Joshua 20:1-6 (noting verse 6 in particular):

1 Then the Lord spoke to Joshua, saying, 2 "Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, 'Designate the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, 3 that the manslayer who kills any person unintentionally, without premeditation, may flee there, and they shall become your refuge from the avenger of blood. 4 He shall flee to one of these cities, and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and state his case in the hearing of the elders of that city; and they shall take him into the city to them and give him a place, so that he may dwell among them. 5 Now if the avenger of blood pursues him, then they shall not deliver the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor without premeditation and did not hate him beforehand. 6 He shall dwell in that city until he stands before the congregation for judgment, until the death of the one who is high priest in those days. Then the manslayer shall return to his own city and to his own house, to the city from which he fled.'"NASB

(See also the parallel passage in Numbers 35:24-25.)

What was the practical purpose behind waiting for the death of the high priest before the manslayer could go back to his home?

  • 1
    Can you specify what you mean? Your question is very broad and undefined. What about the passage do you find unclear?
    – user2910
    Mar 27 '17 at 0:10
  • 2
    The exact question has been asked on Mi Yodeya. I thought we had it here already, too, but can't spot a duplicate.
    – Dɑvïd
    Mar 27 '17 at 10:23
  • I'm not drawing a conclusion or answer from this but I thought I should mention that Rashi makes the following distinction in his comment on verse 6: "until he stand before the tribunal for judgment: If he be freed from exile he is dismissed. If, however, he is sentenced to exile, he is remanded to his refuge city, where he must dwell until the death of the High Priest." chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/…
    – Ruminator
    Nov 12 '17 at 20:40
  • @Dɑvïd - Yes, I agree that it is a duplicate - but the burden of proof is a little different here on this site. I believe we can provide textual bases for this, which would be very helpful for those who don't have a religious belief in the Oral Law - or reject it out of hand altogether. I will try to remember to write the explanation I was given - but I am a bit overwhelmed at the moment. Dec 13 '17 at 1:53
  • @elikakohen Did you note where I said: ...but can't spot a duplicate. ??? I was simply pointing to the same question on a different SE site.
    – Dɑvïd
    Dec 14 '17 at 16:48

10 Answers 10


The High Priest was a very important person in the nation of Israel , he also represented the people before God. His death was a big event and all the tribes were notified of it.

The Law under certain circumstances permitted revenge against the the man-slayer.

Numbers 35:25-28 " 25 The assembly must protect the one accused of murder from the avenger of blood and send the accused back to the city of refuge to which they fled. The accused must stay there until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil.

26 “‘But if the accused ever goes outside the limits of the city of refuge to which they fled

27 and the avenger of blood finds them outside the city, the avenger of blood may kill the accused without being guilty of murder.

28 The accused must stay in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest; only after the death of the high priest may they return to their own property". NIV

The law therefore acted as a deterrent to the man-slayer not to leave the boundaries of the refuge city he fled. It also reminded him that the blood he spilled was sacred.


Why the death of the high priest?

The Death of The High Priest is Jesus-Christ who Sheds His Blood to Restore

Cities of refuge were necessary only because men were not always loving enough to be able to forgive, even when they knew that the death was accidental. In essence, a city of refuge was a refuge from the carnally minded, the unloving, and the vengeful citizens of Israel. The New Jerusalem is also a city of refuge to which believers may flee in the face of an unloving, vengeful world.

Cities of refuge, then, play an important role in establishing justice and mercy as the foundation of Kingdom government.

In Numbers 35 a lengthier explanation is given of the cities of refuge. We read in verses 26-28,

“But if the manslayer shall at any time go beyond the border of his city of refuge to which he may flee, and the blood avenger finds him outside the border of his city of refuge, and the blood avenger kills the manslayer, he shall not be guilty of blood because he should have remained in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest. But after the death of the high priest, the manslayer shall return to the land of his possession.”

The term “blood avenger” needs clarification. The word for “avenger” is ga’al, which means a redeemer. The word is used to describe one who “redeems” justice and restores to the owner what is rightfully his. In this case, it is the state of peace or justice between disputing parties. The word “avenger” does not do justice to the term. It is simply the title of the parent or guardian or next of kin who is primarily responsible to represent the interests of an injured party and to see to it that justice or peace is established.

