The law of Moses specified the death sentence for murder. However, not all killings are murder. All cases of suspected murder needed to be considered by the appointed judges before sentence was carried out. To avoid relatives taking revenge for the death of a family member a place of sanctuary was provided for the one deemed to be the cause of the fatality. These were cities of refuge.
These cities of refuge were selected from those cities that God allotted to the tribe of Levi:
6 “The cities which you shall give to the Levites, they shall be the six cities of refuge, which you shall give for the man slayer to flee to. Besides them you shall give forty-two cities.
The cities of refuge gave sanctuary for the man slayer until his case was assessed:
9 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the children of Israel, and tell them, ‘When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 then you shall appoint for yourselves cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the man slayer who kills any person unwittingly may flee there. 12 The cities shall be for your refuge from the avenger, that the man slayer not die until he stands before the congregation for judgement.
Criteria for assessing whether the killer was guilty of murder or accidental killing are detailed in verses 16 to 24:
16 “ ‘But if he struck him with an instrument of iron, so that he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall surely be put to death. 17 If he struck him with a stone in the hand, by which a man may die, and he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall surely be put to death. 18 Or if he struck him with a weapon of wood in the hand, by which a man may die, and he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall surely be put to death. 19 The avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death. When he meets him, he shall put him to death. 20 If he shoved him out of hatred, or hurled something at him while lying in wait, so that he died, 21 or in hostility struck him with his hand, so that he died, he who struck him shall surely be put to death. He is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when he meets him.
22 “ ‘But if he shoved him suddenly without hostility, or hurled on him anything without lying in wait, 23 or with any stone, by which a man may die, not seeing him, and cast it on him so that he died, and he was not his enemy and not seeking his harm, 24 then the congregation shall judge between the striker and the avenger of blood according to these ordinances.
The man slayer had to remain in the city of refuge, until the death of the high priest:
25 The congregation shall deliver the man slayer out of the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge, where he had fled. He shall dwell therein until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil.
Six cities were allocated as cities of refuge; three on the east of the Jordan and three on the west of the Jordan:
7 They set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath Arba (also called Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. 8 Beyond the Jordan at Jericho eastward, they assigned Bezer in the wilderness in the plain out of the tribe of Reuben, Ramoth in Gilead out of the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan out of the tribe of Manasseh.