the laws of murder and manslaughter (35:9–34). It can be loosely divided into four sections:

  1. The command to build cities of refuge (vv. 9–15);
  2. A description of how to distinguish between murder and manslaughter (vv. 16–23);
  3. The operation of the city of refuge for the manslayer (vv. 24–29);
  4. Miscellaneous rules and principles about murder trials and punishments (vv. 30–34).

Who Goes to the Refuge City Before the Trial?

The first section opens with the command that, when Israel settles in their land, they must build cities of refuge:

במדבר לה:ט וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. לה:י דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן. לה:יא וְהִקְרִיתֶם לָכֶם עָרִים עָרֵי מִקְלָט תִּהְיֶינָה לָכֶם וְנָס שָׁמָּה רֹצֵחַ [נה"ש: הָרֹצֵחַ] מַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ בִּשְׁגָגָה.
Num 35:9 YHWH said to Moses: 35:10 Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 35:11 You shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge to which a [SP: the] rotzeach, one who has killed a person unintentionally, may flee.

The word rotzeach, from the root ר.צ.ח, almost always means murder. Indeed, the use of this term as anything other than murder is unique to the laws of the refuge city here, in Deuteronomy 4 and 19, and in Joshua 20.[1] The usage in this verse is especially odd, since the word is glossed to include only someone guilty of unintentional manslaughter, i.e., only those who killed unintentionally may escape to the city of refuge. The gloss thus excludes murderers.

A restriction against murderers using these cities would make sense if the verse were describing a post-trial ruling, but the next verse shows otherwise:

במדבר לה:יב וְהָיוּ לָכֶם הֶעָרִים לְמִקְלָט מִגֹּאֵל וְלֹא יָמוּת הָרֹצֵחַ עַד עָמְדוֹ לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה לַמִּשְׁפָּט.
Num 35:12 The cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the rotzeach may not die before he has stood trial before the assembly.[2]

In this context, verse 11 makes a rule that is impossible to enforce: How would anyone other than the killer know whether the killing was intentional or not at this stage? Indeed, verse 11, which excludes murderers from the city of refuge, contradicts verse 12, which clearly implies that any rotzeach, whether intentional or not, enters the city of refuge before the trial.

Thus, it would seem that the original text read:

במדבר לה:יא וְהִקְרִיתֶם לָכֶם עָרִים עָרֵי מִקְלָט תִּהְיֶינָה לָכֶם וְנָס שָׁמָּה רֹצֵחַ // לה:יב וְהָיוּ לָכֶם הֶעָרִים לְמִקְלָט מִגֹּאֵל וְלֹא יָמוּת הָרֹצֵחַ עַד עָמְדוֹ לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה לַמִּשְׁפָּט.
Num 35:11 You shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge to which a rotzeach // may flee. 35:12 The cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the rotzeach may not die before he has stood trial before the assembly.

A later editor added the gloss מַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ בִּשְׁגָגָה “one who has killed a person unintentionally,” perhaps because he was uncomfortable with the idea of a refuge city for murderers, even before the trial.

Who is a Rotzeach? Distinguishing between Murder and Manslaughter

After a brief discussion of where these cities should be built, the Torah explains how the assembly should distinguish between purposeful and unintentional killing:

במדבר לה:טז וְאִם בִּכְלִי בַרְזֶל הִכָּהוּ וַיָּמֹת רֹצֵחַ הוּא מוֹת יוּמַת הָרֹצֵחַ. לה:יז וְאִם בְּאֶבֶן יָד אֲשֶׁר יָמוּת בָּהּ הִכָּהוּ וַיָּמֹת רֹצֵחַ הוּא מוֹת יוּמַת הָרֹצֵחַ. לה:יח אוֹ בִּכְלִי עֵץ יָד אֲשֶׁר יָמוּת בּוֹ הִכָּהוּ וַיָּמֹת רֹצֵחַ הוּא מוֹת יוּמַת הָרֹצֵחַ.
Num 35:16 Anyone who strikes another with an iron object, and death results, he is a rotzeach; the rotzeach must be put to death. 35:17 If he struck him with a stone tool that could cause death, and death resulted, he is a rotzeach; the rotzeach must be put to death. 35:18 If the object with which he struck him was a wooden tool that could cause death, and death resulted, he is a rotzeach; the rotzeach must be put to death.