Once the high priest had died, however, the right of the blood avenger ended, and the manslayer was restored to his inheritance. Our high priest is now Jesus Christ. He is also our Kinsman-Redeemer. When He died on the cross, all who had fled for refuge were released into their inheritance. This is another example of how the law prophesies of Christ, for His blood satisfied the law’s requirement and ended the man slayer’s imprisonment. We have all been temporarily disenfranchised from our inheritance due to sin, but the death of the high priest (Jesus-Christ) releases all to return to their inheritance.

Overall, we see that accidental homicide carried a limited liability, due to the lack of hatred, but even that liability ended with the death of Jesus Christ, our high priest.

The city of refuge serves the same basic function as the death penalty itself. The death penalty imprisons the manslayer until the time of the Great White Throne, where our great High Priest judges all mankind in the context of His death on the cross which paid the penalty for the sin of the world. On the lesser scale, the manslayer is sent to a city of refuge, where he is held prisoner until the death of the high priest.

The calling of the redeemer of blood has been greatly misunderstood over the years because men did not understand the heart of God or the mind of Christ. When Christ came to show the heart of God by His example, He revealed His role as the ultimate redeemer of blood by His own death on the cross, not coming in the form of a prosecutor, but on behalf of the defendants. Hence, the first great example that we see is that a redeemer of blood primarily seeks to redeem and forgive, rather than to exact punishment.

The Hebrew word for redeemer is ga’al and is spelt (gimel-aleph- lamed). Gimel means a camel and signifies being lifted up, on account of a camel lifting up a load on its back. The last part of the word is aleph-lamed, which spells El, or God. Thus, a redeemer is “to lift up God.”

This was behind Jesus statement in John 3:14, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so, must the Son of Man be lifted up.” John 12:32, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”

Source: Dr Stephen Jones - God's Kingdom Ministries

The whole idea of the city of refuge was to atone for the sin of murder. That is the reason why the cities of the Levites were dedicated as shelters for the people that murdered unintentionally. It is rooted in the belief that the people of this particular tribe (Levi which included the priests and the Levites) have the power to atone for ones sins. Indeed we find the priests eating parts of the Chatat sacrifice to atone for the unintentional transgressions of the sinner. They were involved in other atonement rituals in the temple as well.

Taking this into account, we can say that the death of the high priest atoned for the sins of all the people that lived in the cities of refuge, being that he was the head of the tribe and represented them all, and the cities were all under his jurisdiction. His death was like a sacrifice that atoned for the sins of these people. And the murderer too was able to return home. Compare this to the ritual of the heifer described in Deuteronomy beginning of chapter 21.

  • "The whole idea of the city of refuge was to atone for the sin of murder." Does the text say that?
    – user17080
    Mar 27 '17 at 15:18
  • No. But see Makkot 2b.
    – Bach
    Mar 27 '17 at 15:27
  • There is nothing on Makot 2 that indicates the the city of refuge or even banishment itself (גלות) brings atonement (כפרה), although there is a lot about paying or not paying כופר. What particular words on the daf do you think mean this? In any event, there is nothing on the daf that brings a verse to support this idea, so it is not relevant to this forum.
    – user17080
    Mar 27 '17 at 16:37
  • See also Makkot 11b. There it says clearly that the death of the priest atones for his sins. This idea is pretty straightforward and is most prob also the original intent of this law.
    – Bach
    Mar 27 '17 at 23:37
  • 1
    @Bach Makkot isn't recognized as part of the canon of scripture. Can you provide information that is instead? I'm sure you know the Talmud well, but telling us so does nothing, nor does warning us to not start up with you qualify as credentials for your contributions. I am appreciative of information that further expounds upon the answer to this question.
    – Timmay_95
    Mar 29 '17 at 21:56

A basic answer is that God was making a connection between the High Priest of Israel and our Messiah Jesus that is the High Priest now. And through this connection an image and prophecy of Jesus the Messiah is made.

Jesus/Yeshua, was prophesied throughout the scriptures as the Messiah. These prophecies can be seen in word and action, those prophecies that appear in action we usually refer to as a "type of Christ". Our God/YHVH has been painting a clear picture of our Messiah since the beginning, in word and action, and the death of the High Priest mentioned in Josh. 20:6 is an example. Sometimes something appears in scripture that seems arbitrary, or doesn't seem to fit in the surrounding context, like the death of the High Priest in Josh 20:6. A closer look at passages like this will reveal that it is not arbitrary at all, that God had a specific purpose for including it. What does the death of the "High Priest" have to do with someone returning home from a city of refuge? A good question because the Priest did not accidentally kill anyone, and the death of the High Priest could not atone for the person that did accidentally kill someone.

