Numbers 35, Joshua 20, and Deuteronomy 4:41–43 record the appointment of six Levitical cities as ‘cities of refuge’ to ensure that if there was an accidental killing, the accused killer could flee to one of these cities and be protected from the menace of the ‘avenger of blood’, living there until the death of the high priest, after which he was free to return to a normal lifestyle.
These provisions were a significant improvement on the prior tradition of blood vengeance, or the duty of the closest relative of a murdered victim to avenge the murder. Where this tradition maintained that the relative had the right to slay the accused with impunity, regardless of whether the accused was actually culpable of murder, the cities of refuge brought to light the extenuating circumstances of the accused so that he might be considered innocent of murder.
In a setting where the accused was essentially rendered ‘faceless’, his identity defined entirely by one tragic occurrence, the cities were opportunities for justice. They were places of hospitality and rehabilitation, looking beyond the stigma. They were places for face-to-face encounter.
All three artworks under consideration here play with the notion of face-to-face encounter. While each uses the encounter to highlight different aspects of the refugee experience in today’s socio-political climate, they also serve as a fitting analogy for considering the provisions of the biblical cities of refuge from the perspective of sanctuary-seekers.
Carlo Gianferro’s photograph, for example, conveys the self-imposed anonymity of a sanctuary-seeker living outside the protection of the cities of refuge. It captures a moment in the life of Gjion Biamishtea, an accidental killer who now lives in isolation for fear of retribution from the victim’s family, not unlike blood vengeance in ancient Israel. However, this portrait frustrates our attempts to empathize with Biamishtea and his circumstances. Most of the identifying features of his face are quite literally obscured by wisps of smoke. Whatever shame, anxiety, guilt, or fear he may be feeling can only be hinted at through his eyes which, ironically, look down and away. We are confronted with a nearly faceless ‘killer’.
By contrast, Monica Lundy’s painting Béla Lugosi places its subject’s face in full view. Here we see a representation of the possible heights a sanctuary-seeker may achieve with the supports available to him in one of the cities of refuge. The portrait commemorates the life and accomplishments of Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, an American immigrant who became a Hollywood icon. Its monumentality, conveyed both through its silver backdrop and its extreme close-up of Béla’s confident expression, belies its smudgy quality and small scale. We could interpret this portrait as signifying the difficulties and seeming insignificance Béla endured as an immigrant in the United States, but it is also an evocative expression of his accomplished stardom as a result of the efforts he and others expended to enable him to prosper in his new setting.
Ai Weiwei’s immersive sculpture Arch differs from Gianferro’s and Lundy’s portraits in that it did not have a face as part of its structural composition. Instead, visitors encountered their own faces reflected in the embrace of two human silhouettes as they passed through the sculpture’s opening.
Through this face-to-face encounter, Arch placed its visitors under a scrutiny which resembles the requisite process sanctuary-seekers went through to be admitted into the cities of refuge. The sculpture may not have conducted a trial to determine whether visitors were innocent of murder, but it did provoke a reflective examination which might have awakened those passing through its middle to consider the question of belonging—who belongs here and to whom does this city belong? The same question lay behind the deliberations at the gates of the cities of refuge.
In both the trial at the city gates and the reflective examination at the sculpture, however, the willingness to accept the other was emphasized. Residents in the cities of refuge, most of whom were not accused killers, were charged to welcome the ‘stranger and the sojourner’ into their communities (Numbers 35:15). Much in the same way, Arch held welcoming the stranger at its centre. The faces visitors encountered in the mirror of the sculpture’s embracing figures prompted them to see sanctuary-seekers not as faceless ‘illegals’ amassed at fences and gates, but as persons like themselves, with loved ones, fears, hopes, dreams, and aspirations, entitled to all the amenities that would allow them to flourish as members of their own communities.
