Posted on July 23, 2014
This week's portion Masei includes the final chapters of the book of Numbers. In this concluding section of Bamidbar an important, and unusual, institution is created: the city of refuge.
In the days before police forces and criminal courts were common, justice in cases of manslaughter or murder was typically accomplished by the family of the victim. What we would consider vigilante action was the normal means of addressing the moral and social disruption created by a killing. If you killed someone, intentionally or accidentally, or even if the family of a person who was killed thought you had done the killing, you would likely be killed by their kinsmen. It was like the Hatfields and the McCoys: kill and you would be killed, then your family would avenge the killing, and the other family would respond in kind, and on and on it would go.
That meant that if you were involved in such a terrible situation, you had very little chance to stay alive, even if the killing was accidental—even if you were innocent. The wheels of justice might turn for you eventually, but if you were already dead in a revenge killing it wouldn't help much.