It might appear the Law of the "cities of refuge" is leaving the Law requiring blood for blood unfulfilled. This is an example of an temporary and unfulfilled Law that Jesus came to fulfill. This was a Law left unfulfilled out of mercy and justice for someone that did not deserve to die. God's Laws cannot remain unfulfilled, however it this does not remain that way.

Law of blood for blood: Genesis 9:6 KJV Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. Exodus 21:12 KJV He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death. Leviticus 24:17 KJV And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death.

Law of cities of refuge: Numbers 35:11-15 KJV Then ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you; that the slayer may flee thither, which killeth any person at unawares. (12) And they shall be unto you cities for refuge from the avenger; that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment. (13) And of these cities which ye shall give six cities shall ye have for refuge. (14) Ye shall give three cities on this side Jordan, and three cities shall ye give in the land of Canaan, which shall be cities of refuge. (15) These six cities shall be a refuge, both for the children of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them: that every one that killeth any person unawares may flee thither. Exodus 21:13 KJV And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee.

Some explain that exile is a symbol of death in Scripture, remember because of murder Cain was punished by exile: Genesis 4:12 KJV When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. Genesis 4:16 KJV And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

And Adam and Eve were told :Genesis 2:17 KJV But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

They did die spiritually and were exiled as as a result: Genesis 3:23-24 KJV Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. (24) So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. (Side note: Adam, Eve and Cain, all were exiled "east".)

So the person that accidentally killed someone may have actually died symbolically by being exiled to a city of refuge. That may be accurate but it does not satisfy the requirement of blood for blood.

The Laws of blood for blood and cities of refuge are reconciled by our Messiah Jesus. Because Jesus is the High Priest now, and unlike the High Priest in Joshua's time he is able to die for the sins of a murderer, intentional and accidental. How many times have we said or heard that "Jesus fulfilled the Law"? Here is an example of a Law being fulfilled by Jesus. The death of the High Priest foretells of the High Priest Jesus the Messiah that died to fulfill all Laws and redeem those exiled.

The Law of cities of refuge teaches us about our present redemption and prophesies of our future home. Before we were redeemed by Jesus we lived in exile, now we are able to draw near to God. We are also expecting to leave this present city of refuge and enter our new home. Present redemption: Colossians 1:20-22 KJV And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. (21) And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled (22) In the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight:

Future home: Isaiah 65:17-19 KJV For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. (18) But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. (19) And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying. Isaiah 66:22 KJV For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, saith the LORD, so shall your seed and your name remain. 2 Peter 3:13 KJV Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. Revelation 21:1-2 KJV And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. (2) And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. [more......

The death of the High Priest allowing the return of the exiled serves to show us of the redemption that God has been preparing since the beginning.

  • 3
    The law in question was given in the 14th century BC. How do you think the Israelites and their descendants understood it during those 14 centuries? What was the logic of it then? That is the question.
    – user17080
    Mar 27 '17 at 16:49

1. Question Restatement:

Why do accidental killers go free, only after the Kohen Gadol dies?

2. Answer, Unconditional Advocacy is Sufficient to Bring Life:

Obviously, this answer does not represent "Oral Law", but other Jewish traditions.

The role of a Priest is often misunderstood - they were only ever Judges of last resort, and their primary role was advocacy.

It is incredibly significant that God ordained advocacy and mercy to be the final word in judgment.

This is one of those truths that "either clicks" in you, or doesn't. But - it is all over Scripture, and all of Scripture can be interpreted in view of God's precept that unconditional advocacy is sufficient to bring life. (Eve's advocacy for, (and not against), Adam in the Garden; Moses' advocacy for Israel from the mountain; Rahab's advocacy for spies; Samson's advocacy for Israel; David's advocacy on the threshing floor; Job being restored - only after he advocated for his friends; and on and on and on). The opposite of this truth is all over Scripture too: God will judge according to our own judgments - and if we judge with condemnation, then no right subsists for us to plead for unconditional mercy.

The Kohen Gadol was a part of the judgment, and fully aware of their responsibilities to advocate for a killer - for the rest of their lives. This is always what it meant to be a priest: unconditional advocacy.

