Walter Brueggemann: Cities of Refuge?

From of old the land of Canaan had an economy organized in exploitative ways. This economy was a tributary system whereby the wealth produced by agricultural peasants trickled up to the numerous “city-states” and their “city-kings.” The city-states were governed by “kings” whose authority reached as far into the hinterland as their power allowed. The result was an enriched, empowered “urban elite” who clustered around the king and who benefitted from wealth that trickled up. The “down side” of such trickle up in a tributary system is that the agricultural peasants survived on a subsistence level, not enjoying the benefit of their produce. This arrangement was taken as “normal” as long as the city-kings could prevail.

That system, however, was severely and effectively challenged by a revolt among the peasants. That revolt, legitimated and authorized by YHWH, the Lord of emancipation, turned out to be the emergence of the covenantal community of Israel that worked to overthrow the Canaanite tributary system. Over time “Israel”—the peasant revolt”—gained ground and took control of more and more territory, even though the Israelite scriptures honestly report that in many places the covenantal peasants “did not drive out” the Canaanites. (Note that repeated refrain in Judges 1:27-33.)

The transfer of land away from the tributary system to a covenantal arrangement is reported in the two great interpretive traditions of ancient Israel, the Priestly and the Deuteronomic. While these two traditions contain much later imaginative material from the time of their writing, it is credible to conclude that they also contain authentic memories of the time of the “land transfer.” In these two interpretive traditions it is clear that Israel not only seized control of some of the land, but that Israel intended that the land (now “the land of promise”) should be organized and managed very differently. The Priestly tradition intends (and remembers) that the land is to be newly organized in order to maintain the holiness of Israel that is commensurate with the holiness of YHWH:

You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy (Leviticus 19:2).

Conversely, the Deuteronomic tradition intends (and remembers) that the newly acquired land is to be organized around neighborly justice that is commensurate with YHWH’s will for justice:

Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Deuteronomy 16:20).

For good reason these two interpretive traditions diverge from each other in quite remarkable ways, given their very different interests and agenda. As a consequence they offer two very different versions of the character of Israel and of the intent of YHWH, the Lord of the peasant revolt.

Both of these interpretive traditions, however, stress that the covenantal administration of the land (now “of promise”) is to be quite in contrast to the predatory ways of the Canaanite tributary system. My purpose here is to call attention to the fact that both interpretive traditions, for all of their difference, advocate for and legitimate a most remarkable practice, namely, the designation of “cities of refuge.” In the Priestly tradition, the founding of “cities of refuge” is carefully delineated (Numbers 35:9-28). The text provides for six such cities to which a person may flee for protection if that person has caused an accidental death:

But if someone pushes another suddenly without enmity, or hurls any object without lying in wait, or, while handling any stone that could cause death, unintentionally drops it on another and death ensues, though they were not enemies and no harm was intended, then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the avenger of blood, in accordance with these ordinances; and the congregation shall rescue the slayer from the avenger of blood. Then the congregation shall send the slayer back to the original city of refuge (vv. 22-25).

These verses are in the context of a prospect for swift, severe punishment for anyone who is a murderer. But noteworthy is the care taken to protect the innocent who are vulnerable in a society that is fiercely bent toward vengeance and retaliation. Such a person receives protection from the community to be kept safe from unwarranted vengeance and violence.

The same provision is offered in Deuteronomy 19:1-9 (see also 4:41-43). The place of safe refuge is on offer for someone who “unintentionally” kills another person when there is no enmity between them. This provision on the lips of Moses lines out an illustrative case in point:

Suppose someone goes into the forest with another to cut wood, and when one of them swings the ax to cut down a tree, the head slips from the handle and strikes the other person who then dies; the killer may flee to one of these cities and live (v. 5).

As is characteristic in the Book of Deuteronomy, the specific practice is linked to the wider community in two ways. First, this specific requirement of cities of refuge is linked to the larger covenantal norm of Deuteronomy:

…provided you diligently observe this entire commandment that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God and walking always in his ways… (v.9).

Second, the concern of the provision, in the end, is not the protection of an individual, but rather the purity of the land, that it not be polluted by “bloodguilt”:

…So that the blood of an innocent person may not be shed in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, whereby bringing bloodguilt upon you (v. 10).

