Back in the day, in the Old Testament after God freed the children of Israel from Egypt and led them to where present day Israel is now, the Israelites were told to conquer the land given to them and build their cities and new lives there.
So before they got to cross over the Jordan river, God told them specific things. One of those things involved the towns of the Levites (who were the special tribe of Israel to be priests for the people). Of the Levite cities, six of them were to be "cities of refuge".
Deuteronomy 19: 1-3 "When the Lord your God has destroyed the nations whose land he is giving you, and when you have driven them out and settled in their towns and houses, 2 then set aside for yourselves three cities in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess. 3 Determine the distances involved and divide into three parts the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, so that a person who kills someone may flee for refuge to one of these cities."
Deuteronomy 19: 8-10 " If the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as he promised on oath to your ancestors, and gives you the whole land he promised them, 9 because you carefully follow all these laws I command you today—to love the Lord your God and to walk always in obedience to him—then you are to set aside three more cities. 10 Do this so that innocent blood will not be shed in your land, which the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance, and so that you will not be guilty of bloodshed."
What were the Avengers of Blood?
The Old Testament says that the avenger of blood (also translated as "kinsman-redeemer" (Ru 3:9) or "Redeemer" (Ps 19:14)) is someone chosen from among the nearest living relative of a murdered person to avenge their death and kill the killer. (Lev 24: 17, Nu 35:16- 28)
(Numbers 35: 16-21) 16 “‘If anyone strikes someone a fatal blow with an iron object, that person is a murderer; the murderer is to be put to death. 17 Or if anyone is holding a stone and strikes someone a fatal blow with it, that person is a murderer; the murderer is to be put to death. 18 Or if anyone is holding a wooden object and strikes someone a fatal blow with it, that person is a murderer; the murderer is to be put to death. 19 The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death; when the avenger comes upon the murderer, the avenger shall put the murderer to death. 20 If anyone with malice aforethought shoves another or throws something at them intentionally so that they die 21 or if out of enmity one person hits another with their fist so that the other dies, that person is to be put to death; that person is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when they meet.Which works out okay when the murder is actually a murder, but what about the people who accidently killed someone? Well God thought of that too.
The cities of refuge were built so that
Joshua 20: 3" 3 so that anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood."
Deuteronomy 19: 4-7 " This is the rule concerning anyone who kills a person and flees there for safety—anyone who kills a neighbor unintentionally, without malice aforethought. 5 For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life. 6 Otherwise, the avenger of blood might pursue him in a rage, overtake him if the distance is too great, and kill him even though he is not deserving of death, since he did it to his neighbor without malice aforethought.7 This is why I command you to set aside for yourselves three cities."
Choosing the cities.
Numbers 35: 6- 15 says "6 “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. 7 In all you must give the Levites forty-eight towns, together with their pasturelands. 8 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.”9 Then the Lord said to Moses: 10 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, 11 select some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. 12 They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that anyone accused of murder may not die before they stand trial before the assembly. 13 These six towns you give will be your cities of refuge. 14 Give three on this side of the Jordan and three in Canaan as cities of refuge. 15 These six towns will be a place of refuge for Israelites and for foreigners residing among them, so that anyone who has killed another accidentally can flee there."
Joshua 20: 7-9 "7 So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. 8 East of the Jordan (on the other side from Jericho) they designated Bezer in the wilderness on the plateau in the tribe of Reuben, Ramoth in Gilead in the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan in the tribe of Manasseh. 9 Any of the Israelites or any foreigner residing among them who killed someone accidentally could flee to these designated cities and not be killed by the avenger of blood prior to standing trial before the assembly."How did the cities work?
Joshua 20: 1-6 "Then the Lord said to Joshua: 2 “Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses, 3 so that anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood. 4 When they flee to one of these cities, they are to stand in the entrance of the city gate and state their case before the elders of that city. Then the elders are to admit the fugitive into their city and provide a place to live among them. 5 If the avenger of blood comes in pursuit, the elders must not surrender the fugitive, because the fugitive killed their neighbor unintentionally and without malice aforethought. 6 They are to stay in that city until they have stood trial before the assembly and until the death of the high priest who is serving at that time. Then they may go back to their own home in the town from which they fled.”Joshua 20, Dueteronomy 19, and Numbers 35: 6-34 all speak of the cities and how they are to function, and because a lot of it is spread across those verses and I'm sure you don't want to read all of it, I'll just summarize it my best here.
So basically, if the killer was innocent, they could flee to the nearest city of refuge closest to them. Once they reached the city's gates (provided the avenger of blood didn't catch up with them first), they could go to the elders of the city at the gates and state their case to them. If the killer is innocent, the elders weren't suppose to hand over the killer to the avenger before the killer had stood trial. And being found guilty, was to stay there in that city until the high priest at that time had died., because if the avenger ever found him outside the cities gates before then, he could kill the innocent man. But after the high priest had died he could return home.
But if the killer wasn't innocent, and they got to the city of refuge, the elders of that city were to hand the killer back to their own city from which they came from where the avenger of blood could kill them for their crime.
But how did the elders decide if one was innocent or not? First the elders heard both cases between the avenger and the accused. Then Numbers 35: 30 tells us that the murder could only be killed if there was a testimony of witnesses, and it couldn't have been just one witness, there had to be more. Numbers also tells us that the elders weren't to accept bribes to either let the killer live if he was guilty or to send the innocent one back to his city before the high priest had died.
So when you think about it...
This actually sounds like it could be turned into a pretty interesting story. Which is what I've decided to do for a newest plot bunny. The story is going to be told from the POV of this girl Maryam who's to be married to this boy, Gideon. Well Gideon's twin attacks Maryam and she kills him in self defense. Since it looks like a murder, Gideon becomes his brother's avenger of blood and has to go after her. So she has to flee to the nearest city of refuge before he gets to her.
Numbers 35: 6-34