And "life" was the value of their unconditional advocacy.

I don't even know where to begin providing Scriptural support for this - because it is literally all over the place - and ingrained absolutely in all priests, and a constant reminder through every blood sacrifice offered. But, let me know - and I will update to address any question/objection.


This is what I see in the Hebrew of Joshua 20:6

And he shall dwell in that city while he stands before the congregation for judgment, until the death of him who was high priest in those days. Then the man-slayer will return to his city and to his house ‒ to the city from which he fled.

Details: enter image description here

The existence of the cities of refuge was necessary because by Law a redeemer 1 was appointed to exact the necessary payment for a life that was taken. The cities of refuge then, were a safe-haven for an accused man until such time as his intent could be judged.

The terms of reference for such judgment are clearly set out in Numbers 35:

And they shall be unto you cities for refuge from the avenger; that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment.
-- Number 35:12 (KJV)

The man-slayer had to stay in the city of refuge until such time as it could be determined whether or not he had intentionally sought the slain person's death, i.e. whether or not he had taken an iron instrument (Numbers 35:16), or a stone (Numbers 35:17), or a wooden hand-weapon (Numbers 35:18) and "come presumptuously upon his neighbour" (Exodus 21:14) for the purpose of killing him.

Then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the revenger of blood ...
-- Numbers 35:24 (KJV)

Clearly, justice demanded that an innocent man should not be held indefinitely awaiting judgment. The onus was upon the congregation of the people to assist the redeemer to honestly 2 put forward a case for the man who was slain. If the congregation of the people could not bring forward sufficient evidence of murderous intent while the high priest was still living (presumably he was the one to whom the evidence was brought), then "The Law" itself judged the man innocent and ordained that he be released.


  1. גָּאַל (Strong's H1350 - ga'al) A family member who was given authority to make/exact payment on behalf of the family and God. In regard to murder, the Law states:

    So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.
    -- Numbers 35:33 (KJV)

    This, of course, is consistent with what God said to Noah after the flood:

    5And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man. 6Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.
    -- Genesis 9:5-6 (KJV)

  2. Without recourse to false witness (Exodus 20:16, Deuteronomy 5:20,19:15-21).

  • The problem I see in comparing this to the death of Christ is that the man-slayer, though having killed someone, is innocent of a crime because it was unintentional. But the way I understand it, Adam's sin was intentional, as he, unlike Eve, was not deceived. And if Adam's curse of receiving the death sentence passed on to all humans, then all humans were justifiably likewise condemned to death, for intentional sins of their own. Unless, of course, we're going to say that because Satan has deceived the whole world into sinning, then that makes us all not totally responsible for our sins. Oct 23 at 20:22
  • @CoryHaffly the man-slayer may or may not have been innocent. It was the function of the cities of refuge to allow the guilt OR innocence of the man-slayer to be determined by the "congregation" before the revenger of blood exacted payment under the law. If nothing could be determined one way or the other before the death of the high priest, the law itself declared the man innocent.
    – enegue
    Oct 23 at 20:51


Matot-Masei: Until the death of the high priest

...Enter the high priest. The fundamental duty of the high priest is to effect atonement for the people through ritual sacrifices. Atonement for the sins of individuals is accomplished by bringing, appropriately, a sin-offering. Significantly, the sin-offering is effective only for unintentional sins, as it says, “If any one shall sin through error” (Leviticus 4:2). Now, it would be incongruous to spill the blood of an animal to atone for the blood of a man, as the verse implies, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” Only the blood of man can atone for the blood of man.

One way this could be effected is through the “blood redeemer”, the individual tasked with killing the perpetrator if found outside the city of refuge. This is not ideal. Instead, it is the very blood of the high priest himself, I suggest, that ideally effects atonement. The man who atoned for the unintentional sins of the people all his life now provides atonement for the unintentional murderer in his death.


