Kedesh: The City of Refuge

“G-d spoke to Joshua saying…Prepare for yourselves the cities of refuge, about which I spoke to you through Moses, where a killer may flee – one who kills a person through carelessness, unintentionally…They designated Kedesh in the Galilee in the mountains of Naphtali (Joshua 20: 1-7)” 

Roman temple of Kedesh. It is estimated that the building was 11 meters (36 feet) high making it one of the largest in the land.
Photo Credit: Natalinasser – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

I have had the great privilege of publicizing sites in Israel that most people have never heard of. Today, we are visiting Tel (ancient) Kedesh, a site so hidden that most maps omit it.  Why?  Because few Israeli mapping experts and tour guides even know of its existence!  After reading this article, you will be among the select few to know of this Biblical treasure! 

The site (with it’s beautiful greenery) is almost always empty of visitors and noise pollution!
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Today, the ruins of Kedesh are less than 3 km’s (1.8 miles) from the Lebanese border. In fact, one of the roads leading there offers gorgeous panoramic views of Lebanon! 

View into Lebanon from a road near Tel Kedesh

Kedesh was originally a Canaanite city that Joshua conquered (see Joshua 12:22). Located in the territory of the Tribe of Naphtali (IBID 19: 37), it was made into one of the 48 Levite cities (IBID 21: 32).  

48 cities given to the Levites (Numbers 35: 1-8). Their tribe was selected by G-d to serve him in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (Numbers 8: 15-18).
Photo Credit: ReadingTheBible2020

Much can be said about this fascinating site, but what makes Kedesh extra special is that it is one of the Biblical cities of refuge (see Numbers 35 and Deuteronomy 19).  G-d instructed Moses to command that the Children of Israel put aside 6 cities; 3 in Israel and 3 in modern day Jordan, once their conquest of the land was complete.  

6 cities of Refugee including Hebron (see my previous article on it) .
Photo Courtesy of BibleStudy.org

These cities were designated as open-air prisons for one who negligently killed another accidently (according to Torah law, intentional murder is a capital crime, and the city of refuge would not help him).  When the accidental killing occurred, the perpetrator would flee to one of these 6 cities, where he was protected from the blood relatives of the victims who might want to get revenge.  His sentence was indeterminate, lasting until the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), at the time of his conviction, died.  Literally, if the high priest died the next day, the sentence terminated with it.  Conversely, if he died 50 years later, his sentence was accordingly 50 years.  

Many Roman sarcophagi (coffins) were found here. This one belonged to a wealthy nobleman.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

According to Torah law, the roads were required to have sufficient signage pointing in the direction of the city.  This was so that the person fleeing there could do so discreetly, lest he have to ask directions from someone who would prove to be a relative of the victim who would thus harm him. 

The purpose of the city of refuge was not only punishment, but rehabilitation.  Unlike in prisons today, where a person is separated from his family and housed with criminals (In many jails, even in first world countries, the only way to survive a sentence is by joining a violent gang), here a person’s family joined him, and he was provided a home rent free. He lived among the holy Levites (all 6 cities of refuge were also Levite cities), who spent their days learning Scripture & religious texts and serving in the Temple, in order that their good influence would rub off on him, making him a better person.  

Ruins of Ancient Kedesh. Much of the archeology is still underground, just begging to be re-discovered 

If the perpetrator learned in a Yeshiva (Torah academy), the whole Yeshiva moved with him in order for him to be able to continue his studies.  Why was it so important for him to be able to continue his studies as before?  The verse says “He shall flee to one of these cities, and live (Deuteronomy 19: 5)”.  Jewish tradition places a premium on the study of Torah as an essential component of life.  The purpose of the sentence was not to destroy his life, but while in “exile” he was to continue “living”.

In the 700’s BCE, Tiglath-Pileser III the King of Assyria, conquered the city and exiled its Jewish inhabitants to modern day Iraq (the exiled inhabitants of northern Israel, which included Kedesh, constitute the famous “Ten Lost Tribes”).  In its place were brought pagans from other parts of their empire (2 Kings: 15-19)”.

Assyrian Empire. Notice how Judah (in yellow) Miraculously was the only place Assyria never managed to conquer. For more on the open miracles: Jerusalem’s Hezekiah Wall.
Photo Credit: Nigyou – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

The city became an influential pagan city (the inhabitants of Kedesh were known for their hatred and harassment of Jews) until it was to be conquered between 145-143 BCE by the Maccabees (of Chanukah fame) and become Jewish once again.  In 63 BCE, the Romans annexed Israel and re-made this into a pagan city.  With the Muslim conquest of the region between 636-640 CE, the city ceased to exist and has laid in ruins ever since.

Even in it’s destruction, the ancient site has retained its beauty.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Though this site is little known, it can easily be incorporated into a larger itinerary or even to break up a long drive, allowing you to stretch your legs at a site which takes little time to experience (a good 20 minutes here is plenty).   On your next trip to Israel, it is certainly worth considering a visit to this storied Biblical treasure!

Nosson Shulman is a journalist and Licensed Tour Guide in Israel specializing in Biblical toursTo allow tourists to experience Israel during the Corona era, he created the new hit Israel tour video series which brings Israel to the home of viewers by simulating actual tours. (including Hebron). To check out his free sneak preview tour videos, click here. To view sample tour itineraries or to inquire about private tour opportunities with a personalized itinerary on your next trip to Israel, click here.

Nosson Shulman

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