The Slayer and the Avenger

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Cities of refuge were a safe haven for someone who killed another accidentally

Christians need to pay more attention to the Old Testament. There is something particularly wicked about ignoring 75% of God’s inspired, sacred and preserved Word. My brethren, these things ought not so to be! To that end, I will be posting a few occasional observations from the Pentateuch for the foreseeable future; a topic which I’m certain will not generate a great deal of excitement! I’ll begin with some brief comments on the “cities of refuge.”

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)

These are the infamous “cities of refuge,” which God commanded His people to establish once they crossed the Jordan River and completed their conquest of Canaan.

You can see that Moses commanded these cities be places where “every slayer may flee thither.” In this quaint phrase, we have the genesis of the modern category of “manslaughter.” When you compare different English translations, you get a good sense of how people have tried to communicate the nuance. William Tyndale, the ingenious linguist and father of English Bible translations, went with “murder.” The KJV, obviously, chose “slayer,” which is essentially the very same thing. NKJV, NASB and ESV each go with “manslayer.” The NET rendered it “one who kills another person.” The LXX[1] has the word φονευτῇ, which means killer or murderer.

At first bluish, it seems this passage (along with Numbers 35:6-14) establishes a divinely sanctioned projection zone for murderers! This doesn’t sound very appropriate; why would God do such a thing? Moses tells us . . .

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 (Deuteronomy 19:4)

Who, exactly, is a “slayer?” The Bible is quite clear that a “slayer” is somebody who kills a fellow covenant brother or sister[2] The key word here is “ignorantly,” which was imported straight from Tyndale. Other translations render this as unintentionally (NKJV, ESV, NASB, LEB), unwittingly (ISV) or, perhaps better, accidently (NET). The sense is that this killing was not premeditated; the victim cannot be somebody “whom he hated in time past.”

The human imagination has been dark and cruel since the fall, and surely Moses (and God!) could imagine a scenario where a bitter feud might turn deadly. God also knows full well that accidents happen in this cursed world; and that is the distinction in this passage. A man should not be put to death for accidently killing somebody else. This is precisely what is behind the modern legal distinctions between murder and involuntary manslaughter. Moses goes on to give a simple example to help the Israelites get the point:

As when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe 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 19:5-6)

You can easily imagine just this kind of scenario taking place. A man chops wood. His hand is sweaty, his grip slack, his mind and body dulled with fatigue. He’s not being careful. He raises the ax to smite an offending tree trunk, loses his grip, and the ax head buries itself in his companion’s skull. The man dies. This is the kind of scenario God has in mind.

Naturally, the victim’s family will be out for blood. If necessary, the man can flee to one of these cities of refuge for sanctuary. If he does not, he may well be killed by a relative out for revenge. Why are these cities of refuge even necessary? Because the man does not deserve to die; “he was not worthy of death.” He did not conceive, plan and execute a cold-blooded murder. He did not hate his fellow and want him dead. It was an accident.

This is an excellent example of how God instituted common-sense and practical laws which would allow His people to govern themselves as best they could in this “present, evil world” (Galatians 1:4) while serving the Lord (cf. Deut 6:4-5). This basic distinction is a key component of our modern legal system.


[1] The LXX, or Septuagint, is the Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew which dates from perhaps 200 B.C. and was the Bible the early church, including Jesus Christ, used and quoted from.

[2] See Numbers 35:15. This command covers more than just ethnic Israelites; it encompassed all covenant members of the Israelite nation. This means (a) Israelites, (b) foreign-born proselytes, and (c) a sojourner, a resident alien, or what the New Testament calls “god-fearers.” It is important to realize that the Mosaic Law and the Sinai Covenant which ratified it was never intended for simply ethnic Israelites. It was intended for all covenant people who came to saving faith in God and the promise of His coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. Incidentally, Moses just prophesied about Messiah in the previous chapter in this very book (Deut 18:5ff)!

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