I, too, shared this link in a different response, for a differently worded, but related question. You might find it helpful:


Oct 8,2019 at 1021 hrs

Some pertinent quotes from the article:

Read Vern Poythress’s explanations about the different effects of the offering of our High Priest here:



We may return to the same conclusion that we reached before: the sacrifice of animals is inadequate to achieve final cleansing, nor can it cleanse anything more than the copies of heavenly things. Then who will bring the definitive sacrifice? A man must do it. A similar point is made indirectly in Num. 35:33-34: “Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it. Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the LORD, dwell among the Israelites.” When a man had shed blood, the man must die. But there is one exception, when the blood of the death of the high priest releases a manslaughterer to return home (Num. 35:25-28). The blood of the high priest has special value. In agreement with this principle, Zech. 3 uses all the symbolism of a defiled human high priest Joshua and then speaks mysteriously of the Branch in connection with which “I will remove the sin of this land in a single day” (Zech. 3:9).

The final atonement must be simultaneously like a sheep who dies and like the high priest who presents the sacrifice. This final high priest is described in Isa. 53 as the servant of the Lord. He presents his own body as a guilt offering (Isa. 53:10) and dies (Isa. 53:9). Like a sin offering where the body of the animal is carried outside the camp, he dies outside the camp (Heb. 13:11-14). Then he will “see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand” (Isa. 53:10). He will live again. As the high priest now living he goes through the rest of the steps in the sacrificial system. That is, he presents the blood of the sacrifice, his own blood (Heb. 9:12). The blood has already been poured out on the earth as he died, cleansing the ground itself. If we follow the images of Lev. 16 exactly, we would say that the blood is put first on the atonement cover, not this time in the earthly tabernacle but in the real one in heaven, the throne of God. Heaven itself is propitiated. Then blood is used to cleanse the whole “Tent of Meeting” (Lev. 16:16), standing for the whole of the visible heavens. Then the bronze altar is cleansed, standing for the earth (Lev. 16:18). Each cleansing is complete, signified by sevenfold sprinkling (16:14, 19). The whole universe is cleansed by the blood of his sacrifice (Rom. 8:20-21; Col. 1:20), but in stages: first heaven, then earth. Satan has been thrown out of heaven (Rev. 12:9-12). The full cleansing of earth yet awaits the time of Christ’s coming out of the most holy place in heaven and appearing bodily on earth.


These are the 2 reasons I thought of?! 1) the High Priest knows the court case, the next one may not! It’s his job to pray/intercede for people to make atonement! 2) having his sentence, banishment based on the length of life of another human, a spiritual advocate, places the length of his sentence in Gods hands, not fallible humans! 🤔

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    – agarza
    Mar 22 at 21:58
  • The fleer for refuge is not serving out a 'sentence'. he has committed no crime. Were he guilty, he would be punished by death. (In my view.) Welcome to BH and thank you for contributing.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 22 at 22:46
  • True, the fleer has committed no crime, but in a figurative sense he has, because in the vengeful mind of the avenger, he might as well have. So in a sense, it does become a sentence. Oct 23 at 19:59
  • If that was the case, that the succeeding priest would not know about the court case, then apparently written records were not kept about court cases? The original priest died, and all was forgotten? If this was God's original intention of how court cases be handled, then obviously our modern legal system has gone completely off the rails, if we would claim that our legal process derives from the Bible! Oct 23 at 20:08

I shared this link in a different response, for a differently worded, but related question. You might find it helpful:


Some pertinent quotes from the article:

"Jewish exegesis has offered several explanations for freeing the manslayer to return home after the death of the high priest. For example, Rashi (in accord with Sifre Numbers 160, p. 220), says, "Because of the contrast between the two; one defiles the people and the land, whereas the other purifies them. Therefore, it must be made impossible for the two to meet." In his second comment (based on Makkot 11a): "The high priest did not pray as he should have, that such a mishap not take place during his term of service." Rashbam, as well as Hizkuni, viewed it as a general pardon or clemency granted upon the death of the high priest and appointment of a new high priest, since they were in charge of the cities of refuge, which were among the levitical cities. Sforno viewed it as Divine Providence coordinating the death of the priest with the severity of punishment due the manslayers."

"Ibn Ezra aimed at the plain sense of the text when he pointed to the general role of the high priest in expiation. So we find in verse 33, at the conclusion of our Parasha (vv. 30-34), which sums up the general principles of manslaughter: "You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it." This verse is aimed primarily at one who murders intentionally-- the defilement that he caused his nation and his land can have no correction or expiation save through the death of the murderer. This is not out of vengeance, which is a matter between one person and another; but, as made clear by the commandments given the descendants of Noah, because injury to human life is like injury to the Creator, "For in His image did G-d make man" (Gen. 9:6)."

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