Deuteronomy 19 – Concerning Criminal Law
A. Cities of refuge to be provided.
1. (1-3) Three special cities.
When the LORD your God has cut off the nations whose land the LORD your God is giving you, and you dispossess them and dwell in their cities and in their houses, you shall separate three cities for yourself in the midst of your land which the LORD your God is giving you to possess. You shall prepare roads for yourself, and divide into three parts the territory of your land which the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, that any manslayer may flee there.
a. You shall separate three cities for yourself in the midst of the land: God instructed Israel to make three cities of refuge in the Promised Land, and instructed them to make them “centrally located” (in the midst of the land).
i. There are two other important passages dealing with the cities of refuge: Numbers 35:9-28 and Joshua 20:7-8; a full understanding of the purpose and practice of the cities of refuge must be based on all of these passages.
ii. Moses had already established Bezer, Ramoth, and Golan as the cities of refuge on the east side of the Jordan River (Deuteronomy 4:41-43); this command is to establish three more cities of refuge on the west side of the Jordan.
b. Prepare roads for yourself: The people of Israel were to make good roads to each city of refuge, so the cities would be accessible.
i. “The Jews inform us that the roads to the cities of refuge were made very broad, thirty-two cubits; and even, so that there should be no impediments in the way; and were constantly kept in good repair.” (Clarke)
2. (4-7) The purpose for the cities of refuge.
And this is the case of the manslayer who flees there, that he may live: Whoever kills his neighbor unintentionally, not having hated him in time past; as when a man goes to the woods with his neighbor to cut timber, and his hand swings a stroke with the ax to cut down the tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies; he shall flee to one of these cities and live; lest the avenger of blood, while his anger is hot, pursue the manslayer and overtake him, because the way is long, and kill him, though he was not deserving of death, since he had not hated the victim in time past. Therefore I command you, saying, “You shall separate three cities for yourself.”
a. The case of the manslayer who flees there, that he may live: The cities of refuge were for the protection of the person who killed another accidentally or in self-defense. In ancient Israel, when one was killed, it was the responsibility of the avenger of blood to make certain the murder was punished.
i. This practice was based upon a correct understanding of Genesis 9:6: Whoever shed’s man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God, God made man.
b. Lest the avenger of blood: The avenger of blood was an appointed member of the family (the goel), designated to protect the honor and lives of the family. His interest would not be in gathering evidence, but in avenging the honor of the family – so, in the case of an accidental killing, the manslayer would need protection from the avenger of blood.
i. The case study given illustrates the point: Two men are working together, chopping down trees, when one man takes a swing of an ax and the ax head flies off, striking the other man in the head and instantly killing him. The surviving man had good reason to believe the avenger of blood from the dead man’s family would track him down and kill him, believing the death was murder.
ii. Therefore, such a man could flee to a city of refuge – an appointed Levitical city, where he could stay, safe from the avenger of blood, until the issue was settled, and he could leave the city of refuge safely.
3. (8-10) Appointment of additional cities of refuge.
Now if the LORD your God enlarges your territory, as He swore to your fathers, and gives you the land which He promised to give to your fathers, and if you keep all these commandments and do them, which I command you today, to love the LORD your God and to walk always in His ways, then you shall add three more cities for yourself besides these three, lest innocent blood be shed in the midst of your land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, and thus guilt of bloodshed be upon you.
a. Now if the LORD your God enlarges your territory: As Israel expanded, there were to be more cities of refuge. If a city of refuge was too far to be readily reached by the manslayer, it did him no good – the avenger of blood would overtake him before he could reach the city of refuge.
b. Then you shall add three more cities for yourself: Ultimately, there were to be six cities of refuge; with three on each side of the Jordan River. Each of the three cities on either side would be positioned as north, central, and south.
i. Joshua 20:7-8 tells of the actual cities chosen; they fulfilled the plan of being evenly distributed perfectly.
4. (11-13) What to do with the guilty who seeks protection in the city of refuge: your eye shall not pity him.
But if anyone hates his neighbor, lies in wait for him, rises against him and strikes him mortally, so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and bring him from there, and deliver him over to the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with you.
a. But if anyone hates his neighbor, lies in wait for him, rises against him and strikes him mortally: We can easily imagine that those truly guilty of murder would, at some time or another, seek protection in the city of refuge. So, whenever a manslayer came to seek protection at a city of refuge, the elders of the city were to judge his case and determine if he was truly worthy of protection.
b. Deliver him over to the hand of the avenger of blood: If it was determined at this trial that the man was really guilty of murder, then he would be delivered to the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. There was no protection of the guilty within the walls of a city of refuge.
c. Put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with you: God was just as concerned that the guilty be punished as He was that the innocent be protected (lest innocent blood be shed in the midst of your land, Deuteronomy 19:10).
