Are Sanctuary Cities the new Cities of Refuge?

February 5th, 2019 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 12 comments

During Biblical times there were cities of refuge. In America today there are sanctuary cities which have been based on the cities of refuge.

What were the ancient cities of refuge and what type of criminals were allowed to live there? Is our current system of sanctuary cities anything like those mentioned in the Bible?

Some cities and states favor sanctuary cities and others don’t, thus bringing division in America. What do you think about this?

Lynda M. 

Dear Lynda,

Basing today’s sanctuary cities in the United States on the Biblical cities of refuge is a bit like suggesting that the American and French revolutions in the 1700s were alike. It is a far and not very supportable stretch.

The Biblical cities of refuge (Deut. 4: 41-43) were not havens for criminals. They were specifically meant for the innocent person who had accidentally and unintentionally taken a life. The classic example given is a man chopping a tree when his axe-head flies off and hits another man a few feet away. He did not intend to murder his fellow worker, he wasn’t intentionally careless in fashioning his axe, but nonetheless, the result is a dead human being.

The city of refuge is an amazing concept. While the “murderer” wasn’t guilty of a crime, the Bible is revealing an awareness of two things. One, that it would be immensely painful for the family of the dead man to watch his killer walk around living a normal life while they were bereft. Secondly,  that in a time and place where God’s Hand was more evident and more visibly and immediately responsive than it is now, although the man wasn’t guilty of murder, for some reason he was chosen as the vehicle of death. For a reason only known to God and not actionable by a human court, he was not randomly put in the situation, rather deliberately placed there by an unfathomable Divine decree.

The city of refuge meant that he could live a full life in freedom, but in a certain type of exile. The move there shielded him from ill will from the dead person’s family, protected that family emotionally and also stirred things up in his life prodding him to reassess and improve his ways.

Scripture records two instances of fugitives seeking sanctuary by clutching the altar; Adoniahu (I Kings 1:50) and Joav (I Kings 2:28).  Both were removed forcefully from the sanctuary.  The Bible does not endorse providing refuge for wrong-doers. (This is not to say that all illegal immigrants are necessarily bad people. However, automatically shielding those who break a reasonable and moral law, in this case that a country is allowed to use law to control entry to her shores, has no Biblical precedent.)

In conclusion, there is no basis for building a Biblical case for today’s sanctuary cities on the concept of the cities of refuge.

And, finally, though you probably already know this, we’ll mention that the French revolution was intensely anti-religious and ushered in a long period of murderous tyranny.  The American revolution was fueled by Christian fervor preached from church pulpits and ushered in hundreds of years of freedom and prosperity the likes of which had never before been seen on this planet.

Thanks for being a questioning and educated citizen,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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Joyce R. says:

Beautifully put. I have not seen a better explanation of the purposes of the cities of refuge. As an attorney, I have always appreciated how much of our law is based on Biblical models. I am sometimes surprised that the founding fathers failed to make provision for truly Biblical cities of refuge here when they used Scripture to model so much of civil society.

Susan Lapin says:

Thank you, Joyce. We have to say we were taken aback when we checked into it and found that Lynda was correct that the cities of refuge were being used as a justification for sanctuary cities.
Those cities of refuge could only work while Israel was completely under Biblical rule. There are no such cities in modern Israel let alone around the world.

Lynda Miller says:

I wanted to thank you for answering my question about the cities of refuge. What were some of the cities during the Old Testament that were cities of refuge? One thing that I have learned from watching your program is how wonderfully God has provided to help us with all sorts of problems in life. That message of God’s provision for His people is a common thread to “Ancient Jewish Wisdom!”Thanks for a great program that expands the parameters of my thinking about the true meaning of scripture!

Susan Lapin says:

Lynda, my husband and I love hearing from the people who wrote the question in the first place. There isn’t room here to write more about the cities of refuge but there is quite a bit about them in Deuteronomy and other places in the Bible. And now, you can search online!

Tim Redmond says:

Brilliantly explained, making a clear distinction of a healthy civilization vs one that breeds chaos. Thanks Rabbi Daniel and Susan!!

Susan Lapin says:

Tim, chaos seems to be what many are intent on breeding today. Thanks for writing.

Jeremy Ramsey says:

Well stated.

Susan Lapin says:

Glad you liked it, Jeremy.

Shaun says:

Every day when I read your answers to readers’ questions I become
More enlightened! Thank you!

Susan Lapin says:

What a nice thing to say, Shaun. We get enlightened by the questions and comments as well.

Bonnie says:

Love the show ask the rabbi especially Susan she is the best and wish tct allowed you more time 30min is not enough just as you are really getting Into the topic time is up

Susan Lapin says:

We do sometimes get shocked at how the time runs away from us, Bonnie. Thanks for watching.

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