Cities of Refuge


John C. Rankin (2014)

No Prisons

In the Law of Moses, the Levites are given six towns as “cities of refuge.” Like the Year of Jubilee ethic, this provides a remarkable psychological release valve within Israelite society.

Numbers 25:1-29 reads:

“On the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho, the LORD said to Moses, ‘Command the Israelites to give the Levites towns to live in from the inheritance the Israelites will possess. And give them pasturelands around the towns. Then they will have towns to live in and pasturelands for their cattle, flocks and all their other livestock.

‘The pasturelands around the towns that you give the Levites will extend out fifteen hundred feet from the town wall. Outside the town, measure three thousand feet on the east side, three thousand on the south side, three thousand on the west and three thousand on the north, with the town in the center. They will have this area as pastureland for the towns.

‘Six of the towns you give the Levites will be cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone may flee. In addition, give them forty-two other towns. In all you must give the Levites forty-eight towns, together with their pasturelands. The towns you give the Levites from the land the Israelites possess are to be given in proportion to the inheritance of each tribe: Take many towns from a tribe that has many, but few from one that has few.’

“Then the LORD said to Moses: ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: “When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, select some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that a person accused of murder may not die before he stands trial before the assembly.  These six towns you give will be your cities of refuge. Give three on this side of the Jordan and three in Canaan as cities of refuge. These six towns will be a place of refuge for Israelites, aliens and any other people living among them, so that anyone who has killed another accidentally can flee there.” ‘

“ ‘ “If a man strikes someone with an iron object so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. Or if anyone has a stone in his hand that could kill, and he strikes someone so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. Or if anyone has a wooden object in his hand that could kill, and he hits someone so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death. If anyone with malice aforethought shoves another or throws something at him intentionally so that he dies or if in hostility he hits him with his fist so that he dies, that person shall be put to death; he is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when he meets him.” ‘

“ ‘ “But if without hostility someone suddenly shoves another or throws something at him unintentionally or, without seeing him, drops a stone on him that could kill him, and he dies, then since he was not his enemy and he did not intend to harm him, the assembly must judge between him and the avenger of blood according to these regulations. The assembly must protect the one accused of murder from the avenger of blood and send him back to the city of refuge to which he fled. He must stay there until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil.” ‘

“ ‘ “But if the accused ever goes outside the limits of the city of refuge to which he has fled and the avenger of blood finds him outside the city, the avenger of blood may kill the accused without being guilty of murder. The accused must stay in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest; only after the death of the high priest may he return to his own property.” ‘

“ ‘ “These are to be legal requirements for you throughout the generations to come, wherever you live.” ’ ”

If a man were to kill someone accidentally, absent malice – as judged by his peers – he is not to be subject to the penalties for premeditated murder. He is allowed to flee to one of the cities of refuge, and live within its walls, free from blood vengeance from members of the dead person’s kin. If he were to leave the city, his protection is forfeit. But once the then serving high priest dies, he and all other refugees can leave with impunity, able to return to their families.

In the meantime, he is able to be an economic participant in the city life, and though this is a type of imprisonment, it is not the same as dehumanizing prisons in the world today where downward cycles of hopelessness take grip so readily. Rather, in a city of refuge, the man has hope for daily productivity, building healthy relationships, time to consider his folly or what led to the accidental taking of life, and emerge a better man for it. Society is bettered, vengeance averted, forgiveness more readily grasped in all directions, and thus a release valve for the whole social order in a broken world.

Is such an idea adaptable to our pluralistic nation today? There are over two million men and women in prison – half for non-violent and usually drug related crimes. I believe so. In my book, The Six Pillars of Honest Politics, I submit a proposed non-binding resolution for legislative consideration.


In order to address the relationship between drugs and crime, and to seek a restoration of civil order in this regard, we acknowledge the following truths as a general, representative and overwhelming pattern:

  1. It is the absence of responsible fathers which does the greatest evil to growing boys and girls, and this evil has disproportionate affect on the ghettos and its minority populations, especially among black Americans. A responsible father is a man who is committed to fidelity in marriage with one woman, and does everything in his power to love and honor his wife. He is thus a model for his children, so that they may also attain healthy marriages. And even when a marriage breaks down or was never in place, a responsible father still does everything in his power to love, provide for and be a model for his children.
  1. With such a breakdown in the historic family unit, many boys become functionally fatherless, and without a father to socialize them properly, they seek ersatz “families,” which those outside the ghettos call “gangs.”
  1. Coupled with high unemployment in the ghettos, fatherless boys have idle time and limited possibilities to earn money. Idleness leads to the pursuit of pleasure in wrong and escapist ways such as sexual promiscuity and getting high on alcohol and drugs. A cycle of despair is created which feeds on itself. And fatherless girls become the sexual adjuncts to promiscuous and abusive boys.
  1. Drug dependency is the result for many, and the market for illegal drugs produces an underground economy where gangs stake out various “turfs” they control in the selling of drugs. To protect their turfs, they obtain guns (usually illegally), and when turf wars occur, shootings, maimings and deaths result. In order for drug addicts to gain the money to purchase illegal drugs, prostitution and stealing multiplies, the crime cycle grows and reaches into the suburbs as well. But those in the suburbs have greater resources to avoid many consequences which the poor cannot.
  1. Because specific drugs are illegal or state-controlled, an international black market flourishes, driving up the price for such drugs, and in the process crime multiplies further in order to sustain and protect this black market.
  1. Because of these root causes and the interfacing and co-dependent cycles, about one-half of the U.S. prison population is incarcerated on drug charges or related crimes. Not only does this cost taxpayers greatly in terms of law enforcement, but the social and spiritual costs are very high as so many U.S. citizens are rendered unproductive, and unable to contribute to the common good.
  1. Thus, it is the poor and certain minorities who suffer disproportionately in this cycle, and justice cries out for a remedy to this escalating evil.

Accordingly, we affirm the following starting points in public policy, necessary to begin redressing the problem of drugs and crime.

  1. The support of the historic family unit, rooted in heterosexual faithful monogamous marriage and the raising of children, is the best deterrent to drug abuse and crime, and the best place for the healing of the drug and crime wounded.
  1. As determined by due process of law, specific drugs may be defined as illegal, but with the maximum penalty being a misdemeanor.
  1. All persons who use illegal drugs shall accept accountability for the consequences of their choices, and they shall in no way deprive others of life, liberty or property.



Another proposal can be made, and this is the actual establishment of cities of refuge. Take large cities such as Detroit or Los Angeles or Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., or a small city like my native Hartford, where there is urban blight and depopulation. Imagine if a certain neighborhood of two or twenty square blocks were set up as cities (within a city) of refuge.

Non-felonious and non-violent offenders in prison can be given option to study, work and prove themselves qualified to move to such a city of refuge in lieu of completing their incarceration. Each city of refuge would have its own economy, agriculture, industry, schools etc., and points of entry, like an ancient walled city, and where the reforming offenders would be monitored at the borders for the period of probation, but free within.

These cities of refuge, like the Israelite ones run by the Levites, could be already existing and/or “renewal” neighborhoods, and where the ministry of the Gospel, rooted in the economics of marriage, has full freedom (and in celebration likewise of religious liberty for all other interested parties that honor the rule of law). And thus, where the motivation to succeed and structural encouragement do so is in place.

This is a large topic with a thousand angles, but if we grasp the biblical oikonomia (“management of the family/household”), nothing is impossible.