According to Numbers 35:9–34, someone who had killed an innocent person intentionally was to be killed by an avenger of blood. However, someone who had killed an innocent person inadvertently was allowed to take up residence in a city of refuge where he (the legislation appears to be focused on males) would be shielded from being killed by this avenger. After the death of the high priest, the inadvertent killer could leave the city and return home safely.
This paper analyzes the six most common and substantial explanations for why an inadvertent killer could leave a city of refuge and return home after the death of the high priest, and shows why they cannot be correct. Another explanation is then offered, the basic elements of which are as follows.
An inadvertent killer was confined to a city of refuge in order to equalize the circumstances of the killer and his family/kin group with the circumstances of the victim and his family/kin group: specifically, the confinement of the killer in a city of refuge removed his presence and labor from his family/kin group just as the death of the victim had removed his presence and labor from his family/kin group. The legists behind Numbers 35:9–34, however, deemed it right and fair to limit the duration of that equalization to what the victim and his family/kin group had actually lost: the unfulfilled balance of the victim's natural lifespan. Since there was no way to know when the victim's natural lifespan would actually have come to an end, the legists availed themselves of the high priest's representational function, and used his death to represent when the natural death of the victim would have taken place. An inadvertent killer was, therefore, released from confinement after the high priest died, and his circumstances were normalized.