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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Deuteronomy 19

 

 

Introduction

The Covenant Stipulations, Covenant Making at Shechem, Blessings and Cursings (Deuteronomy 12:1 to Deuteronomy 29:1).

In this section of Deuteronomy we first have a description of specific requirements that Yahweh laid down for His people. These make up the second part of the covenant stipulations for the covenant expressed in Deuteronomy 4:45 to Deuteronomy 29:1 and also for the covenant which makes up the whole book. They are found in chapters 12-26. As we have seen Deuteronomy 1:1 to Deuteronomy 4:44 provide the preamble and historical prologue for the overall covenant, followed by the general stipulations in chapters 5-11. There now, therefore, in 12-26 follow the detailed stipulations which complete the main body of the covenant. These also continue the second speech of Moses which began in Deuteronomy 5:1.

Overall in this speech Moses is concerned to connect with the people. It is to the people that his words are spoken rather than the priests so that much of the priestly legislation is simply assumed. Indeed it is remarkably absent in Deuteronomy except where it directly touches on the people. Anyone who read Deuteronomy on its own would wonder at the lack of cultic material it contained, and at how much the people were involved. It concentrates on their interests, and not those of the priests and Levites, while acknowledging the responsibility that they had towards both priests and Levites.

And even where the cultic legislation more specifically connects with the people, necessary detail is not given, simply because he was aware that they already had it in writing elsewhere. Their knowledge of it is assumed. Deuteronomy is building on a foundation already laid. In it Moses was more concerned to get over special aspects of the legislation as it was specifically affected by entry into the land, with the interests of the people especially in mind. The suggestion that it was later written in order to bring home a new law connected with the Temple does not fit in with the facts. Without the remainder of the covenant legislation in Exodus/Leviticus/Numbers to back it up, its presentation often does not make sense from a cultic point of view.

This is especially brought home by the fact that when he refers to their approach to God he speaks of it in terms of where they themselves stood or will stand when they do approach Him. They stand not on Sinai but in Horeb. They stand not in the Sanctuary but in ‘the place’, the site of the Sanctuary. That is why he emphasises Horeb, which included the area before the Mount, and not just Sinai itself (which he does not mention). And why he speaks of ‘the place’ which Yahweh chose, which includes where the Tabernacle is sited and where they gather together around the Tabernacle, and not of the Sanctuary itself. He wants them to feel that they have their full part in the whole.

These detailed stipulations in chapters 12-26 will then be followed by the details of the covenant ceremony to take place at the place which Yahweh has chosen at Shechem (Deuteronomy 27), followed by blessings and cursings to do with the observance or breach of the covenant (Deuteronomy 28).

II. INSTRUCTION CONCERNING THE GOVERNING OF THE COMMUNITY (Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 19:21).

Having established the principles of worship and religious response for the community based on the dwellingplace where Yahweh would choose to establish His name, Moses now moved on to various aspects of governing the community. He had clearly been giving a great deal of thought to what would happen when he had gone, and to that end had been meditating on God’s promises in Genesis and the content of God’s Instruction (Torah).

Moses was doing here what he described himself as having done for the previous generation (Deuteronomy 1:15-18). There he had established them with a system of justice ready for entry into the land but they had refused to enter it when Yahweh commanded. Now he was preparing their sons for entry into the land in a similar way.

Justice was to be provided for in a number of ways:

1). By the appointment of satisfactory judges (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

2). By rejecting Canaanite methods of justice (Deuteronomy 16:21-22). He reiterated the necessity for the abolition of idolatry and religious impropriety, and called for the judgment of it in the presence of witnesses (Deuteronomy 16:21 to Deuteronomy 17:7).

3). By setting up a final court of appeal. Here he dealt with what to do when major judicial problems arose (Deuteronomy 17:8-13).

4). By legislating what kind of king to appoint when they wanted a king. At present they had him. Shortly he would be replaced by Joshua. Then would come a time when they needed another supreme leader and here he faced up to the issue of possible kingship, an issue that, in view of certain prophecies revealed in the patriarchal records (Genesis 17:6; Genesis 17:16; Genesis 35:11; Genesis 36:31) would certainly arise in the future, and which Balaam had recently drawn attention to (Numbers 24:17) as on the horizon. Thus it needed to be legislated for so that when the time came they might not appoint the wrong kind of king, and especially they were to be guides as to the kind of king that they should consider (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

5). By providing for the sustenance of the priesthood and Levites who watch over their spiritual welfare (Deuteronomy 18:1-8).

