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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 19

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


There are three paragraphs in this chapter: Deuteronomy 19:1-13 deals with homicide and the provisions for cities of refuge; next is a very short paragraph of a single verse (Deuteronomy 19:14) regarding boundary markers; and Deuteronomy 19:15-21 are devoted to the subject of witnesses.

Verses 1-3

“When Jehovah thy God shall cut off the nations, whose land Jehovah thy God giveth thee, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their cities, and in their houses; thou shalt set apart three cities for thee in the midst of thy land, which Jehovah thy God giveth thee to possess it. Thou shalt prepare thee the way and divide the borders of thy land, which Jehovah thy God giveth thee to inherit, into three parts, that every manslayer may flee thither.”

There is here another example of an oft-repeated pattern in the writings of Moses:

“Thy land, which Jehovah thy God giveth thee”

“Thy land, which Jehovah thy God giveth thee to possess it”

“Thy land, which Jehovah thy God giveth thee to inherit”

The mention of Israel’s land usually carried such acknowledgments of the Divine grace as those found in these verses. It would be well today if people, when speaking of “their wealth” of whatever kind would recognize God as the Giver in such a manner as that indicated here. Such patterns as these are essentially Mosaic. The reprobate priesthood of Israel of any century, particularly that period of Israel’s history where the critical community would like to find the “sources of the Pentateuch,” was utterly incapable of such devout terminology as that found here. The Christian should ever bear in mind that God Himself cursed that reprobate priesthood in Malachi, and, if that priesthood had possessed a single ounce of the pure devotion indicated here, such a thing would never have occurred!

Oberst, quoting J. W. McGarvey, pointed out that:

“The first command on this subject (cities of refuge) is in Numbers 35, where the order to appoint cities of refuge is given. There the number of cities was placed at six, and the general laws for their use were announced, but the names of the cities were not given.

Next, in Deuteronomy 4:42-45, following the conquest of Trans-Jordan, Moses named the three cities eastward from that river, and their names were given. Then in this passage (Deuteronomy 19:1-13), Moses directed that after they had possessed the territory west of Jordan, three other cities should be appointed on that side. This was not to be done until after the conquest of that part of Canaan. Note particularly the limitation imposed by the word “When” that stands at the head of this chapter; and observe that it contrasts sharply with the dramatic “if” at the head of Deuteronomy 19:8.(F1)

As is so frequently true in the Sacred Writings, each additional mention of almost any subject results in additional information, and here it is the order to “prepare the way” which appears for the first time. Jamieson tells us that:

“The roads leading to the cities of refuge were to be kept in good condition, and all the brooks and rivers spanned by good bridges. The width of the roads was to be 32 cubits (about 48 feet), with signs at every crossroads indicating the direction of the nearest city of refuge, with the inscription Mekeleth, Mekeleth, `refuge, refuge.’“(F2)

One cannot fail to be astounded at the flat declaration that these cities of refuge were in any manner whatever an extension of the asylum often associated with pagan altars in antiquity. Wright, for example, stated that “Exodus 21:12-14 specifies that such asylum shall be established and infers that the altar… was the place to which the manslayer should go.”(F3) Let any thoughtful person read Exodus 21:12-14, and he will find that such interpretations are TOTALLY IN ERROR. There God promised “a place” to which the manslayer might go, but it was not the altar of God. Wright went on to “prove” his false interpretation by mentioning the cases of Adonijah (1 Kings 1:50) and Joab (1 Kings 2:28-34).

But neither of those men found any asylum whatever at God’s altar! Both knew they were guilty, therefore they did not flee to any city of refuge as God commanded (and as was done by Abner, 2 Samuel 3:27), but they both tried to rely upon the ancient pagan superstition regarding altars, but it did NOT work. Both were slain for their murders. Wright’s statement that the altar in Jerusalem served this purpose during the days of the united monarchy is simply NOT true. “The law of Moses, instead of making the altar an asylum for the manslayer, positively forbids its use as such… In this instance, in provision of God’s law has been misrepresented and its meaning reversed, in order to make out a contradiction with another arrangement which the law actually provided for in promise. Scarcely anything could be more reprehensible.”(F4)

Of course, Wright in the instance cited above, is merely quoting, apparently without thinking it out, the wild and irresponsible charges of the critical scholars two or three generations ago, not knowing perhaps that the believing community graduated from that kind of exegesis a long time ago. It is a pity that many modern commentators still parrot the postulations of men in the eighteenth century, such as Driver and Smith, noted critics of that period. Driver stated that, “In Exodus 21:13, the asylum for the manslayer is Jehovah’s altar.”(F5) W. Robertson Smith stated that, “The asylum for the manslayer in Exodus 21:12-14 is Jehovah’s altar.”(F6) Of course, they were wrong, and nothing has ever happened that can change that!

