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God promises to appoint cities of refuge for those who accidentally killed their brethren.

Exodus 21:12-13 NASB

[12]"He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. [13]But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee

We know that after their had conquered the transjordan cities they set aside three cities for that purpose and another three after crossing the Jordan

Joshua 21:21,27,32,36,38

[21]They gave them Shechem, the city of refuge for the manslayer, with its pasture lands, in the hill country of Ephraim, and Gezer with its pasture lands, [27]To the sons of Gershon, one of the families of the Levites, from the half-tribe of Manasseh, they gave Golan in Bashan, the city of refuge for the manslayer, with its pasture lands, and Be-eshterah with its pasture lands; two cities. [32]From the tribe of Naphtali, they gave Kedesh in Galilee, the city of refuge for the manslayer, with its pasture lands and Hammoth-dor with its pasture lands and Kartan with its pasture lands; three cities. [36]From the tribe of Reuben, they gave Bezer with its pasture lands and Jahaz with its pasture lands, [38]From the tribe of Gad, they gave Ramoth in Gilead, the city of refuge for the manslayer, with its pasture lands and Mahanaim with its pasture lands,

All this took place some forty years after their wanderings in the wilderness.

But what happened to the manslayer during those forty years of wandering in the wilderness?

  • Before that, Darwin's "rule of the wild" reigned. The avenger of blood, i.e., the blood relative of the casualty was given free reign to kill the murderer and avenge the blood of his brother even if he was killed by accident. That is when Mosaic law stepped in and said, 'enough!' It abolished lawlessness and created cities of refuge to save innocent people from bloodshed! – Bach Feb 20 '19 at 15:08
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Actually, there were six cities of refuge, Kedesh, Shechem, Kiryat-Arba, Bezer, Ramot-Gil'ad, and Golan. Three on each side of the Jordan.

There is no recorded example of such an incident during the 40 years in the wilderness, (at least not one that I can recall). However, I would suggest that the tabernacle would have served as such a place of refuge. This would seem to be supported by the incident of Adonijah in 1 Kings 1. Adonijah feared Solomon so he ran to the tabernacle and laid hold of the horns of the altar until he could appeal to the king. The laying hold of the horns of the altar for the one who had accidentally killed a man would have been his sanctuary of safety against the avenger of blood until the matter could be heard by the high priest.

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It seems that the principle of the "city of refuge" existed prior to Sinai, as indicated by the instance of Cain. We know Cain struck and killed Abel, but the fact that God "set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him" (Genesis 4:15) and let him flee to the east suggests that it was accidental (done in the heat of anger, without premeditation). One might also find it significant in this context that Cain built a city for himself (Genesis 4:17).

As suggested by OldHermit, the tabernacle likely served in that capacity to an extent among the children of Israel until the Levitical cities were founded.

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