6). By warning against looking to the occult for guidance and promising instead the coming of other prophets like himself (Deuteronomy 18:9-22).

But while we may see this as a separate unit it is not so in the Hebrew. As we would expect in a speech not prepared by a trained orator it just goes smoothly forward. ‘Thee, thou’ predominates as befits a section dealing with commandments with an occasional subtle introduction of ‘ye, your’.

III. REGULATIONS CONCERNING THE SHEDDING OF BLOOD (Deuteronomy 19:1 to Deuteronomy 21:9).

In this section the question of different ways of shedding blood is considered. Lying behind this section is the commandment, ‘you shall do no murder’. It should be noted that in some sense it continues the theme of the regulation of justice.

The shedding of the blood of men was always a prominent issue with God (compare Genesis 9:5-6). It is dealt with in a number of aspects.

a). In Deuteronomy 19 the question is raised as to how to deal with deliberate murder and accidental killing through cities of refuge. And this is linked with the removal of ancient landmarks which could cause, or be brought about by, violence and death, and was doing violence to the covenant of Yahweh. The mention of it here demonstrates the seriousness of this crime. It is also linked with the need to avoid false witness which could lead to an unjust death or could bring death on the false witness.

b). In Deuteronomy 20 the question of death in warfare is dealt with, both as something to be faced by the people themselves, and then with regard to how to deal with a captured enemy, differentiating between neighbouring lands and native Canaanites. But the trees are not to be killed.

c). In Deuteronomy 21:1-9 the question is dealt with as to what to do if a slain man is found and no one knows who did it.

Chapter 19 The Setting Up Of Cities of Refuge For the Manslayer. Treatment of False Witnesses.

The section from Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 18:22 has dealt with setting up the powers in the land for the maintenance of justice and to ensure the keeping of Yahweh’s Instruction (Torah). That had involved setting up the system of justice, the future possible king, the priests and Levites, and the prophets, but one major thing that had not been covered was the way of dealing with a violent death in the land brought about innocently, and thus out of the range of justice. Such a violent death in Yahweh’s land was seen as a serious matter, for it was a violation against God Himself Who had sovereignty over human life. A life over which He had full jurisdiction had been taken within His own land. The situation had to be righted.

But it was also of concern to God that the innocent should not suffer. If the death had occurred accidentally then the death of the slayer was not required. However, this could not be dealt with by an ordinary court because by the time the court convened the man might well be dead, slain by an avenger of blood. For the custom with regard to such deaths was that the dead man’s relatives were seen as having the right to avenge the blood of the dead man on the slayer the moment that they could find him. Indeed it was seen as their duty to seek him out and take blood for blood (compare Genesis 4:14 where Cain was afraid of his father and his brothers. See also Genesis 4:23). They were considered to have the absolute right to avenge the blood of the slain man, so much so that no one, apart from those so appointed by God, would refuse it. Nor could they be found guilty of murder for what they did. It was the only effective method of practical policing and preventing murder available in early tribal societies and all were agreed on it. The problem was that it could then result in blood feuds or innocent persons being killed, something which the cities of refuge were designed to prevent.

This is the only possible real explanation of all the facts. Had the avenger of blood been an official or an independent party he would not have pursued the manslayer in anger.

So God had ordained that cities of refuge were to be appointed as soon as they were settled in the land, where manslayers who claimed to be innocent could flee for refuge and be safe, and where, if there was any dispute, a proper trial could be arranged so as to discover whether the killing was premeditated or accidental (Numbers 35:9-28; compare Exodus 21:12-14). Such cities had already been set up in the part of the country that they then were in, in Transjordan (Deuteronomy 4:41-43). But once they crossed the Jordan they would be necessary throughout the whole land. Details of these and their purpose is now given.