Verses 4-10

“And this is the case of the manslayer, that shall flee thither and live: whoso killeth his neighbor unawares, and hated him not in time past; as when a man goeth into the forest with his neighbor to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree; and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbor, so that he dieth; he shall flee to one of these cities and live: lest the avenger of blood pursue the manslayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and smite him mortally; whereas he was not worthy of death, inasmuch as he hated him not in time past. Wherefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt set apart three cities for thee. And if Jehovah enlarge thy border, as he hath sworn unto thy fathers, and give thee all the land which he promised to give unto thy fathers; if thou shalt keep all this commandment to do it, which I command thee this day, to love Jehovah thy God, and to walk ever in his ways; then shalt thou add three more cities for thee, besides these three: that innocent blood be not shed in the midst of thy land, which Jehovah thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and so blood be upon thee.”

“Blood revenge was the police of the primitive Aryan and Semitic peoples.”(F7) It is important to notice that the Jews were not to change everything in their new place of residence. The ancient police system which featured the avenger of blood would continue to be used, but with the restraints and precautions inherent in the refuge system. In a similar way, the ancient landmarks in use for ages before Israel inherited Canaan were to be continued and honored. (See under Deuteronomy 19:14.) Under the avenger of blood system, any homicide gave the right to the next of kin to seek out the manslayer and kill him. In fact, it was considered a solemn duty for him to do so. The whole system of the cities of refuge was not designed to interfere with that arrangement at all, except in those cases where the killing was accidental, unintentional, and not premeditated.

In Deuteronomy 19:8-9, Moses instructed the people to set up three more cities of refuge, in addition to the six already commanded, IF God should enlarge their borders, as God had sworn to their fathers that he would do IF they remembered to keep all of God’s commandments. Note that God’s promise to enlarge their borders was conditional (Deuteronomy 19:9), and also that the instruction to appoint three more cities of refuge was conditional (Deuteronomy 19:8). The significant thing about these instructions is that it would have been impossible, long after the times of Moses, for anyone whomsoever to have included such orders as these! “No late author would have invented such a provision.”(F8) Not only did God never really enlarge Israel’s borders until the times of David and Solomon, but even in their times, the conquered area was not really incorporated into Israel, but merely made tributary to Israel’s monarchy, and furthermore, the conquered peoples quickly regained their independence when Solomon’s incompetent son (Rehoboam) inherited the throne.

Oberst summarized the instruction regarding the cities thus: “The appointment of the six was WHEN, but the appointment of the other three was IF; and the job apparently never got done!”(F9)

Deuteronomy 19:4-7 lays out instructions for the unintentional manslayer; and Deuteronomy 19:5-6 gives an example of what was meant by unintentional. Also, in Num. 35:26-24, there are other examples of inadvertent homicide.

Verses 11-13

“But if any man hate his neighbor, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally so that he dieth, and he flee into one of these cities; then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. Thine eye shall not pity him, but thou shalt put away the innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with thee.”

The thrust of this passage is to stress the policy that under no circumstance whatever is the guilty murderer to be spared. The sole intention of the refuge system was to make sure that no inadvertent or unintentional manslayer should be unjustly executed as a murderer. Upon no other issue has modern civilization blundered so extensively as upon this one. God here commanded that the murderer should not be pitied but should be delivered up to die for his crime. Our society has distinguished itself as a sob-sister advocate of the most ruthless murderers, weeping oceans of tears for the CRIMINAL and none at all for his hapless VICTIMS. The violent society which flourishes all around us is the result!

Verse 14

“Thou shalt not move thy neighbor’s landmark, which they of old time have set, in thine inheritance which thou shalt inherit, in the land that Jehovah thy God giveth thee to possess it.”

“Which they of old time have set” Moses is here speaking of the landmarks that already existed in Canaan at the time he spoke and before Israel had even entered the land. Wright and others misunderstand the passage totally, affirming that “they of old time,” is a reference to the early fathers of Israel who established landmarks when the land was divided, and that, therefore, this passage is “an indication that the author is living at a considerably later time,”(F10) than the times of Moses. Such allegations are without any merit whatever. This verse is parallel to Deuteronomy 19:1-13, where the ancient customs of “blood revenge” are incorporated, with certain precautions, into the law of Israel. This verse means that, upon entering Canaan, the ancient landmarks already there will continue to be honored as recognized boundaries.