In this Deuteronomic commandment, as in Numbers 35 in the Priestly tradition, this provision for cities of refuge is in the context of fierce judgment against intentional killing:

Show no pity; you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may go well with you (v. 13).

Thus in both interpretive traditions, provision is made for “cities of refuge” that protect the innocent who are vulnerable. A third reference to such cities of refuge is voiced in Joshua 20:1-9 that brings the subject closer, in Israel’s narrative memory, to Joshua’s control of the land. In quite concrete ways, Israelite “land management” is very different from that of the exploitative Canaanite system that offered no chance to participate in a neighborly covenant, that had no interest in protection of the vulnerable, and that was not worried about “bloodguilt” violating the land. Thus the subsistence peasants who reordered the land in covenantal ways had in purview more than the protection of wealth. They had in mind a viable neighborly community in which the neighbors looked out for each other, and especially looked out for the vulnerable who had no resources with which to protect themselves. 

It may indeed be that both of these two commandments that set aside cities of refuge are not more than visionary acts of imagination that were not in fact implemented in reality. We do not know; but we do know that Israel’s constituent character led to such a visionary possibility that refused to give in to the predatory practices of the antecedent Canaanite exploitative economic system. We note, moreover, that this visionary possibility is not an appeal to charity or good will; it is a matter of a Torah commandment that is constituent of a covenantal community. It is commanded! No doubt there were those who insisted that real estate, especially urban real estate, is too valuable to use up in such a generous way. The Torah, however, is insistent and uncompromising in its  protection of the vulnerable, even if that protection requires appropriation of valuable real estate to be utilized for such protective policies.

The interpretive extrapolations we might make from these Torah provisions are rather obvious. The lesson of these two pieces of Torah is that the covenantal community, as a community of neighbors, has an obligation to make specific and generous provision for our vulnerable neighbors who are at the mercy of an exploitative economic system. In order to test the urgency of such provision in our own time and place, we need only make an inventory of all the vulnerable among us who lack the means of self-protection. This list is familiar to us:


children and young people, 

old people, 

people of color, 

gay people, 

disabled persons, 


poor people.

This is the list of people, via “race, class and gender,” who live outside the protective hegemony of white males.

The predatory system of American capitalism is something of a rough parallel to the exploitative system of ancient Canaan. In both cultural constructs, there is a trickle-up of wealth based and reliant on the practice of cheap labor. The theological question of neighborliness becomes the economic question of how resources are to be allocated to provide protection, security, dignity, and wellbeing for the vulnerable who too often bear the “stigma” of being ”unproductive.” One does not need to be a “liberal” or a “progressive” to conclude from these Torah provisions that the resources of the community must be organized for such protective initiatives as cities of refuge.

In my home town we have a “shelter” for people whom we designated as “homeless.” It is called Safe Harbor; Safe Harbor is a night shelter during the cold months for as many as 120 persons. It is backed and staffed by volunteers, church people and others. Our church’s part of this effort is led by the indefatigable intrepid Jane Lippert who brings her wisdom, passion and energy every day to the task in which she is joined by many others. It is a specific refuge of care, but it is minimal for people who lack resources and who are vulnerable on many counts. It is inadequate for our community. What is needed and required is a broad-based public policy that accepts responsibility for all of the neighbors, that is properly financed, and that is administered with generative, compassionate attentiveness. We designate the guests at Safe Harbor as “homeless.” But we might do better to refer to such needful persons as “displaced” persons, as persons who have no “place” of safety and wellbeing in the larger community that is geared to the “productive” who contribute to the common good of the community. To be “dis-placed” –that includes all those in the inventory just above—is to have no place of belonging. These Torah provisions offer a “place” of safety and wellbeing to such persons. On reading these Torah texts, we might pay attention to the many different ways in which persons in our society are displaced, living without a safe place. And we might consider how it is that such persons who are our neighbors may come to a safe place, that is, to a Safe Harbor.