These cities of refuge replaced the ancient idea of sanctuary at the altar (Exodus 21:13-14) which is testified to in many civilisations and gave the opportunity for a man who took advantage of it to be given the opportunity of a fair trial. If the man was clearly guilt, however, the sanctuary would not save him (see 1 Kings 2:30-34, where Solomon acted as both accuser and judge).

Entry into the city was probably seen as involving a punishment for the man for his carelessness, and as a safeguard in keeping him under observation in case he was more guilty than he seemed. He could not leave the city. It also ensured that the avenger of blood could not slay an innocent man, and satisfied them that at least he could not kill again. It thus had a manifold purpose.

Again in this chapter ‘thee, thou’ predominates, but ‘ye’ occurs in verse 19 where the thought turns to those in the locality.


Verses 1-9

III. REGULATIONS CONCERNING THE SHEDDING OF BLOOD (Deuteronomy 19:1 to Deuteronomy 21:9).

In this section the question of different ways of shedding blood is considered. Lying behind this section is the commandment, ‘you shall do no murder’. It should be noted that in some sense it continues the theme of the regulation of justice.

The shedding of the blood of men was always a prominent issue with God (compare Genesis 9:5-6). It is dealt with in a number of aspects.

a). In Deuteronomy 19 the question is raised as to how to deal with deliberate murder and accidental killing through cities of refuge. And this is linked with the removal of ancient landmarks which could cause, or be brought about by, violence and death, and was doing violence to the covenant of Yahweh. The mention of it here demonstrates the seriousness of this crime. It is also linked with the need to avoid false witness which could lead to an unjust death or could bring death on the false witness.

b). In Deuteronomy 20 the question of death in warfare is dealt with, both as something to be faced by the people themselves, and then with regard to how to deal with a captured enemy, differentiating between neighbouring lands and native Canaanites. But the trees are not to be killed.

c). In Deuteronomy 21:1-9 the question is dealt with as to what to do if a slain man is found and no one knows who did it.


Verses 1-14

Chapter 19 The Setting Up Of Cities of Refuge For the Manslayer. Treatment of False Witnesses.

The section from Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 18:22 has dealt with setting up the powers in the land for the maintenance of justice and to ensure the keeping of Yahweh’s Instruction (Torah). That had involved setting up the system of justice, the future possible king, the priests and Levites, and the prophets, but one major thing that had not been covered was the way of dealing with a violent death in the land brought about innocently, and thus out of the range of justice. Such a violent death in Yahweh’s land was seen as a serious matter, for it was a violation against God Himself Who had sovereignty over human life. A life over which He had full jurisdiction had been taken within His own land. The situation had to be righted.

But it was also of concern to God that the innocent should not suffer. If the death had occurred accidentally then the death of the slayer was not required. However, this could not be dealt with by an ordinary court because by the time the court convened the man might well be dead, slain by an avenger of blood. For the custom with regard to such deaths was that the dead man’s relatives were seen as having the right to avenge the blood of the dead man on the slayer the moment that they could find him. Indeed it was seen as their duty to seek him out and take blood for blood (compare Genesis 4:14 where Cain was afraid of his father and his brothers. See also Genesis 4:23). They were considered to have the absolute right to avenge the blood of the slain man, so much so that no one, apart from those so appointed by God, would refuse it. Nor could they be found guilty of murder for what they did. It was the only effective method of practical policing and preventing murder available in early tribal societies and all were agreed on it. The problem was that it could then result in blood feuds or innocent persons being killed, something which the cities of refuge were designed to prevent.

This is the only possible real explanation of all the facts. Had the avenger of blood been an official or an independent party he would not have pursued the manslayer in anger.

So God had ordained that cities of refuge were to be appointed as soon as they were settled in the land, where manslayers who claimed to be innocent could flee for refuge and be safe, and where, if there was any dispute, a proper trial could be arranged so as to discover whether the killing was premeditated or accidental (Numbers 35:9-28; compare Exodus 21:12-14). Such cities had already been set up in the part of the country that they then were in, in Transjordan (Deuteronomy 4:41-43). But once they crossed the Jordan they would be necessary throughout the whole land. Details of these and their purpose is now given.