Here the word rotzeach is used in its common, more specific meaning of “murderer”—in contrast to the more general הַמַּכֶּה “one who strikes/kills” (v. 24)—and continues to do so until the end of the section. Not only does the usage of rotzeach in this section contradict that of vv. 11–12, but the description of the rotzeach’s execution is self-contradictory.

Who Kills the Rotzeach?

The phrase מוֹת יוּמַת “put to death” is generally used to describe an official execution.[3] For instance,

ויקרא כד:טז וְנֹקֵב שֵׁם יְ־הוָה מוֹת יוּמָת רָגוֹם יִרְגְּמוּ בוֹ כָּל הָעֵדָה כַּגֵּר כָּאֶזְרָח בְּנָקְבוֹ שֵׁם יוּמָת.
Lev 24:16 If one pronounces the name YHWH, he shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him; stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the Name, he shall be put to death.[4]

Here, however, the text continues with:

במדבר לה:יט גֹּאֵל הַדָּם הוּא יָמִית אֶת הָרֹצֵחַ בְּפִגְעוֹ בוֹ הוּא יְמִיתֶנּוּ.
Num 35:19 The blood-avenger himself shall put the rotzeach to death; it is he who shall put him to death upon encounter.

According to this, the assembly doesn’t execute the rotzeach, or even turn him over to the victim’s family, but simply leaves the person be, and the blood avenger does the rest whenever he encounters the rotzeach.

The contradictory implications about the rotzeach’s death—official execution versus left to the devices of the blood avenger—is repeated in the next set of rules, explaining how the assembly should factor in motive:

במדבר לה:כ וְאִם בְּשִׂנְאָה יֶהְדָּפֶנּוּ אוֹ הִשְׁלִיךְ עָלָיו בִּצְדִיָּה וַיָּמֹת. לה:כא אוֹ בְאֵיבָה הִכָּהוּ בְיָדוֹ וַיָּמֹת מוֹת יוּמַת הַמַּכֶּה רֹצֵחַ הוּא גֹּאֵל הַדָּם יָמִית אֶת הָרֹצֵחַ בְּפִגְעוֹ בוֹ.
Num 35:20 So, too, if he pushed him in hate or hurled something at him on purpose and death resulted, 35:21 or if he struck him with his hand in enmity and death resulted, the killer shall be put to death; he is a rotzeach. The blood-avenger shall put the rotzeach to death upon encounter.

The rabbis deduced a law based on a midrashic reading of the tension between “official execution” and “left to the blood avenger” (b. Sanhedrin 45b):

ומניין שאם אין לו גואל, שבית דין מעמידין לו גואל - שנאמר בפגעו בו, מכל מקום.
How do you know that if he doesn’t have a [relative to serve as the blood] avenger, that the court appoints a [blood-]avenger for him? For it says “upon his encounter with him”—in any case (i.e., even if he is not a relative).

This rabbinic midrash highlights the problem: is the execution the responsibility of the assembly or the privilege of the blood-avenger?

Where Is the Acquittal?

The Torah continues with cases, in which it is clear to the assembly that the killing was not intentional:

במדבר לה:כב וְאִם בְּפֶתַע בְּלֹא אֵיבָה הֲדָפוֹ אוֹ הִשְׁלִיךְ עָלָיו כָּל כְּלִי בְּלֹא צְדִיָּה. לה:כג אוֹ בְכָל אֶבֶן אֲשֶׁר יָמוּת בָּהּ בְּלֹא רְאוֹת וַיַּפֵּל עָלָיו וַיָּמֹת וְהוּא לֹא אוֹיֵב לוֹ וְלֹא מְבַקֵּשׁ רָעָתוֹ.
Num 35:22 But if he pushed him without malice aforethought or hurled any object at him unintentionally, 35:23 or inadvertently dropped upon him any deadly object of stone, and death resulted—though he was not an enemy of his and did not seek his harm—

