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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 19

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary


Deuteronomy 19:0


Three Cities of RefugeThe Administration of JusticeThe Cities of RefugeHomicide and Cities of Refuge
Deuteronomy 19:1-3Deuteronomy 19:1-3Deuteronomy 19:1-7Deuteronomy 19:1-4a
Deuteronomy 19:4-10Deuteronomy 19:4-7 Deuteronomy 19:4-6
Deuteronomy 19:7-10
Deuteronomy 19:8-10Deuteronomy 19:8-10
Deuteronomy 19:11-13Deuteronomy 19:11-13Deuteronomy 19:11-13Deuteronomy 19:11-13
Property Boundaries Ancient Property LinesBoundaries
Deuteronomy 19:14Deuteronomy 19:14Deuteronomy 19:14Deuteronomy 19:14
The Law Concerning Witnesses Concerning WitnessesWitnesses
Deuteronomy 19:15-21Deuteronomy 19:15-21Deuteronomy 19:15-21Deuteronomy 19:15
Deuteronomy 19:16-21

READING CYCLE THREE (see “Guide to Good Bible Reading”)


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the four modern translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.

Verses 1-3

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Deuteronomy 19:1-3 1”When the LORD your God cuts off the nations, whose land the LORD your God gives you, and you dispossess them and settle in their cities and in their houses, 2you shall set aside three cities for yourself in the midst of your land, which the LORD your God gives you to possess. 3You shall prepare the roads for yourself, and divide into three parts the territory of your land which the LORD your God will give you as a possession, so that any manslayer may flee there.”

Deuteronomy 19:1 “cuts off” This VERB (BDB 503, KB 500, Hiphil IMPERFECT) is used in several senses:

1. to make (“cut”) a covenant, Deuteronomy 4:23; Deuteronomy 5:2, Deuteronomy 5:3; Deuteronomy 7:2; Deuteronomy 9:9; Deuteronomy 29:1, Deuteronomy 29:12, Deuteronomy 29:14, Deuteronomy 29:25; Deuteronomy 31:16

2. remove, destroy, Deuteronomy 12:29; Deuteronomy 19:1

3. cut down (literal, i.e., a tree), Deuteronomy 19:5; Deuteronomy 20:19, Deuteronomy 20:20

“whose land the LORD your God gives you” See note at Deuteronomy 1:8.

“settle in their cities” The description of God's activity in accomplishing this task on the eastern side of the Jordan River is seen in Deuteronomy 4:41-43.

Deuteronomy 19:2, Deuteronomy 19:7 “three cities” These were Levitical cities of refuge, discussed in Numbers 35:0; Joshua 20:0, where someone accused of murder (i.e., “manslayer”) could flee to protect himself from the dead person's relatives (i.e., “blood avenger”). The leaders of these cities were to hold a trial (cf. Deuteronomy 19:11-13) to determine the facts of the case.

A list of the cites of refuge is found in Joshua 20:7-8:

1. Trans-jordan

a. Bezer in Reuben

b. Ramoth-Gilead in Gad

c. Golan in Manasseh (Bashan)

2. Canaan

a. Kadesh in Naphtali (Galilee)

b. Shechem in Ephraim

c. Hebron in Judah

The idea of a place of safety or refuge was not unique to Israel. Most ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures provided these special places. Usually they were located at religious shrines. Israel also had this concept by one grabbing the “horns of the altar” (cf. Exodus 27:2; Exodus 30:10) at the central shrine (cf. Exodus 21:14; 1 Kings 1:50-53; 1 Kings 2:28-34). However, special cities were unique to Israel. YHWH was concerned with the death of innocent manslayers.

Deuteronomy 19:3 “prepare the roads” The VERB (BDB 465, KB 464, Hiphil IMPERFECT) here means “prepare a road.” There are three possible meanings:

1. equal distance apart

2. easy access

3. “provide road signs pointing the way” (Rashi quoting a Maccabean document)

Verses 4-7

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Deuteronomy 19:4-7 4”Now this is the case of the manslayer who may flee there and live: when he kills his friend unintentionally, not hating him previously-5as when a man goes into the forest with his friend to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down the tree, and the iron head slips off the handle and strikes his friend so that he dies-he may flee to one of these cities and live; 6otherwise the avenger of blood might pursue the manslayer in the heat of his anger, and overtake him, because the way is long, and take his life, though he was not deserving of death, since he had not hated him previously. 7Therefore, I command you, saying, 'You shall set aside three cities for yourself.'“

Deuteronomy 19:4 “case of the manslayer” This is an expansion of Exodus 21:12-14, which relates to the central sanctuary. This expanded the safety of the central sanctuary to the six Levitical cities of refuge.

“who may flee there and live” If the one who killed someone fled (BDB 630, KB 681, Qal IMPERFECT) to one of the designated cities and if the ensuing trial found that there was no premeditation then he must live (BDB 310, KB 309, Qal PERFECT) in that city of safety until the death of the current High Priest (cf. Joshua 20:6).