Bagelman, Jennifer J. 2016. Sanctuary City: A Suspended State (New York: Palgrave Macmillan)
35 The Lord said to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, 2“Command the people of Israel, that they give to the Levites, from the inheritance of their possession, cities to dwell in; and you shall give to the Levites pasture lands round about the cities. 3The cities shall be theirs to dwell in, and their pasture lands shall be for their cattle and for their livestock and for all their beasts. 4The pasture lands of the cities, which you shall give to the Levites, shall reach from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits all round. 5And you shall measure, outside the city, for the east side two thousand cubits, and for the south side two thousand cubits, and for the west side two thousand cubits, and for the north side two thousand cubits, the city being in the middle; this shall belong to them as pasture land for their cities. 6The cities which you give to the Levites shall be the six cities of refuge, where you shall permit the manslayer to flee, and in addition to them you shall give forty-two cities. 7All the cities which you give to the Levites shall be forty-eight, with their pasture lands. 8And as for the cities which you shall give from the possession of the people of Israel, from the larger tribes you shall take many, and from the smaller tribes you shall take few; each, in proportion to the inheritance which it inherits, shall give of its cities to the Levites.”
9 And the Lord said to Moses, 10“Say to the people of Israel, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. 12The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment. 13And the cities which you give shall be your six cities of refuge. 14You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. 15These six cities shall be for refuge for the people of Israel, and for the stranger and for the sojourner among them, that any one who kills any person without intent may flee there.
16 “But if he struck him down with an instrument of iron, so that he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. 17And if he struck him down with a stone in the hand, by which a man may die, and he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. 18Or if he struck him down with a weapon of wood in the hand, by which a man may die, and he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. 19The avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death. 20And if he stabbed him from hatred, or hurled at him, lying in wait, so that he died, 21or in enmity struck him down with his hand, so that he died, then he who struck the blow shall 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 stabbed him suddenly without enmity, or hurled anything on him without lying in wait, 23or used a stone, by which a man may die, and without seeing him cast it upon him, so that he died, though he was not his enemy, and did not seek his harm; 24then the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood, in accordance with these ordinances; 25and the congregation shall rescue the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge, to which he had fled, and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. 26But if the manslayer shall at any time go beyond the bounds of his city of refuge to which he fled, 27and the avenger of blood finds him outside the bounds of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood slays the manslayer, he shall not be guilty of blood. 28For the man must remain in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest; but after the death of the high priest the manslayer may return to the land of his possession.
29 “And these things shall be for a statute and ordinance to you throughout your generations in all your dwellings. 30If any one kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses; but no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. 31Moreover you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death; but he shall be put to death. 32And you shall accept no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the high priest. 33You shall not thus pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of him who shed it. 34You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people of Israel.”
41 Then Moses set apart three cities in the east beyond the Jordan, 42that the manslayer might flee there, who kills his neighbor unintentionally, without being at enmity with him in time past, and that by fleeing to one of these cities he might save his life: 43Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland for the Reubenites, and Ramoth in Gilead for the Gadites, and Golan in Bashan for the Manasʹsites.
20 Then the Lord said to Joshua, 2“Say to the people of Israel, ‘Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, 3that the manslayer who kills any person without intent or unwittingly may flee there; they shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood. 4He shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city, and explain his case to the elders of that city; then they shall take him into the city, and give him a place, and he shall remain with them. 5And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the slayer into his hand; because he killed his neighbor unwittingly, having had no enmity against him in times past. 6And he shall remain in that city until he has stood before the congregation for judgment, until the death of him who is high priest at the time: then the slayer may go again to his own town and his own home, to the town from which he fled.’ ”
7 So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphʹtali, and Shechem in the hill country of Eʹphraim, and Kirʹiath-arʹba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. 8And beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, they appointed Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland, from the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead, from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan, from the tribe of Manasʹseh. 9These were the cities designated for all the people of Israel, and for the stranger sojourning among them, that any one who killed a person without intent could flee there, so that he might not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, till he stood before the congregation.