At this point, we expect to hear what the assembly should rule, but the passage is missing an apodosis, i.e., the “then” in an if-then conditional sentence. We might have expected something like “he is not a murderer,” “he is innocent,” or “he has killed unintentionally” and a decree explaining what happens to the person, “he is set free,” “he pays a penalty,” “he is exiled,” etc. Instead, we get a generic summary of the section:

במדבר לה:כד וְשָׁפְטוּ הָעֵדָה בֵּין הַמַּכֶּה וּבֵין גֹּאֵל הַדָּם עַל הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה.
Num 35:24 the assembly shall decide between the slayer and the blood-avenger in such cases.

We must wait until the next verse—which begins what I called section 3—to learn what is done with the person.

Rotzeach and the City of Refuge: Section 3

Section three opens with the statement that the assembly should save the person from the blood avenger by sending him back to the city of refuge. Notably, the various textual traditions differ on which term is applied to the manslayer here:

במדבר לה:כה וְהִצִּילוּ הָעֵדָה אֶת הָרֹצֵחַ [נה"ש הַמַּכֶּה; וולגטה: הַנָּקִי] מִיַּד גֹּאֵל הַדָּם וְהֵשִׁיבוּ אֹתוֹ הָעֵדָה אֶל עִיר מִקְלָטוֹ אֲשֶׁר נָס שָׁמָּה וְיָשַׁב בָּהּ עַד מוֹת הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדֹל אֲשֶׁר מָשַׁח אֹתוֹ בְּשֶׁמֶן הַקֹּדֶשׁ.
Num 35:25 The assembly shall protect the rotzeach [SP: killer; Vul: innocent] from the blood-avenger, and the assembly shall restore him to the city of refuge to which he fled, and there he shall remain until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the sacred oil.

The Samaritan Pentateuch calls him by the generic term “killer,” while the Vulgate, making use of a term that doesn’t appear anywhere else in this chapter, goes so far as to call him innocens “the innocent.”

These alternatives highlight the stark problem that in the MT, as well as in the LXX (φονεύσαντα, “murderer”), the text has reverted to calling the unintentional manslayer a rotzeach, following the usage we saw in verses 11–12, but contradicting the usage in verses 16–24 (section 2).

The following verses show that the MT is likely accurate, since the manslayer is referred to again as rotzeach, and this time SP and Vulgate do not offer variant readings:

במדבר לה:כו וְאִם יָצֹא יֵצֵא הָרֹצֵחַ אֶת גְּבוּל עִיר מִקְלָטוֹ אֲשֶׁר יָנוּס שָׁמָּה. לה:כז וּמָצָא אֹתוֹ גֹּאֵל הַדָּם מִחוּץ לִגְבוּל עִיר מִקְלָטוֹ וְרָצַח גֹּאֵל הַדָּם אֶת הָרֹצֵחַ אֵין לוֹ דָּם.
Num 35:26 But if the rotzeach ever goes outside the limits of the city of refuge to which he has fled, 35:27 and the blood-avenger comes upon him outside the limits of his city of refuge, and the blood-avenger kills (ratzach) the rotzeach, there is no bloodguilt on his account.

In these verses, it is clear that the rotzeach refers to the person who killed unintentionally. Moreover, the verb ratzach is attributed to the blood-avenger. Though he is certainly killing intentionally, it is not murder since the text justifies such killings as the family’s prerogative. In short, the term is being used here generically as “kill.” Thus, sections 1 and 3 use the word rotzeach in a general way, “killer,” while section 2 uses it in a specific way to mean “murderer.”

Repurposing an Older Set of Laws

These problems suggest that the author of this chapter has taken a set of laws about murder trials (i.e., the bulk of section 2) from some other collection, and included them in his passage on the refuge cities and the blood avenger (sections 1 and 3),[5] and thus mixes two different legal conceptions of murder.