These cities of refuge replaced the ancient idea of sanctuary at the altar (Exodus 21:13-14) which is testified to in many civilisations and gave the opportunity for a man who took advantage of it to be given the opportunity of a fair trial. If the man was clearly guilt, however, the sanctuary would not save him (see 1 Kings 2:30-34, where Solomon acted as both accuser and judge).

Entry into the city was probably seen as involving a punishment for the man for his carelessness, and as a safeguard in keeping him under observation in case he was more guilty than he seemed. He could not leave the city. It also ensured that the avenger of blood could not slay an innocent man, and satisfied them that at least he could not kill again. It thus had a manifold purpose.

Again in this chapter ‘thee, thou’ predominates, but ‘ye’ occurs in verse 19 where the thought turns to those in the locality.

The Setting Up Of Cities of Refuge And Their Purpose And The Non-Removal of Landmarks (Deuteronomy 19:1-14).

The idea behind this passage is that the land is Yahweh’s and He has given it to them for them to possess it (Deuteronomy 19:2 and Deuteronomy 19:14). It is now to be their inheritance (Deuteronomy 19:3 Deuteronomy 19:14). Its purity and integrity must therefore be defended at all costs. In lieu of this He has ordered that the nations at present living in it are to be cut off without mercy (Deuteronomy 19:1), for they have defiled it, while any blood shed in the land, other than that justly or accidentally shed, shall be compensated for by the death of the slayer without pity. And because it is His the ancient landmarks must not be removed, for they declare Yahweh’s ownership of the land, and to move them will misappropriate it from Yahweh. The emphasis therefore is on maintaining the land pure and keeping it as Yahweh has originally given it, with all portions remaining as given.

In order for this to be so, however, provision has to be made in case blood is shed innocently. And this is the purpose of the cities of refuge. Those who claim to have shed blood innocently may flee there and be safe, but if when their case is judged they are found to be guilty they are to be handed over to the avengers of blood. So first the Canaanites are to be cut off, then the cities of refuge are to be set up, and then no landmark must ever be removed, for they declare ownership of the land under Yahweh.

a When Yahweh your God shall cut off the nations, whose land Yahweh your God gives you, and you succeed them, and dwell in their cities, and in their houses, you shall set apart three cities for yourself in the midst of your land, which Yahweh your God gives you to possess it, you shall prepare yourself the way, and divide the borders of your land, which Yahweh your God causes you to inherit, into three parts, that every manslayer may flee there (Deuteronomy 19:3).

b And this is the case of the manslayer, that shall flee there and live, whoever kills his neighbour unawares, and did not hate in time past, as when a man goes into the forest with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetches a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slips from the shaft, and lights on his neighbour so that he dies, 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 (Deuteronomy 19:4-6).

c For this reason I command you, saying, “You shall set apart three cities for yourself (Deuteronomy 19:7).

d And if Yahweh your God enlarge your border, as He has sworn to your fathers, and give you all the land which He promised to give to your fathers if you shall keep all this commandment to do it, which I command you this day, to love Yahweh your God, and to walk ever in his ways (Deuteronomy 19:8-9 a).

c Then shall you add three cities more for yourself, besides these three, that innocent blood be not shed in the midst of your land, which Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance, and so blood be on you (Deuteronomy 19:9-10).

b But if any man hate his neighbour, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally so that he dies, and he flee into one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him from there, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die (Deuteronomy 19:11-12).

a Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall put away the innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with you. You shall not remove your neighbour’s landmark, which they of old time have set, in your inheritance which you shall inherit, in the land that Yahweh your God gives you to possess it (Deuteronomy 19:13-14)

It is noteworthy here that Deuteronomy 19:14 is deliberately connected with Deuteronomy 19:1-13 by the phrases used. Note ‘land which Yahweh your God gives you to possess it’ in Deuteronomy 19:2 and the same in Deuteronomy 19:14, and ‘which God causes you to inherit’ in Deuteronomy 19:3 with ‘your inheritance which you will inherit’ in Deuteronomy 19:14.

