Commentators divide in their assessments of both the inadvertent killer's degree of culpability and the worthiness of the institution of the blood avenger. These, in turn, have consequences for their perspectives on the character of the "עָרֵי מִקְלָט" and their laws. Some exegetes, like Abarbanel and Shadal, adopt a more literal reading of the Biblical verses and view the cities as coming almost exclusively to safeguard the unintentional murderer. Others, like the Tzeror HaMor and the Netziv, are more heavily influenced by the Talmudic discussions, and attempt to reinterpret all of the sources to reflect the guilt of the killer and his need for penitence. Finally, many exegetes take a compromise position combining elements of both options.
THIS TOPIC IS STILL IN PROGRESS
The cities are designated to serve as a refuge for the accidental killer, providing him with protection from the wrath of the blood avenger.
Evaluation of accidental killer – Abarbanel asserts that the killer is not deserving of punishment since he was an unwilling participant.2 The Torah, thus, does not wish to penalize him but rather shows him mercy and tries to protect him.
"וְהָאֱלֹהִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ" – According to Abarbanel and Shadal, this phrase connotes that the killing was happenstance and done without the knowledge or will of the killer, emphasizing his lack of culpability. Shadal suggests that the deed is attributed to Hashem, as are other unintentional acts, since He is the ultimate cause of all.3
Does the inadvertent killer "defile" the land? The commentators do not address the issue explicitly, but this approach could claim that the verses in Bemidbar 35:33-34 refer only to the intentional murderer. It is only his actions which contaminate the land and require atonement through blood, but not those of the unintentional killer.
"וְלוֹ אֵין מִשְׁפַּט מָוֶת" – the killer or avenger? Abarbanel maintains that this phrase from Devarim 19:6 refers to the inadvertent killer and not the avenger. The Torah is emphasizing the killer's innocence, and trying to ensure that the avenger does not slay an individual who is not deserving of the death penalty.4
Why are blood avengers allowed?
Concession to human nature – Shadal maintains that ideally there would be no institution of blood avenging at all, but at times the Torah makes concessions to human nature. Knowing that relatives of the deceased would not be satisfied in watching his killer go free, the Torah allowed them to pursue him while simultaneously protecting the killer by setting up cities of refuge.5
Blood avengers were wronged – Abarbanel asserts that though the unintentional killer is not viewed as a criminal by the court, he did nonetheless wrong the blood avenger in killing his relative (albeit accidentally). Thus, if the killer decides to leave the city of refuge, it is viewed as a contemptuous insult to the family of the deceased, making him undeserving of further protection.6
Why were the Levite cities chosen? Shadal maintains that the cities were chosen due to the holy nature of the Levites. One could also suggest that this is related to the custom in ancient times for Temples and other holy places to serve as sanctuaries7 for criminals.8
Multiple cities – Shadal points out that one city9 would not have sufficed to ensure that all killers could reach it in time. There needed to be cities dispersed throughout the land so that there would be one close enough to all residents.
Death of high priest – Rambam suggests that seeing misfortune befall another, especially one of greater stature, would serve to calm the relatives of the deceased who would no longer seek revenge. Abarbanel similarly asserts that the death of the beloved high priest would inevitably lead to introspection and the recognition of the fleeting nature of life, resulting in the abating of the avenger's anger.10
Prohibition to pay redemptive ransom – If the cities were solely for the protection of the killer, one would have thought that he should have the right to refuse such refuge if he so desired. This makes the prohibition of accepting ransom from the inadvertent murderer in lieu of his fleeing to the city of refuge difficult to comprehend. However, the Sifre BemidbarBemidbar 161About Sifre Bemidbar suggests that the verse actually refers not to the inadvertent killer but only to the intentional murderer who is prohibited from either simply paying ransom or paying ransom to be allowed to flee in order to escape death.11
Exile and Rehabilitation
The cities serve a punitive role, effectively becoming a mandatory exile for the killer until the attaining of atonement for the death he caused.
Meaning of "מִקְלָט" – Tzeror HaMor describes the cities as prisons, where the killer is enclosed "בעיר סוגרת ומסוגרת".12 This approach might suggest, as do some modern scholars13 that the root "קלט" means to shorten or narrow,14 and the cities are so called because they enclose the killer and confine his existence.
Evaluation of accidental killer – These commentators all view the accidental killer as one who is deserving of punishment (albeit not death) for his actions.
"וְהָאֱלֹהִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ" – According to the Bavli Makkot, the accidental killer is not merely Hashem's instrument through which He punishes another, but was chosen specifically because he himself was previously guilty of a similar crime but had not yet been held accountable.
Does the inadvertent killer "defile" the land? According to Tzeror HaMor, the verses in Bemidbar 35:33-34 apply not just to the intentional killer but to the inadvertent one as well. Anyone who spills blood and walks upon the land contaminates it.15 Only with the death of the culpable person will the land be placated.16
"וְלוֹ אֵין מִשְׁפַּט מָוֶת" – the killer or avenger? Netziv17 asserts that this phrase refers to the blood avenger and not the killer.18 The verse is saying that if he catches and slays the inadvertent killer, he will not be held accountable. This reading highlights the justice in punishing the accidental killer rather than emphasizing his innocence.
Why are blood avengers allowed? Since this approach views the unintentional killer as deserving of punishment, (and according to Tzeror HaMor the death even requires a blood atonement, a soul for a soul), it allows the blood avenger to seek his own vengeance.19
Why were the Levite cities chosen? Most of these commentators do not address the issue directly but the approach could suggest a variety of possibilities:
Levites as teachers and judges – One of the functions of the Levites was to teach the nation. As such their cities might have been chosen so that they could facilitate the rehabilitation of the killer. In addition, in their role as judges they might have been in charge of administering prisons and the like, these cities included.20
Prevent defilement of land – Tzeror HaMor suggests that the killer needed to be confined to certain cities so that he would not defile the rest of the land by walking upon it. He does not explain why these had to belong to the Levites specifically, but see R. Rivlin,21 who suggests that the Levite cities were not considered to be part of the inheritance of the land and as such were the only sites within Israelite borders22 which were able to tolerate the killer walking upon them.23
Part of Levite punishment – It is possible that the cities were given to the Levites only after already being designated as cities of exile for the killers, as part of the fulfillment of Yaakov's rebuke and punishment of Levi that he "will be divided amongst Israel."24
Multiple cities – If the city was mainly a means of punishing and rehabilitating the killer, one should have sufficed. Netziv suggests that the need for a plurality of cities was due to their secondary function as a refuge from the blood avenger.25
Death of high priest – Though these commentators differ in the details, most suggest that the event is somehow related to atonement or punishment for the killer's sin:
High Priest atones – Tzeror HaMor asserts that a murder or homicide can not be atoned except via "the blood of he who spilled the blood."26 Since the killer acted accidentally, he himself is not culpable enough to deserve capital punishment, so the death of the high priest acts as a substitute.27
Fair punishment – Seforno maintains that since there is varying culpability amongst inadvertent killers,28 defining a set amount of years for all killers to be in exile would have resulted in unfair punishment. Thus, Hashem leaves the duration of the killer's stay in His hands, as it is determined by the death of the priest,29 which is, in turn, decided by God.30
High priest and killer are opposite – The Sifre BemidbarBemidbar 160About Sifre Bemidbar31 suggests that while the high priest serves to lengthen one's life and causes the Divine providence to dwell amongst Israel, the killer does the opposite, and thus it would be inappropriate for him to be set free before the high priest.