“unintentionally” See note at Deuteronomy 4:42. This is the opposite of “premeditated act.”

Deuteronomy 19:6 “avenger of blood” The phrase is a construct (BDB 145 I, KB 169, Qal PARTICIPLE and BDB 196, cf. Numbers 35:9-28). This person is also known as “kinsman redeemer”(one who acts on behalf of the family). This is an example of Deuteronomy 19:21's limited revenge (cf. Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:19-22).

“though he was not deserving of death” This is a theological development of Genesis 9:5-6. Here the motive behind the action is taken into consideration. That which was accidental and unpremeditated is reprieved from “eye-for-an-eye” retaliation. There were consequences (had to live in the city of refuge until the death of the current High Priest).

Israel, like YHWH, was to be concerned with justice and limited revenge!

Deuteronomy 19:7 Moses gave them YHWH's word in Deuteronomy 19:1-3; he explained them in Deuteronomy 19:4-6 and, then he reasserts YHWH's command in Deuteronomy 19:7.

Verses 8-10

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Deuteronomy 19:8-10 8”If the LORD your God enlarges your territory, just as He has sworn to your fathers, and gives you all the land which He promised to give your fathers-9if you carefully observe all this commandment which I command you today, to love the LORD your God, and to walk in His ways always-then you shall add three more cities for yourself, besides these three. 10So innocent blood will not be shed in the midst of your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance, and bloodguiltiness be on you.”

Deuteronomy 19:8 “If” The hypothetical PARTICLE (BDB 49) expresses the conditional nature of YHWH's covenant with Israel (cf. Deuteronomy 19:9). He had given them the trans-jordan area and now if they obeyed He would give them Canaan.

Deuteronomy 19:9 “carefully observe” There is one VERB “to observe” (BDB 1036, KB 1581, Qal IMPERFECT, see note at Deuteronomy 6:12) followed by several INFINITIVE CONSTRUCTS:

1. “to do” - BDB 793, KB 889

2. “to love” - BDB 12, KB 17

3. “to walk” - BDB 229, KB 246, cf. Deuteronomy 10:12; Deuteronomy 11:1, Deuteronomy 11:13, Deuteronomy 11:22; Deuteronomy 30:16

“all this commandment” This SINGULAR term (BDB 846, see Special Topic: Terms for God's Revelation) is used to describe all of YHWH's covenant (cf. Deuteronomy 4:2; Deuteronomy 6:1; Deuteronomy 11:8; Deuteronomy 15:5; Deuteronomy 19:9).

“you shall add three more cities” These three plus the three of Deuteronomy 19:2 show the six cities of refuge mentioned in Joshua 20:0. These refer to (1) the future three cities on the western side of the Jordan, not yet conquered or (2) Israel's later expansion of the text after Joshua's conquest (editorial update).

Deuteronomy 19:10 YHWH is concerned about the death of people who do not deserve to die (i.e., “innocent blood,” cf. 2 Kings 21:16; 2 Kings 24:4; Jeremiah 22:17). In the OT there is no distinction between ethical and ritual purity. Life is precious! Its loss has consequences (“blood-guiltiness,” cf. Numbers 35:33-34). It is this consequence and other ritual uncleanness that is dealt with (1) annually by the Day of Atonement, described in Leviticus 16:0 and (2) locally by the sacrifice of a heifer (cf. Deuteronomy 21:1-9). As the cities of refuge dwelt with individuals, Deuteronomy 21:1-9 deals with the ritual guiltiness of communities.

Verses 11-13

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Deuteronomy 19:11-13 11”But if there is a man who hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and rises up against him and strikes him so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities, 12then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. 13You shall not pity him, but you shall purge the blood of the innocent from Israel, that it may go well with you.”

Deuteronomy 19:11 Notice the series of VERBS describing the premeditated murder:

1. “hates” - BDB 971, KB 1338, Qal PARTICIPLE, cf. Deuteronomy 4:42

2. “lies in wait” - BDB 70, KB 83, Qal PERFECT

3. “rises up” - BDB 877, KB 1086, Qal PERFECT

4. “strikes” - BDB 645, KB 697, Qal PERFECT

Deuteronomy 19:12 “the elders of his city” This refers to either the city nearest the crime or the city of the man's residence.

Deuteronomy 19:13 “You shall not pity him” This (BDB 299, KB 298, Qal IMPERFECT) is a recurrent theme in Deuteronomy (cf. Deuteronomy 7:16; Deuteronomy 13:8; Deuteronomy 19:13, Deuteronomy 19:21; Deuteronomy 25:12). Human compassion or national feelings cannot change YHWH's laws. Israel must be holy! Israel's future prosperity (and even her remaining in the Promised Land) is conditioned on her obedience.