Note that in ‘a’ once the Canaanites have been (justly) cut off (the assumption is that their eye is not to pity them for they have committed capital crimes in the same way as those in Deuteronomy 19:13) and Yahweh gives Israel their land and they succeed them and dwell in their cities, the cities of refuge are to be set up and made easily accessible for manslayers, and in the parallel landmarks are not to be moved in their land (for it has been given by Yahweh), while those who deliberately slay others will be slain without pity in order to compensate for and put away the innocent blood which has been shed. In ‘b’ the one who kills his neighbour unawares may flee there ‘lest the avenger of blood pursue the manslayer -- and smite him mortally’ and he will then be safe, and in the parallel the one who hates his neighbour and slays him deliberately shall be delivered ‘into the hand of the avenger of blood that he may die’ . In ‘c’ they are to set apart three cities, and in the parallel, if things prosper they must set aside three more cities. In ‘d’ these extra cities are dependent on their being faithful and thus expanding in order to possess even more land.

Deuteronomy 19:1-3

When Yahweh your God shall cut off the nations, whose land Yahweh your God gives you, and you succeed them, and dwell in their cities, and in their houses, you shall set apart three cities for yourself in the midst of your land, which Yahweh your God gives you to possess it. You shall prepare yourself the way, and divide the borders of your land, which Yahweh your God causes you to inherit, into three parts, that every manslayer may flee there.’

The introduction of this passage in this section of Moses’ speech brings out how horrific unnatural deaths were seen to be. Above all ‘crimes’ they were dealt with as something to be looked at on their own. For all life belonged to Yahweh and an unnatural death was therefore to rob Him of what was His and the spilt blood defiled His land. It cried out to Him.

We should note two things about these verses. The first is that they are based on Yahweh ‘cutting off the nations’ (compare Deuteronomy 12:29). It is no coincidence that such a phrase introduces a section dealing with violent deaths, the first accidental, the second in war and the third murder. ‘Cutting off the nations’ were deaths that were justified because of the behaviour of those nations. They cleansed the land. But one of the very reasons why they had been cut off was their abominable behaviour. Such activity as would be instanced by a deliberate violent death or the removing of ancient landmarks (an attempt to misappropriate Yahweh’s land) was not to be countenanced in a land that belonged to Yahweh and had been cleansed. It must not be. But equally vital was that innocent blood should not be shed because of it, where the death was accidental. This also had to be prevented. Blood for blood must not punish the innocent.

Secondly we should note the stress in this passage on the fact that Yahweh was now giving the land to Israel. This is stressed in three different ways, ‘whose land Yahweh your God gives you -- your land which Yahweh your God gives you to possess it -- your land, which Yahweh your God causes you to inherit.’ Compare Deuteronomy 19:14. Also compare Deuteronomy 15:4 but even that does not have quite the same extended threefold stress. Here the land is declared with great stress to be Yahweh’s gift to them, it is their possession given to them by Him, and it is what they will inherit from Him. What belongs to Him, and what they have received in this threefold way as such a munificent gift from Him, must not be defiled with innocent blood deliberately taken, nor misappropriated. This is the background to the setting up of the cities of refuge. Vengeance must not be taken in His land on innocent men. It must be prevented. There must be a way of deliverance provided.

This vengeance was to be prevented, by Israel yielding up out of the many cities and houses that He would give them to dwell in, three cities to be cities of refuge (a complete threefold provision). This benefit was ‘for themselves’. It was accomplished by taking the land that He would by then have given them, and which they will inherit, and dividing it into three parts, with a city of refuge in each part, selected for the convenience with which they could be reached (and because they were Levitical cities where the Levites could have oversight over the situation - Joshua 21:13; Joshua 21:21; Joshua 21:27; Joshua 21:32; Joshua 21:38. That this idea of the setting up of the cities was ancient comes out in that at this stage it was anticipated that more would need to be set up, something which did not happen - see Deuteronomy 19:8-10).

“You shall prepare yourself the way.” Some have seen this as signifying building smooth roads to the cities, but if so it fits rather inconsistently. Thus we might therefore translate as ‘measure yourself the way’, that is, measure the relative distances. The aim is to make the cities as accessible as possible from anywhere within the territory of Israel.