In the murder-trial laws (section 2), murder is a crime against society and is handled by the assembly, a societal institution. In the blood-avenger texts (sections 1 and 3), murder is a crime against a family, and are dealt with by representatives of that family. By inserting the former into the latter, the assembly’s job becomes merely to ensure that the family does not take vengeance on a person who did not kill intentionally.

This explains the problematic features noted above:

  1. The murder-trial laws use the word rotzeach to mean “murderer” while the refuge-city text uses it to mean “killer.”
  2. The author of the refuge city text spliced “the blood avenger will kill him” twice into the murder trial text (vv. 19, 21b), after the phrase “the murderer shall be put to death,” to change its meaning from execution by the assembly to retribution-killing by the blood avenger.
  3. The original acquittal, which likely had the killer going home or paying a fine, was cut and replaced with a general ending about judgment, to avoid contradicting the law of the refuge city.

In addition to cutting the ending, the author of the passage also cut the opening of the murder-trial laws (section 2), which would likely have been written with the standard opening of a set of casuistic laws, something like, כי יכה איש את רעהו וימת “if a man strikes his fellow and he dies.”[6] Indeed, the Holiness Collection in Leviticus presents a version of this:

ויקרא כד:יז וְאִישׁ כִּי יַכֶּה כָּל נֶפֶשׁ אָדָם מוֹת יוּמָת.
Lev 24:17 If anyone strikes any human being fatally, he shall be put to death.

In short, the author of the refuge city text copied this set of laws from a now lost source, cut the beginning and ending out of it, and twice spliced in the requirement for the blood avenger to do the killing.

While the laws were originally aimed at an assembly passing judgment on a killer and acting on it, in its new context, the assembly is deciding whether to protect the killer from the wrath of the blood avenger or to leave the killer to his fate.

How Many Cities? Post-Deuteronomistic Editing

The flow of the sections 1–3 of these laws is as follows: A person who kills another flees to the closest city of refuge (vv. 11–12), the assembly decides if the killing was purposeful or unintentional (vv. 16–23), and if unintentional, the person is sent to the city of refuge until the death of the high priest (vv. 24–29).

Interrupting the flow from section 1 (vv 10–12) to section 2 (vv. 16–24) is a parenthetical passage expanding on the requirement to establish cities of refuge, which has the appearance of a later addition.[7] This passage was likely added in stages, which can be best see by noting the resumptive repetitions (Wiederaufnahme):

במדבר לה:יג וְהֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר תִּתֵּנוּ שֵׁשׁ עָרֵי מִקְלָט תִּהְיֶינָה לָכֶם. לה:יד אֵת שְׁלֹשׁ הֶעָרִים תִּתְּנוּ מֵעֵבֶר לַיַּרְדֵּן וְאֵת שְׁלֹשׁ הֶעָרִים תִּתְּנוּ בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן עָרֵי מִקְלָט תִּהְיֶינָה. לה:טו לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלַגֵּר וְלַתּוֹשָׁב בְּתוֹכָם תִּהְיֶינָה שֵׁשׁ הֶעָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לְמִקְלָט לָנוּס שָׁמָּה כָּל מַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ בִּשְׁגָגָה.
Num 35:13 The towns that you thus assign shall be six, they shall serve as cities of refuge for you. 35:14 Three cities shall be designated beyond the Jordan, and the other three shall be designated in the land of Canaan: they shall serve as cities of refuge. 35:15 For the Israelites and the resident aliens among them, these six cities shall serve for refuge, so that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there.

Verse 13 is a simple gloss, explaining how many such cities should be built. The earlier text of Numbers didn’t specify the number of refuge cities that should be established, similar to the Covenant Collection, which also posits a safe place where killers may take refuge, but without specifying the details:

שמות כא:יב מַכֵּה אִישׁ וָמֵת מוֹת יוּמָת. כא:יג וַאֲשֶׁר לֹא צָדָה וְהָאֱלֹהִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ וְשַׂמְתִּי לְךָ מָקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יָנוּס שָׁמָּה.
Exod 21:12 He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death. 21:13 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.

