In Biblical times, the “unintentional murderer” faced a peculiar fate. Though he had committed a capital offense, his crime did not carry a formal death sentence. If, however, a relative of his victim (known as the “go’el ha-dam,” or “blood-redeemer”) were to execute the murderer outside of court, that relative faced no legal consequence. Only by fleeing to one of the nation’s six arei miklat, or “sanctuary cities,” could the assailant gain refuge from the go’el.
The laws governing this scenario are recorded in the latter half of this week’s second parshah:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, so that a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, so that the slayer may not die until there is a trial before the congregation. The cities that you designate shall be six cities of refuge for you: you shall designate three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. These six cities shall serve as refuge for the Israelites, for the resident or transient alien among them, so that anyone who kills a person without intent may flee there (Num. 35:9-15).
Of special interest is the location of the sanctuary cities, which the Torah provides a few verses earlier:
The towns that you give to the Levites shall include the six cities of refuge, where you shall permit a slayer to flee, and in addition to them you shall give forty-two towns (Num. 35:6).
What might be the rationale for placing all six sanctuary cities under the administration of one particular tribe? On this point, the Sefer Hachinnuch offers two explanations:
The tribe of Levi was from the select of the tribes and prepared for the service of the House of God… And because of the greatness of their stature and the fitness of their deeds and the ‘grace of their worth,’ their land was chosen over the lands of the other tribes to shelter any one that kills by mistake—maybe their land that is sanctified with their holiness would atone for him. And there is another reason in the thing: Since they are people of known [character] in virtues of disposition and respected wisdoms known to all, they would not loath the killer being saved with them and they would not touch him; and even if he would kill one of their friends or redeemers (Sefer Hachinnuch 408).
According to the Sefer Hachinnuch, the Levi’im were chosen to steward the sanctuary cities because, as the nation’s spiritual leaders, they could be relied upon to treat the murderer with tolerance and compassion, and might even influence his ability to achieve atonement. This is an insightful interpretation, and it accounts well for the issue at hand.
Yet perhaps we can add another layer. For when we consider carefully the role played by the Levi’im to this point in Biblical history, we discover that the members of this tribe stood out not only as the nation’s spiritual leaders, but also as its most prominent avengers. That is: No less than four times throughout the Torah do we find the tribesmen of Levi taking justice into their own hands, by taking the lives of those deemed deserving of death.
In parshat Vayishlach, Levi himself—the tribe’s eponymous patriarch—joins forces with Shimon to execute the inhabitants of Shechem, after its prince abducts their sister:
Now it came to pass on the third day, when the [residents of Shechem] were in pain, that Jacob’s two sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took his sword, and they came upon the city with confidence, and they slew every male. And Hamor and his son Shechem they slew with the edge of the sword, and they took Dinah out of Shechem’s house and left (Gen. 34:25-26).
In parshat Shemot, Moshe—also a Levi, you will recall—executes an Egyptian whom he spots beating a Hebrew slave:
Now it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers. He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand (Exod. 2:11-12).
In parshat Ki Tissa, Moshe leads the entire tribe of Levi in executing those who worshipped the golden calf (Exod. 32:25-29).
As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain… And Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. He said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’” The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.” (Exod. 32:19-29).
Finally, in parshat Balak, Pinchas—yet another Levi—executes Zimri, the chieftain of Shimon, and Cozbi, a Midianite princess, after the two consort together in plain sight of Bnei Yisrael:
Then an Israelite man came and brought the Midianite woman to his brethren, before the eyes of Moses and before the eyes of the entire congregation of the children of Israel, while they were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Phinehas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest saw this, arose from the congregation, and took a spear in his hand. He went after the Israelite man into the chamber and drove it through both of them; the Israelite man, and the woman through her stomach, and the plague ceased from the children of Israel (Num. 25:6-8).
To realize this trend is to stumble upon the great irony inherent in the institution of the arei miklat. On the one hand, these sanctuary cities effectively served to combat the culture of blood vengeance prevalent throughout the Ancient Near East. On the other hand, those responsible for running these cities—those tasked with discouraging the practice of extrajudicial execution—were none other than the nation’s most prevalent extrajudicial executioners!
But that may be precisely the point. As bnei Yisrael transitioned from a series of nomadic tribes into an independent nation, with a country, king and judiciary of its own, it was critical for them to forego the practice of vigilante justice with which they had become so accustomed. In the desert, perhaps, this practice served to maintain a sense of moral order. In a political state, however, it would only undermine the rule of law and destabilize the nation’s governmental institutions.