This huge significance of a violent death in the land is stressed elsewhere. Compare the situation in Deuteronomy 21:1-9 when a dead body is found where no one knows who has done it, where again innocence has to be demonstrated, and there a death had to take place on behalf of the nearest town, probably as blood for blood to ritually satisfy the avengers of blood. It was not a sacrifice. Possibly it was a substitutionary or representative execution, or, being totally innocent and slain in an innocent place, was bearing blood for the innocent. It demonstrated that if the murderer was found that would be his punishment as determined by that town, thus releasing the town from having vengeance wrought against it.

Deuteronomy 19:4-6

And this is the case of the manslayer, that shall flee there and live, whoever kills his neighbour unawares, and did not hate in time past, as when a man goes into the forest with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetches a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slips from the shaft, and lights on his neighbour so that he dies, 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.’

An example of the kind of manslayer who may flee there and live is now described. It is one who kills his neighbour unawares without having enmity in his heart. Thus for example, one who goes with his neighbour into the forest to hew wood, and he begins his stroke to cut the tree, and the head falls from the shaft and hits his neighbour so that he dies. Such a man may flee to a city of refuge.

He would have to do it quickly. Once the death was known about, the avengers of blood would be incensed and would not rest until they had taken his life. It was agreed by all that it was their family duty. They only knew that their relative had been slain. That is why the city must be accessible, for if the way was long he may be overtaken and his innocent blood shed in Yahweh’s land. And that must not be for he was not worthy of death having killed the other man innocently.

This preventative method was necessary because of the deeply ingrained belief about avenging blood. Simply forbidding retaliation would not have worked. By the time the impassioned men had been told that the death had been innocent, it might have been too late. Even if they had finally been convinced the innocent man might well be dead. In a society where members of a family had to protect each other because there was no one else to protect them such a situation could inevitably arise. The cities of refuge saved the lives of many innocent men.

Deuteronomy 19:7

For this reason I command you, saying, “You shall set apart three cities for yourself.’

And that, quite briefly, is why Yahweh commanded that they set aside three cities for themselves for this purpose. Then once a man was within one of those cities of refuge everyone in that city was bound to protect him. To slay him there would be murder, itself punishable by death.

Deuteronomy 19:8-10

And if Yahweh your God enlarge your border, as he has sworn to your fathers, and give you all the land which he promised to give to your fathers, if you shall keep all this commandment to do it, which I command you this day, to love Yahweh your God, and to walk ever in his ways, then shall you add three cities more for yourself, besides these three, that innocent blood be not shed in the midst of your land, which Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance, and so blood be on you.’

And this principle was so important that if God extended their borders even further as He had promised to their fathers, as a result of their keeping the whole of Yahweh’s overall commandment in the covenant, loving Him, and walking always in His ways, then a further three cities should also be set apart so that distances might not become too great, for it was important that innocent blood should not be shed in land that belonged to Yahweh, and was given by Him to them for an inheritance. For if it was shed there once He had given them the land, the innocent blood would be laid at their door. It would be ‘on them’.

This appointment of three more cities in fact never happened because sadly Israel never fulfilled the covenant sufficiently for it to occur. (This again supports the genuineness of the speech. Who would have put something like this in, and why would they do it, if they already knew that it had not happened? It would be realism gone mad). But it does serve to bring out the conditional nature of their position in the land.

Deuteronomy 19:11-12

But if any man hate his neighbour, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally so that he dies, and he flee into one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him from there, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die.’

But if it is proved through witnesses that the man had actually hated his neighbour, and had lain in wait for him, and had risen up against him deliberately in order to smite him mortally so that he died, his fleeing to the city of refuge merely bought him time. The case against him would be examined, and if considered proved, would result in him being handed over to the avengers of blood who could then execute him. In this case it was necessary that he should die so that the land would be cleansed.

This procedure would be carried out by the elders of his city, who, if they examined the facts and thought that there was a good case against the manslayer, could call for him to be handed over for examination. In the wilderness the examination was by the whole congregation (Numbers 35:24-25), but that was not convenient once they were spread throughout the land. So the city elders would then examine him. If he was found guilty he would be handed over to the avengers of blood. If he was found innocent he would be returned to the city of refuge, for there only would he be safe from the avengers of blood. It was the only way to ensure his safety.

