Philo, the Torah, and the Invention of the Cities of Refuge

I have been reading Philo’s Special Laws I for my daily quiet time.  Philo of Alexandria was a first century C.E. Jewish thinker in Alexandria, Egypt.  He interpreted the Torah in light of Greek philosophy.

Sometimes when I read ancient interpreters, I wonder if their insights can inform modern biblical scholarship.  I was thinking this when I was reading Philo’s comments in Special Laws I:159 about the cities of refuge.

The cities of refuge were places where a person fled after committing manslaughter (which is unintentional).  There, he would be safe from any avengers of blood who were from the victim’s family and wanted to kill him.  These were cities that were given to the Levites for their habitation.  In P, Levites were assistants to the Aaronide priests.  In Deuteronomy, the Levites were priests themselves.  The cities of refuge are discussed in Numbers 35 and Deuteronomy 19.

Philo states the following about the cities of refuge in Special Laws I:159:

“For as it was not consistent with holiness for one who had by any means whatever become the cause of death to any human being to come within the sacred precincts, using the temple as a place of refuge and as an asylum, Moses gave a sort of inferior sanctity to the cities above mentioned, allowing them to give great security, by reason of the privileges and honours conferred upon the inhabitants, who were to be justified in protecting their suppliants if any superior power endeavoured to bring force against them, not by warlike preparations, but by rank, and dignity, and honour, which they had from the laws by reason of the venerable character of the priesthood.”  (C.D. Yonge’s translation.)

In the ancient world, Temples were often a place of asylum and refuge.  A person could flee there and be safe from apprehension.  We see such a situation in II Kings 2:28.  General Joab supported Adonijah rather than Solomon to become king of Israel.  Solomon becomes king, and Joab is afraid that Solomon will kill him.  Joab, therefore, runs to the sanctuary and clings to the horns of the altar.

Philo, however, seems to have problems with this practice.  For Philo, the Temple or sanctuary is too holy of a place to be a place of refuge, even for someone who took a person’s life unintentionally.  That, for Philo, is why there are cities of refuge for people who did that.  The cities of refuge could still be a shadow, in some sense, of the ancient practice of fleeing to a sanctuary for refuge.  After all, the cities of refuge are Levitical cities.  Philo says that these cities have inferior sanctity, which implies that they still have some sanctity.  And Philo believes that their priestly or Levitical association is significant: priests are using their status and position within the community to protect those seeking refuge from assailants.  Under the laws in the Torah about the cities of refuge, people can flee to somewhat holy cities for protection.  But they cannot go to the sanctuary for protection, for the sanctuary is too holy of a place for that.

That’s Philo’s opinion, but here’s a question: Could this be the reason that authors of the Torah came up with the cities of refuge in the first place?  The priestly author wanted to protect the sanctuary from ritual contamination.  Contact with a human corpse was a major source of such contamination (see Leviticus 21; Numbers 19).  Those closest to the sanctuary, the priests, were to be especially insulated from corpse contamination: they were subjected to heavier restrictions on touching a corpse than the average Israelite.  The idea could have been to affirm that God was a God of life, and thus his realm was to be kept separate from death.

Perhaps the authors of the Torah, such as P or H, believed, like Philo, that the sanctuary was too holy of a place for one who committed manslaughter to flee.  Therefore, they invented the cities of refuge.  The cities of refuge were a shadow of the ancient concept, but they were not identical with the ancient concept.  P or H would be transforming the ancient concept to protect the sanctity of the sanctuary.

I think that we may see similar trends in the Torah.  In my post here, I quote a passage from The Able Bodied: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies, by atheist biblical scholar Hector Avalos, Sarah Melcher, and Jeremy Schipper: “According to Johannes Renger, in ancient Mesopotamia people afflicted with a disease or a disability would often end up working at the temple, because their immediate family could no longer take care of them” (page 81).  In ancient Mesopotamia, people with disabilities or diseases worked at the Temple.  Such a practice would arguably be abhorrent to certain authors of the Torah.  Leviticus 21:17-24 prohibits people with certain disabilities to approach the altar of God, while allowing them to eat the bread of God.

Certain authors of the Torah believed that God’s sanctuary needed to be associated with perfection (at least as much as possible).  Due to this conviction, they may have consciously rejected the practice at Mesopotamian Temples of allowing people with disabilities to work there.  Could we be seeing something similar with the cities of refuge: the Torah authors are rejecting the common ancient idea that Temples could be a place of refuge, out of their convictions about the holiness of the sanctuary?

I should be careful, though.  As I talk about in my post here, we do see examples outside of Judaism or ancient Israelite religion of people trying to protect their Temples from corpse contamination.  I do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient rituals.  Plus, maybe the idea that I am shooting around here has already been discussed within biblical scholarship.  It’s still a question to ask, though.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Bible, Daily Quiet Time, Religion, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.