But of course the predatory system of Canaan has a long, durable shelf life in “the land of promise.” The exploitative ways of Canaan (overcome in part by Israelite covenantalism) continued to be available among the Israelites. It is for sure that Israel “did not drive out” Canaanite ways and Canaanite assumptions. Those ways and assumptions lingered amid Israel’s covenantalism. It is evident, moreover, that Canaanite ways were soon reiterated by the monarchy of Solomon who is perhaps the greatest “Canaanite city-king” who was completely committed to the usurpatious ways of Canaan. (Thus see I Kings 10:14-22 on Solomon’s avarice.)  In I Kings 2, we are told that Solomon seized for himself the royal throne in violent ways and without the luxury of public acclamation. His ascent to power was an inside job accomplished through ruthless violence. On his way to the throne he followed the counsel of his father David, and killed Shimei who had cursed the king:

Then the king commanded Benaiah son of Jehoiada; and he went out and struck him down, and he died (I Kings 2:46).

In like manner he disposed of his brother Adonijah who was his rival for the throne.

So Solomon sent Benaiah son of Jehoiada; he struck him down, and he died (I Kings 2:25).

But the most illuminating episode of such violence on the way to power concerns Joab, the faithful military commander of David. David had, in ironically careful ways, instructed Solomon to do away with Joab:

Act therefore according to our wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace (v. 6).

 Fearful for his life, 

Joab fled to the tent of the Lord and grasped the horn of the altar (v. 28).

The altar was the final and most secure “safe harbor” for the vulnerable who could not protect themselves. Solomon, nonetheless, is unblinking in his violent determination and does not hesitate. He accuses Joab of bloodguilt concerning Abner and Amasa, two deaths that Joab accomplished in his loyalty to David. Solomon readily issues one more death sentence. He orders his hatchet-man, Benaiah, to seize Joab from the altar. Benaiah willingly obeys his would-be king:

Then Benaiah son of Jehoiada went up and struck him down and killed him. And he was buried at his own house near the wilderness (v. 34).

This action of Solomon and Benaiah is nothing less than the invasion of a place of safe security. (The reiterated death sentence at the hands of Benaiah sounds not unlike the parade of ruthless violence in the vendetta of The Godfather.)  It would be like intruding violently into a city of refuge. Or invasion into a Safe Harbor. There is no safe place from the aggression of avarice, Canaanite or capitalist, for the vulnerable who lack the means and resources for protection. It turned out that even in Israel, no one was safe from the shameless drive to seize control and exercise domination.

In a lesser maneuver, Solomon declined to kill the priest who had backed his rival for the throne; Solomon exiled the long-running high priest of David, Abiathar (I Kings 2:26-27). In his act of exile, he puts the old priest on notice:

I will not at this time put you to death (v. 26).

The phrasing, “at this time” must have endlessly echoed in the heart and mind of the old priest. If not now, then when?

Taken in sum, these several actions of Solomon, narrated in sober repetition, let us see in the tradition of Israel the continuing contestation between two economic systems, one that provides protective care for the vulnerable and the other that will stop at nothing on its violent way to wealth, power, and control. That deep contradiction runs through the flow of biblical tradition.  And of course it runs through our own contemporary life. There is an exploitative system of economics that is powerful in our public life that subordinates all else to the greater accumulation of money and power. That system receives political and legal cover from the leverage and control that such greed exercises in our political life. The seizures of the vulnerable by this system are slower, less obvious, and less dramatic than that done by Solomon and Benaiah. But the outcomes are too often the same, the doing in of the vulnerable. Alongside that powerful enterprise is a counter-theme of shared wellbeing that includes the generous economy of a neighborly community. The tension between the two is fierce and unending, and the forces of concentrated money and resolved greedy power always seem to prevail. But the ancient provision for “cities of refuge” witnesses to an alternative. It is the alternative that must be re-engaged and re-embraced among us. That is the proper business of the covenanted community, the proper engagement of the church. The predatory system is always seizing vulnerable persons from safe places and displacing them. But the old advocacy of the Torah for otherwise persists. And we church people are among its heirs, heirs who continue to provide safe places and resist the predatory power that still echoes the old Canaanite city-kings. We may indeed wonder: why is it that these verses are never heard in church?


Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.



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