Gamla: One of the Six Biblical Cities of Refuge


By Joe Bartling

Exodus 21:13 and 14 provides the first mention in the Hebrew Bible about a place of asylum or refuge because of causing an unintentional death of another:

“And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver [his neighbor] into his hand; then I will appoint you a place whither he shall flee. But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbor to slay him with deceit; you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.”

Numbers 35:9-15 discusses the subject of establishing “cities of refuge”:

9 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 then you shall select for yourselves cities to be your cities of refuge, that the manslayer who has killed any person unintentionally may flee there. 12 The cities shall be to you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the manslayer will not die until he stands before the congregation for trial. 13 The cities which you are to give shall be your six cities of refuge. 14 You shall give three cities across the Jordan and three cities in the land of Canaan; they are to be cities of refuge. 15 These six cities shall be for refuge for the sons of Israel, and for the alien and for the sojourner among them; that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there.

After crossing over the Jordan and leading the children of Israel into the promised land, Joshua conquered towns and villages, and he established “cities of refuge” according to the instructions in the Torah.  Three of these cities, Kedesh, Shechem, Kiriat-Arba were located west of the Jordan River, in other words, in the land of Canaan.  The other three, Golan, Ramot Gilead, and Bezer were located east of the Jordan River.

Joshua 20 reads as follows:

1 “The Lord also spake unto Joshua, saying, 2 Speak to the children of Israel, saying, Appoint out for you cities of refuge, whereof I spake unto you by the hand of Moses: 3 That the slayer that killeth any person unawares and unwittingly may flee thither: and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood. 4 And when he that doth flee unto one of those cities shall stand at the entering of the gate of the city, and shall declare his cause in the ears of the elders of that city, they shall take him into the city unto them, and give him a place, that he may dwell among them. 5 And if the avenger of blood pursue after him, then they shall not deliver the slayer up into his hand; because he smote his neighbour unwittingly, and hated him not beforetime. 6 And he shall dwell in that city, until he stand before the congregation for judgment, and until the death of the high priest that shall be in those days: then shall the slayer return, and come unto his own city, and unto his own house, unto the city from whence he fled. 7 And they appointed Kedesh in Galilee in mount Naphtali, and Shechem in mount Ephraim, and Kirjath–arba, which is Hebron, in the mountain of Judah. 8 And on the other side Jordan by Jericho eastward, they assigned Bezer in the wilderness upon the plain out of the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead out of the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan out of the tribe of Manasseh. 9 These were the cities appointed for all the children of Israel, and for the stranger that sojourneth among them, that whosoever killeth any person at unawares might flee thither, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, until he stood before the congregation.”

This land east of the Jordan, included in the vast region called Bashan, was given to Manasseh and settled by two of his sons, Jair and Kenath, as described in Joshua 13:29-31

“Moses also gave an inheritance to the half-tribe of Manasseh; and it was for the half-tribe of the sons of Manasseh according to their families. And their territory was from Mahanaim, all Bashan, all the kingdom of Og king of Bashan, and all the towns of Jair, which are in Bashan, sixty cities; also half of Gilead, with Ashtaroth and Edrei, the cities of the kingdom of Og in Bashan, were for the sons of Machir the son of Manasseh, for half of the sons of Machir according to their families.”

It is my theory that Gamla is the location of the refuge city called “Golan” in this verse.  I make this observation for several reasons.  Gamla meets all of the descriptions in the Biblical text, it is east of the Galilee, it is in the region known as the “Golan”, it is in the land of the tribe of Manasseh, and is also in the region know as Bashan, in fact, Gamla is the city capital of the ancient region of Bashan.  Gamla has had inhabitants for over 5000 years, with archaeological evidence pointing to its being inhabitanted in the Early Bronze Age.  This would have been even before the time of the great flood in Noah’s age.  The ancient King Og of Bashan’s burial mound is said to be at Gilgal Rephaim – Israel’s Stonehenge, a megalithic structure just 3 miles east of Gamla, in the same plateau populated with dolmens, burial monuments.

Gamla (or Golan for the matter) is not on any list of fortified cities in the Hebrew Bible.  There are two lists of fortified cities, one in Joshua 19:35-38 (19 cities) and 2 Chronicles 11:5-12 (15 cities). This is interesting to because talmudic scholars have stated that “cities of refuge” must not be walled or fortified, as they must provide free and ready access to those seeking refuge.

Jewish Historian Josephus writes of this city/area of Golan, as he mentions it in Antiquities, Book XIII, Chapter 15 Verse 3 where he describe Golan as east of the Jordan, north of Gadara and near the valley of Antiochus.  This geographically matches Gamla perfectly and as commander of the Jewish forces in the Galilee headquartered at Gamla during the Jewish revolt, Josephus was very familiar with this area and had even fortified its walls and dug ditches and tranches (Wars IV-1.2), likely because it did not have a contiguous wall around it before the revolt.  Archaeological remains from the breach and the wall indicated the gaps between existing buildings had been filled to create a makeshift wall, indicating that there hadn’t been a wall previously, even though the city had been inhabited

Not only that, but apparently during the revolt, Gamla was known by rebels who would be refugees who fled there precisely because of the “protection it offered”, a specific characteristic of a “city of refuge”.

In fact, in Wars of the Jews, Book IV- 1. 2 Josephus writing about Gamla and its seige, says this:

“For the town was crowded with refugees because the protection it offered, which was proved by the fact that the forces previously sent by Agrippa to besiege it had made no headway after seven months”

No other city in the Golan region east of the Jordan River has ever been discovered that would qualify as a “city of refuge”.  The fact that Gamla was easily reachable along the trade route from the Galilee region to Damascus and the east would also add evidence to its possibility of it being one of the six Biblical cities of refuge.

Gamla continues to reveal its mysteries!


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