The big thing in this, of course, is the right of property. The collectivist deceivers of our generation have attempted to make mileage out of their lying cliche that, “We stress people rights versus property rights!” But the glaring truth is that there are never any PEOPLE rights unless also there are PROPERTY rights. Property is the ability to maintain and support life, and there has never been discovered by any human society any way to get rid of property rights. In the communist lands, property has been confiscated and monopolized by the state, but that does not get rid of PRIVATE PROPERTY. One may reduce private property to a slip of paper authorizing one to stand in line, change his address, receive food, or anything else, but then that piece of paper becomes private property, without which its owner cannot live. The true religion has always recognized the rights of private property, with the precautionary truth that all property is “owned” by the children of God as “stewards of God’s grace,” and that they are responsible for its use in some manner pleasing to God. The Decalogue clearly recognizes the right and the responsibility of private property.

The moving of “landmarks” envisioned in this verse refers to the stealing of another’s land by moving the boundary, and, historically, all lands had established landmarks by which the transfer of lands from person to person and from generation to generation was protected. Moses was not here speaking of boundaries that would be set up for the first time by Israelites. As Alexander said, “The law here was given while Israel was yet outside of Canaan,(F11) and “they of old time,” cannot possibly refer to Israelites who would set up landmarks after entering the promised land.

“This kind of law was known to the Greeks, their landowners being protected by Zeus Horios; Latin landholders were protected by the Roman God Terminus, in whose honor the annual festival of Terminalia was held. The rights of private property and the passing of heritage are presupposed in Deuteronomy. But this right, in every age, is derived from society, and those who enjoy the right should never forget the duty to society which the possession of such rights imposes upon the owners of private property.”(F12)

Verses 15-21

“One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall a matter be established. If an unrighteous witness rise up against any man to testify against him of wrong-doing, then both the men between whom the controversy is, shall stand before Jehovah, before the priests and the judges that shall be in those days; and the judges shall make diligent inquisition; and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and have testified falsely against his brother; then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to do unto his brother: so shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee. And those that remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil in the midst of thee, And thine eye shall not pity; life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

Here are the instructions regarding witnesses. Paramount in this connection is that nothing shall be decided upon the testimony of a single witness. Christ himself appealed to this principle, pointing out that John the Baptism was a witness of Himself, that the Father in heaven was another witness, that the very works which Christ did constituted a witness, and that He of necessity bore witness of himself, being indeed “The Light of the World,” because, in the very nature of light, it must bear witness of itself!

“One witness shall not rise up against a man” Orlinsky stated that a better rendition of this clause is, “One witness shall not validate any matter against another.”(F13)

“Diligent inquisition” (Deuteronomy 19:18). “This was to be no resort to ordeal, as in the customs of legal practice among Israel’s neighbors.”(F14) As a matter of fact, the Jewish judges became very skilled in carrying on such inquisitions, and they learned how to grill and cross-examine witnesses in such a manner as to expose the pretensions of false witnesses. For example, there is the legendary example of Daniel who exposed two false witnesses who conspired to condemn a Jewish maiden for adultery, when, as a matter of fact, it was merely their attempt to vent their hatred against the maiden who stubbornly refused to commit adultery with either one of them. They had accused her of this crime which allegedly was committed under a tree. Daniel separated the witnesses, asked them, by turns, what kind of tree it was, and when their testimony did not agree, procured the condemnation of both the accusers!

Deuteronomy 19:21 is commonly called the “Lex Talionis,” but as Blair wrote: “Eye for eye justice, while not in good repute among most Christians, was actually an attempt to limit vengeance to equitable proportions.”(F15) Under the law of the jungle, vengeance was multiplied a hundred times against any offender unfortunate enough to experience it. “If you knock out one of my eyes, I’ll knock out both of yours, your teeth also, and bash in your head and kill your wife and all your children.” It is against that background that we should read the beauty and glory of all of these Divine laws. Also, such a conception was doubtless a help to judges who found in the role some suggestion of what constituted a just penalty for a given transgression. Christ’s own teachings regarding this are found in Matthew 5:38-42, where is laid down the principle that individuals should not seek to retaliate against offenders, but “turn the other cheek, go the second mile, give the cloak also.”

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 19". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/deuteronomy-19.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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