What important role did the cities of refuge play in the life of ancient Israel? Why did God command Moses (Exodus 21:12 - 14, Numbers 35:9 - 34, Deuteronomy 19:1 - 13), and then Joshua (Joshua 20), to set them up in the Promised Land? Where were these cities located and who lived in them?
A little background is needed before we delve into discussing the cities of refuge. One of the main reasons why the Eternal saved the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage was to fulfill his promise to Abraham that his descendants would live in the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:7, 15:18, 17:8). Seven years after the Israelites, under Joshua, entered the Promised Land it was divided up amongst the tribes by lot (Joshua 14). The priestly tribe of Levi, however, did not receive an expanse of territory in Canaan as God was their inheritance (see Numbers 18:20, 26:62, Deuteronomy 10:9, 18:1 - 2). They were given forty-eight cities throughout Canaan in which they could live and maintain the knowledge of God among the people. Six of these locations were designated as a place of refuge.
Three of the cities where refuge could be received were west side of the Jordan River and three were east of it. Those on the west were Kedesh (in the land of Naphtali), Shechem (in the western part of Manasseh's inheritance) and Hebron (in the land of Judah). Those on the east were Golan (in the land of Bashan), Ramoth-Gilead (in the eastern part of Manasseh's inheritance), and Bezer (in the land of Reuben). They were strategically chosen so that anyone living in Israel, including strangers (Joshua 20:9), could flee to them in a day or less.
"Corresponding to the care for the proper location of these (asylum) cities were the other ordinances referring to them. The roads leading to them were marked by sign-posts at the crossroads, with the inscription "Miklat" (Refuge); the roads were very broad . . . smooth and level, in order that the fugitive might not be hindered in any way" (article on Asylum from 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia)
Why were they created?
The Bible acknowledges that accidents are a part of the life and that they sometimes, unintentionally, take the life of a human. For example, while men are cutting down trees, an axe head breaks and fatally wounds someone (Deuteronomy 19:5). An accidental shove, a thrown object or the dropping of a stone can also cause the unfortunate death of a person (Numbers 35:22 - 23). In the United States, and other countries, this loss of life is considered manslaughter.
Scripture also recognizes that there are also times when someone is killed "with malice," meaning that they perish at the hands of someone who hates them. The person who strikes someone with a lethal weapon such as a piece of iron, stone or wood was considered a murderer (Numbers 35:16 - 18). Anyone who lies in wait and kills someone (premeditated) is also guilty of murder (Deuteronomy 19:11 - 12, Numbers 35:20 - 21).
Upon entering one of the cities of refuge a person had to first explain, to local elders, what happened (Joshua 20:4). They were then given a place to stay until a trial could be conducted (Numbers 35:12). The city guaranteed the safety of those seeking asylum (at least until a decision was rendered) against being killed in retaliation by the "avenger of blood" (Joshua 20:3). This "avenger" was usually the nearest kin of the person who died. It was their duty to revenge the death of their family member.
9. These were the appointed cities for all the children of Israel, and for the stranger who was living in their midst, that he who had killed anyone without knowing might flee there and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, until he stood before the congregation (Joshua 20:9, HBFV).
Consequences of killing a human
Those who killed were entitled to a fair trial involving a "congregation" or "assembly" of Israelites (Numbers 35:12, 24, Joshua 20:6) and the revenger of blood (Numbers 35:24). At least two witnesses were needed to convict someone of murder (Deuteronomy 19:15, Numbers 35:30).
If it was determined that the accused accidently caused the death of another human they could live, protected, from the "avenger of blood" only if they stayed in the place of refuge. They could only safely return to their home after the death of the High Priest (Joshua 20:6). If they left before the priest died, they risked being killed by the "avenger" who could kill them, outside of the cities of asylum, without penalty (Numbers 35:26 - 28).
If the accused was convicted of murder, they were turned over to the avenger of blood. The avenger was then to carry out the death penalty (Numbers 35:19, 21, Deuteronomy 19:12). Those who killed, either accidently or with malice, were not allowed to pay a ransom to avoid the consequences of their behavior (Numbers 35:31 - 32).