And so the case of “blood redemption”—the lone vestige of vigilantism enshrined in Biblical law—fell to the Levi’im to preside over. Nobody empathized better than the Levi’im with the sense of righteous indignation which overcame the go’el ha-dam as he chased the unintentional murderer to the boundary of the ir miklat. In an earlier age, these Levi’im routinely acted upon similar indignation, and were even celebrated as heroes for doing so. Now, though, they championed a different path. Upon crossing into the land of Canaan, they more than anyone else modeled what it meant to sacrifice a measure of axiological autonomy in the name of the collective regulation; what it meant to weigh personal conscience against public interest, to constrain principle by procedure, and to declare—for themselves, and to all those who looked to them for ethical instruction—that, in civil society, justice is best left to the courts to dispense.
So leave the murderer alone, they would plead with his avenger. Resist the urge to right the wrong as you see fit. In truth, perhaps, he ought to be executed. Nonetheless, let his punishment suffice with exile—for there may in fact be no better way to secure our own continued presence upon this land.
Note: This article is based upon a more detailed shi’ur originally presented at Cong. Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, New Jersey; for access to the source sheet, please click here.
 Noteworthy, too, is the fact that Moshe finds himself forced to flee to Midian once his deed is discovered. Perhaps this prefigures, in some way, the experience of the sanctuary cities.
 There is, of course, tremendous irony here, as many others have already noticed: whereas Levi and Shimon had previously joined forces to retaliate against the perpetrators of a sexual crime, it is now a descendant of Levi (Pinchas) who retaliates against a descendant of Shimon (Zimri) for the very same category of crime.
 Perhaps this transition is reflected in Moshe’s parting blessing to the Levi’im at the end of the Torah (Deut. 32:8-11). On the one hand, Moshe acknowledges that there shall remain reserved for the Levi’im a sphere of extrajudicial authority even within the new political order (“Your Tumim and Urim belong to Your faithful servant”), and he praises the vigilantism which they practiced by casting aside familial ties to execute those who worshipped the golden calf (“he did not recognize his brothers or acknowledge his own children, but watched over Your word and guarded Your covenant”). On the other hand, Moshe contrasts their past role as extrajudicial executioners with their future responsibility of educating towards law and order (“He shall teach Your precepts to Jacob and Your law to Israel”), and leaves it to Hashem alone to avenge their enemies moving forward (“Bless all his skills, Lord… Strike down those who rise against him, his foes till they rise no more”).
 Our theory may also offer insight into the ritual of eglah arufah, over which the Levi’im officiate in the aftermath of an unsolved murder (Deut. 21:1-9). Several details of this ceremony evoke the earlier sin of the golden calf (chet ha’egel), including the taking of a “calf” (ע.ג.ל); the setting of the ritual by a “wadi running with water” (compare with Moshe’s act of “scattering into the water” the ground remains of the golden calf); the breaking of its “neck” (ע.ר.ף—compare with the charge of “stiff-neckedness,” קשה ערף, leveled at b’nei Yisrael following their worship of the golden calf); the call for divine “atonement” (כ.פ.ר); etc. [Compare also the act of “measuring” the distance from the corpse to the closest “surrounding city” (ומדדו אל הערים אשר סביבות החלל) with the “measuring” (ומדותם) of distance “surrounding” (סביב) the “cities” (לעיר/הערים) of the Levi’im, as part of establishing those cities/the arei miklat (Num. 35:4-5).] Perhaps the procedure of the eglah arufah is structured as a reversal-of-sorts for the incident of the golden calf. In the aftermath of chet ha’egel, the Levi’im perpetrated the greatest act of extrajudicial execution in the history of the Torah—an act which was viewed, at the time, as a way of “dedicating their hands for the Lord” (Exod. 32:29). Now faced with an unsolved murder, however, these same Levi’im must publicly declare, in good conscience, that “our hands have not spilled this blood” (Deut. 21:7; c.f. Rashbam, Ramban ad. loc.): they must ensure that this bloodshed was not inspired by the instincts which they let loose decades prior—and that, lacking the means to resolve this murder judicially, none shall succumb to the temptation of doing so through the exercise of extrajudicial vigilantism for which they themselves were once heralded.