This gloss (v. 13) may have been influenced by the parallel law in Deuteronomy, which refers to the eventual requirement of establishing this many cities:

דברים יט:ב שָׁלוֹשׁ עָרִים תַּבְדִּיל לָךְ בְּתוֹךְ אַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לְרִשְׁתָּהּ. יט:ג תָּכִין לְךָ הַדֶּרֶךְ וְשִׁלַּשְׁתָּ אֶת גְּבוּל אַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר יַנְחִילְךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְהָיָה לָנוּס שָׁמָּה כָּל רֹצֵחַ....
Deut 19:2 You shall set aside three cities in the land that YHWH your God is giving you to possess. 19:3 You shall survey the distances, and divide into three parts the territory of the country that YHWH your God has allotted to you, so that any manslayer may have a place to flee to….
יט:ח וְאִם יַרְחִיב יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת גְּבֻלְךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ וְנָתַן לְךָ אֶת כָּל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָתֵת לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ. יט:ט ...וְיָסַפְתָּ לְךָ עוֹד שָׁלֹשׁ עָרִים עַל הַשָּׁלֹשׁ הָאֵלֶּה.
Deut 19:8 And when YHWH your God enlarges your territory, as He swore to your fathers, and gives you all the land that He promised to give your fathers 19:9 … then you shall add three more towns to those three.[8]

Verse 14 modifies this requirement, claiming that three of the cities must be in the Transjordan. This gloss sits poorly in its context, since, as noted above, the passage opens with (v. 10): כִּי אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן “when you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan.” Why should Israel wait until they cross over into Canaan in order to establish refuge cities in the Transjordan?

Indeed, according to Deuteronomy, Moses sets up these cities before his death:

דברים ד:מא אָז יַבְדִּיל מֹשֶׁה שָׁלֹשׁ עָרִים בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן מִזְרְחָה שָׁמֶשׁ. ד:מב לָנֻס שָׁמָּה רוֹצֵחַ אֲשֶׁר יִרְצַח אֶת רֵעֵהוּ בִּבְלִי דַעַת וְהוּא לֹא שֹׂנֵא לוֹ מִתְּמֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם וְנָס אֶל אַחַת מִן הֶעָרִים הָאֵל וָחָי.
Deut 4:41 Then Moses set aside three cities on the east side of the Jordan 4:42 to which a manslayer could escape, one who unwittingly slew a fellow man without having been hostile to him in the past; he could flee to one of these cities and live.

The scribe who added verse 14 was likely influenced by this passage, and unwittingly created the tension between the opening “when you enter the land” and the requirement to build cities of refuge in the already conquered Transjordanian territory.

The first part of verse 15 seems like a standard addition, which emphasizes that sojourners must be treated the same as native Israelites. The ending of this verse, לָנוּס שָׁמָּה כָּל מַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ בִּשְׁגָגָה, “so that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there” may have been the original ending of verse 14, as it follows the resumptive repetition. Indeed, this scribe may also be responsible for the gloss in verse 11, analyzed above, as both use the same language.

Miscellaneous Laws: Section 4, the Final Supplement

At the end of the passage, after describing what happens to a person who is convicted of murder—he is left to be killed by the blood avenger—and what happens to the unintentional manslayer—he remains in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest—the chapter returns to the theme of murder.


First, we are told that a person can only be convicted by the testimony of two witnesses:

במדבר לה:ל כָּל מַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ לְפִי עֵדִים יִרְצַח אֶת הָרֹצֵחַ וְעֵד אֶחָד לֹא יַעֲנֶה בְנֶפֶשׁ לָמוּת.
Num 35:30 If anyone kills a person, the manslayer may be executed only on the evidence of witnesses; the testimony of a single witness against a person shall not suffice for a sentence of death.

