The notion of cities of refuge has classically been understood as a safe haven for one who has unintentionally caused the death of another human being. No doubt, in the case of accidental death, an individual may have needed to seek sanctuary from those who might wish to enact revenge (similar to the sanctuary that a foreign embassy offers its nationals today).
While protection is not an unreasonable interpretation for why these cities were created, it does not explain the unusual length of time that the individual must remain there: he must remain inside his city of refuge until the death of the High Priest (Numbers 35:28).
If a city of refuge is meant simply as a sanctuary, then why do we assume an arbitrary amount of “cooling off” before the killer is permitted to return home? What if the High Priest died the following day? Would the family of the dead be any less likely to seek revenge?
The commentator Sforno explains this conundrum by arguing that the city of refuge is not meant as a safe haven but rather as a punishment, with God determining the length of the “prison” sentence: “Since the cases of manslaughter may differ widely, some entirely removed from any foreseeable possibility, some close to carelessness, the time of banishment also differs widely . . . This is divine justice.”
As it is all but impossible for people to determine the level of intentionality in a manslaughter case, the city of refuge leaves the length of punishment in divine hands.
There is something so powerful about the Torah acknowledging this inability of humans to judge each other’s intentions in the case of manslaughter. Cities of refuge remind us today that while justice ultimately lies with God alone, human beings share joint responsibility with God for guarding the sacredness of human life and creating systems to both punish and protect it as much as is humanly possible.