5. The cities of refuge as a picture of Jesus.
a. The Bible applies this picture of the city of refuge to the believer finding refuge in God on more than one occasion:
i. Psalm 46:1: God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble. More than 15 other times, the Psalms speak of God as being our refuge.
ii. Hebrews 6:18: That by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us.
b. Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are within easy reach of the needy person; they were of no use unless someone could get to the place of refuge.
c. Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are open to all, not just the Israelite; no one needs to fear that they would be turned away from their place of refuge in their time of need (Numbers 35:15).
d. Both Jesus and the cities of refuge became a place where the one in need would live; you didn’t come to a city of refuge in time of need just to look around (Numbers 35:25).
e. Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are the only alternative for the one in need; without this specific protection, they will be destroyed.
f. Both Jesus and the cities of refuge provide protection only within their boundaries; to go outside meant death (Numbers 35:26-28).
g. With both Jesus and the cities of refuge, full freedom comes with the death of the High Priest (Numbers 35:25).
h. A crucial distinction: The cities of refuge only helped the innocent; the guilty can come to Jesus and find refuge!
B. Other legal principles.
1. (14) The principle of the landmark.
You shall not remove your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in your inheritance which you will inherit in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.
a. You shall not remove your neighbor’s landmark: God here established and supported the basic right to private property. When your neighbor has a lawful landmark, you must respect it – and are forbidden to change it as you might please.
i. This command supports an important foundation for human society: The right to personal property. God has clearly entrusted certain possessions to certain individuals, and other people or states are not permitted to take that property without due process of law.
b. Which the men of old have set: This law also reflects an important spiritual principle: It isn’t wise to ignore what the men of old have set when doing the work of the LORD. Many a young man, or a new man, has greatly hindered his own work by being a revolutionary – and ignoring the “landmarks” which the men of old have set.
2. (15-20) The principle of true and false witness.
One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established. If a false witness rises against any man to testify against him of wrongdoing, then both men in the controversy shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who serve in those days. And the judges shall make careful inquiry, and indeed, if the witness is a false witness, who has testified falsely against his brother, then you shall do to him as he thought to have done to his brother; so you shall put away the evil from among you. And those who remain shall hear and fear, and hereafter they shall not again commit such evil among you.
a. One witness shall not rise: One witness was never enough to establish a fact in a Biblical court of law. One needed two or three witness to establish a matter.
i. This isn’t just because it is possible for one witness to lie without having his story corroborated. It is because one witness can be confused, or mistaken in his testimony. It is a basic measure of reliability that it must be more than a simple case of “my word against theirs.”
ii. Some have carried this principle to modern courts by saying that two independent lines of evidence can be valid “witnesses.” For example, if there were a murder which no one witnessed with their eyes, yet there was a murder weapon with clear fingerprints, and additional blood evidence each pointing to one suspect, this would be counted as two independents “witnesses.”
b. If a false witness rises against any man to testify: False witness was discovered by careful examination (the judges shall make diligent inquiry) and was punished by giving the false witness the same penalty which would have gone to the man he falsely accused (you shall do to him as he thought to have done to his brother).
i. At the trial of Jesus, many false witnesses rose up against him, and were demonstrated to be false witnesses by their confused and contradictory testimony (Matthew 26:59-60). The false witnesses, under Jewish law, should have been put to death, because that is the punishment they sought for Jesus.
c. And those who remain shall hear and fear: Many modern people doubt that the punishment of others is an effective deterrent to crime; but the Bible clearly says that it is. Weak or inconsistent punishment does not deter crime, but effective punishment does.
3. (21) Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.
Your eye shall not pity: life shall be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
a. Your eye shall not pity: This was an important principle for the Biblical court of law; here, connected to the punishment described for false witness, it shows that whatever evil was planned or practiced against another, a similar punishment should be brought against the false witness.
b. Life shall be for life, eye for eye: However, retribution was always limited by the eye for eye principle. This law was meant to be a check to our desire to revenge, not a license for revenge.
i. Our tendency is to want to do more to the offending party than what they have done to us. But we cannot punish from a motive of revenge, only from a motive of justice.
ii. “Far from encouraging vengeance it limits vengeance and stands as a guide for a judge as he fixes a penalty suited to the crime. The principle was thus not license or vengeance, but a guarantee of justice.” (Thompson)
c. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth: In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus quoted this passage in His teaching on the true interpretation of the law. He does not say that the eye for eye principle is wrong; rather, He simply condemns the use of it to make it an obligation to exact revenge against someone who has personally offended me.
i. Many Rabbis in Jesus’ day taught that the eye for eye law meant you were obligated to avenge yourself of a personal insult or attack brought against you. Jesus rightly disallowed the application of this law in our personal relationships; it was a law intended to guide the judges in the law courts of Israel, not to guide our personal relationships.
ii. “Jesus’ criticism of this law (Mt. 5:38f.) arose from its use to regulate conduct between individuals. He did not reject it as a principle of justice which should operate in the courts of the land. For private relationships He proposed the ideal of brotherhood, a strong principle throughout the book of Deuteronomy. To extend the lex talionis to this interpersonal domain was to destroy the law of God.” (Thompson)
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission