And among the cities which you shall give unto the Levites there shall be six cities for refuge, which you shall appoint for the manslayer, that he may flee there: and to them you shall add forty and two cities.
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George Leo Haydock
Cities. Maimonides pretends, that all the forty-eight cities of the Levites were asylums; though only six were bound to receive the fugitive gratis. Moses had promised a place of refuge, which he now grants, Exodus xxi. 13. The altar and temple enjoyed the like privilege: the latter even till its destruction. (Philo)
Josephus mentions only six cities of refuge. Those who could not be supposed to have killed a person designedly, were not obliged to flee to them; as, on the other hand, the murderer was not permitted to enter, if his malice were notorious, or his negligence extreme. (Rabbins ep. Selden, Jur. iv. 2.) To be secured at the altar of holocausts, it was necessary to touch the grate. If the judges declared that the person's case was such as the law admitted, he was conducted away, under a strong guard, to one of the cities; or, if he were deemed unworthy, he was put to death, out of the holy place. The altar was commonly the refuge only of priests. Those who were not of Hebrew extraction, could not claim the rights of an asylum, according to the Rabbins. But the contrary seems to be asserted, ver. 15. The roads to the cities of refuge were to be kept in good repair, and in case more than six should be found necessary, three others might be appointed, Deuteronomy xix. 3, 8. This privilege is founded on the law of nature, which decrees that the life of the innocent man, who has had the misfortune to kill another, should not be taken away. Other nations extended this right to almost every crime, that the weak might have an opportunity of defending themselves. The sons of Hercules erected for this purpose the altar of mercy, at Athens. Some of the pagan temples could protect even the greatest criminals, as well as the innocent, who might fear oppression. Those of Apollo, at Delphos, of Bacchus, at Ephesus, were very famous. See Marsham, Chron. sæc. 13. Tiberius found it necessary to recall these privileges among the Greeks, as they were greatly abused. (Tacitus, An. iii. 6.) But his decree was not much regarded. The Romans had their asylums also, at Naples, where those who had been condemned to die, might be secure. Rome itself was an asylum for all strangers, as St. Augustine remarks, City of God i. The Christian emperors afforded the like privileges to our churches. But some who were guilty of the crimes of adultery, murder, heresy, were deprived of the benefit. (Calmet)
Those who fled to the altar among the Jews were first to be purified; (Philo) and if they had committed murder publicly, like Joab, they were dragged away, 3 Kings ii. (Tirinus)