Why wait till the end of the chapter to bring this up instead of mentioning it in the section dealing with murder convictions? It would seem that this verse was added to the chapter as a kind of addendum, perhaps influenced by the parallel law in Deuteronomy:

דברים יז:ו עַל פִּי שְׁנַיִם עֵדִים אוֹ שְׁלֹשָׁה עֵדִים יוּמַת הַמֵּת לֹא יוּמַת עַל פִּי עֵד אֶחָד.
Deut 17:6 A person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he must not be put to death on the testimony of a single witness.[9]

The Problem of Ransom

Following the verse about witnesses, the chapter concludes with four verses (vv. 31–34) dedicated to the importance of ensuring that the murderer is punished:

במדבר לה:לא וְלֹא תִקְחוּ כֹפֶר לְנֶפֶשׁ רֹצֵחַ אֲשֶׁר הוּא רָשָׁע לָמוּת כִּי מוֹת יוּמָת. לה:לב וְלֹא תִקְחוּ כֹפֶר לָנוּס אֶל עִיר מִקְלָטוֹ לָשׁוּב לָשֶׁבֶת בָּאָרֶץ עַד מוֹת הַכֹּהֵן [נה"ש: הגדול]. לה:לג וְלֹא תַחֲנִיפוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם [נה"ש: ישבים] בָּהּ כִּי הַדָּם הוּא יַחֲנִיף אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְלָאָרֶץ לֹא יְכֻפַּר לַדָּם אֲשֶׁר שֻׁפַּךְ בָּהּ כִּי אִם בְּדַם שֹׁפְכוֹ. לה:לד וְלֹא תְטַמֵּא [נה"ש: תטמאו] אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם יֹשְׁבִים בָּהּ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי שֹׁכֵן בְּתוֹכָהּ כִּי אֲנִי יְ־הוָה שֹׁכֵן בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 35:31 You may not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of a capital crime; he must be put to death. 35:32 Nor may you accept ransom in lieu of flight to a city of refuge, enabling one to return to live on his land before the death of the [SP: high] priest. 35:33 You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. 35:34 You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I YHWH abide among the Israelite people.

While this section does not contradict the earlier sections, its emphasis is entirely different. The refuge city laws are dedicated to the problem of how to navigate the blood avenger, who will want to avenge the death of his kin whether the killer acted intentionally or not.

The compromise legislated is that if the person is a murderer, we allow the blood avenger to have his revenge, but if the killing was unintentional, we protect the person from the blood avenger by placing him in a protected city. The suggestion that the whoever is in charge (chieftains? the assembly? the blood avenger?) might take ransom to look the other way and allow the killer to go free comes out of nowhere. As these verses come after the verse about witnesses, which is clearly a later addition, it seems likely that these are an addition as well.

The Original Ending

Thus, the earlier ending to this set of laws came right after the rule for how long the manslayer needs to stay in the refuge city to remain safe:

במדבר לה:כח כִּי בְעִיר מִקְלָטוֹ יֵשֵׁב עַד מוֹת הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדֹל וְאַחֲרֵי מוֹת הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדֹל יָשׁוּב הָרֹצֵחַ אֶל אֶרֶץ אֲחֻזָּתוֹ. לה:כט וְהָיוּ אֵלֶּה לָכֶם לְחֻקַּת מִשְׁפָּט לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם בְּכֹל מוֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם.
Num 35:28 For he must remain inside his city of refuge until the death of the high priest; after the death of the high priest, the manslayer may return to his land holding. 35:29 Such shall be your law of procedure throughout the ages in all your settlements.

Indeed, verse 29 sounds like an ending, which it was.


July 28, 2022


Last Updated

December 18, 2023


View Footnotes

Prof. Itamar Kislev is professor of Hebrew Bible and Medieval Jewish Exegesis at the University of Haifa. His Ph.D. is from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Kislev’s book, On the Threshold of the Promised Land [Hebrew] was published last year.