The laws of the Bible treat of the right of asylum in three passages.1 In Exodus 21:12-14, it is promised that the accidental homicide will have a place appointed for him for flight. The nature of this place is not further defined, it being clear only that it is other than the altar of YHWH which is referred to in verse 14. For that verse says that the murderer is to be taken away for execution even from the altar; evidently, then, the aforementioned place is not that altar.
Numbers 35:9-34 says nothing of the altar, but prescribes that six Levitical cities, three on each side of the Jordan, are to be appointed as asylums -- the term employed isטלק ת+ַ יע "cities of intaking" -- for the accidental homicide. The "assembly" -- a tribunal outside of the asylum -- tries the fugitive slayer, and if it finds him innocent of murder, it rescues him from the avenger and returns him to the city of refuge. There the slayer must remain until the death of the high priest. If he leaves the city before, he may be slain with impunity by the avenger. No ransom may be accepted from the slayer in lieu of his stay in the asylum.
The law of Deuteronomy 19:1-13 stresses the responsibility of the community to establish easily accessible asylums for the slayer, and keep murderers from enjoying immunity in them. Nothing is said of the Levitical character of the cities of refuge, or of the requirement that the slayer be detained in them until the death of the high priest.
The humanitarian purpose of these laws is obvious, and their aspiration to control vengeance by making it possible for public justice to intervene between the slayer and the avenger has long been recognized as an advance over the prior custom of regarding homicide as a