NASB“you shall purge the blood of the innocent from Israel” NKJV“you shall put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel” NRSV“you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel” TEV“Israel must rid itself of murders” NJB“You must banish the shedding of innocent blood from Israel”

The VERB (BDB 128, KB 145, Piel PERFECT) means “burn,” used metaphorically here of the complete removal (cf. Deuteronomy 13:8; Deuteronomy 17:7, Deuteronomy 17:12; Deuteronomy 19:13, Deuteronomy 19:19; Deuteronomy 21:21; Deuteronomy 22:21, Deuteronomy 22:22, Deuteronomy 22:24; Deuteronomy 24:7).

Murder affects individual's (cf. Genesis 4:0) and communities' (cf. Deuteronomy 21:1-9) relationships with and the blessings of YHWH. Sin and self destroy everything they touch!

Verse 14

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Deuteronomy 19:14 14”You shall not move your neighbor's boundary mark, which the ancestors have set, in your inheritance which you will inherit in the land that the LORD your God gives you to possess.”

Deuteronomy 19:14 “you shall not move your neighbor's boundary mark” In the ancient world villages farmed the land together (i.e., plowing, sowing, reaping). From a passerby's observation it looked like one big field. However, each family had its own field, which was marked by white stones. That family, though working the entire field with the village, received the produce of their land. If someone moved the stones, thereby giving themselves more land (i.e., produce), it was a crime against the whole community and YHWH, because He gave the land as an inheritance for each tribe and family (cf. Deuteronomy 27:17; Proverbs 22:28; Proverbs 23:10; Hosea 5:10).

“which the ancestors have set” This is the kind of statement that has caused many scholars to reject Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy. It seems to refer to the allocation of land by lot, which occurred after Joshua's conquest (cf. Joshua 13-19). Egyptian scribes updated their texts, while Mesopotamian scribes did not. Israel's scribes were trained in Egypt.

Verses 15-21

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Deuteronomy 19:15-21 15”A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed. 16If a malicious witness rises up against a man to accuse him of wrongdoing, 17then both the men who have the dispute shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who will be in office in those days. 18The judges shall investigate thoroughly, and if the witness is a false witness and he has accused his brother falsely, 19then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you. 20The rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you. 21Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

Deuteronomy 19:15 This verse shows how careful they were to be in their judicial process (cf. Deuteronomy 17:6; Numbers 35:30). The VERB “rise up” (BDB 877, KB 1086, Qal IMPERFECT) is used three times in the Hebrew text in Deuteronomy 19:15 and 16.

Deuteronomy 19:16 “malicious witness” The NOUN “malicious” (BDB 329) basically means “violence,” but here it denotes a purposeful, false judicial witness (cf. Exodus 23:1; Psalms 27:12; Psalms 5:11), they speak in YHWH's name (legal oath), but knowingly distort the truth. Verse Deuteronomy 19:19 shows the consequences of a false witness (cf. Deuteronomy 5:20 and chapter 11).

NASB, NKJV, NRSV“wrongdoing” TEV“false accusations” NJB“a charge of apostasy”

The Hebrew term (BDB 694 II) usually means “a rebellious attitude which becomes an action,” cf. Deuteronomy 13:5; Jeremiah 28:16; Jeremiah 29:32. Here the context implies purposeful, premeditated “lying.”

Deuteronomy 19:17 “the priests and the judges” This refers to:

1. local judges, Deuteronomy 16:18-20; Deuteronomy 17:8-13

2. Levitical priests of the central sanctuary, Deuteronomy 18:1-8

Notice that appearing before these appointed judges is the same as appearing before YHWH (cf. Deuteronomy 17:9, Deuteronomy 17:12).

Deuteronomy 19:18 “The judges shall investigate thoroughly” See note at Deuteronomy 13:15. This same word (BDB 405, KB 408, Hiphil INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE) is also used in Deuteronomy 17:4.

Deuteronomy 19:19 “you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother” This is an example of “we reap what we sow” or “an eye-for-an-eye” justice (cf. Leviticus 24:19).

Deuteronomy 19:20 “The rest will hear and be afraid” There is a social deterrent in individual punishment by the community (cf. Deuteronomy 13:11; Deuteronomy 17:13).

Deuteronomy 19:21 See note at Deuteronomy 19:13. The “eye-for-an-eye” justice of Israel, which seems so cruel (i.e., Lex talionis, which is also characteristic of the Code of Hammurabi, see Old Testament Times, by R. K. Harrison, pp. 57-59) was in reality meant to stop “revenge wars” between families and tribes as well as maintain the ritual purity of God's covenant people.

One wonders about how literally this law was actually carried out. It seems that physical mutilation was replaced by appropriate compensation. This is based on the surrounding context of the parallel in Exodus 21:23-25. The immediately preceding and following contexts deal with compensation. The later rabbis assigned appropriate compensation for actions resulting in personal damage. However, murder retained its religious taboo. It negatively impacted the covenant of blessings from YHWH and had to be dealt with appropriately!


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. Why did God establish cities of refuge?

2. Explain the concept of “the avenger of blood.”

3. How did the Hebrews handle perjury?

4. What was the purpose of “eye-for-eye” justice?

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 19". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/deuteronomy-19.html. 2021.
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