However once a High Priest died that in some way dealt with the innocent manslayer’s problem so that he was then free to go wherever he liked with complete immunity from the avengers of blood (Numbers 35:25). We do not know why exactly it was effective. Perhaps it was because in the death of the High Priest all that had previously happened was considered to have ‘died’ with him, with a new era beginning. All could begin again. Thus his guilt was no more. Perhaps because the High Priest, as leading Levite over the levitical cities, was seen as having died bearing for the inhabitants of those special cities the guilt of deaths brought about innocently. Perhaps it was because his death as representative of the whole people was seen as in some way atoning for all blood spilt in innocence by that people.

Deuteronomy 19:13

Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall put away the innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with you.’

No eye should pity the guilty manslayer, any more than they were to pity the Canaanites, for it was necessary for the innocent blood to be avenged so that the guilt for it should not rest on the whole of Israel, and so that Israel might continue to prosper. Thus the cities of refuge did not prevent justice. They prevented miscarriages of justice.

The lessons that come home from these cities of refuge are firstly the seriousness with which God treats deliberate murder, secondly that those who kill by accident should not bear guilt, and thirdly that just as the city of refuge was available for men to find deliverance, so our Lord Jesus Christ will be our city of refuge, even though in our case we are guilty. For as our High Priest He has died for us so that we may be forgiven and go free.

Removal Of Ancient Landmarks.

Almost as criminal as the shedding of innocent blood was the removal of ancient landmarks, either secretly or by use of force. Ancient landmarks were sacred, having been there from time immemorial, marking off Yahweh’s land and indicating that it was His. To move them was to go directly against Yahweh and to seek to appropriate land that had been long marked off by ancient custom in Yahweh’s land. It was to steal directly from Yahweh. And it put those who did it under a curse (Deuteronomy 27:17). The placing of this among matters dealing with the shedding of blood demonstrates its importance. Nothing would more likely cause the shedding of blood than such a violation of ancient rights.

As we have already seen similar phrases are applied here in Deuteronomy 19:14 as in Deuteronomy 19:2-3. ‘Land which Yahweh your God gives you to possess it’ is found in Deuteronomy 19:2 and Deuteronomy 19:14, and compare ‘which God causes you to inherit’ in Deuteronomy 19:3 with ‘your inheritance which you will inherit’ in Deuteronomy 19:14. It is the fact that the land is Yahweh’s gift, and is their inheritance from Him, that makes it essential that they shall respect its purity and integrity. They must neither shed blood there nor remove landmarks.

Deuteronomy 19:14

You shall not remove your neighbour’s landmark, which they of old time have set, in your inheritance which you shall inherit, in the land that Yahweh your God gives you to possess it.’

When Yahweh gave them the land as their inheritance to possess, the ancient landmarks that had already been set in place must not be removed. They were ancient markers, and were part of the inheritance, and were to be used to assist in the dividing up of the land, being looked on as sacrosanct. They would then secure the land to its owners. They had been set there before Yahweh gave them the land as their inheritance, and were therefore equally Yahweh’s gift. In a sense they could be seen as having been set there by Yahweh. To seek to move them was to blatantly go against Yahweh’s anciently expressed will. It was to seek to steal what belonged to Yahweh and was lent by Him to another and was not theirs. Compare Proverbs 23:10 where moving a boundary marker is compared with stealing from defenceless orphans. The purpose in doing it could only be in order to defraud Yahweh’s people (Job 24:2; Isaiah 5:8; Hosea 5:10). It was to make the return of land in the year of Yubile more difficult because of the problem of identification. Its being included after the passage on the defiling of the land by the shedding of blood brings out how great a crime it was seen to be. It was to take away someone’s livelihood, thus leaving them to die. And it would cause violence which would almost certainly result in the shedding of blood. But even worse it was direct rebellion against Yahweh and repudiation of His sovereignty.

We may ask what ancient landmarks have to do with us? In fact they teach valuable lessons. Firstly they indicate that God controls all things and has had all things planned from the beginning and has ‘staked His claim’ for us long before we were born. Secondly His concern about their maintenance indicates that God is concerned with all the things of our daily lives. No one can intrude on our lives without God knowing and caring. Thirdly they indicate that all that we have comes from God, and that He has marked it all off beforehand for our benefit. And fourthly it guarantees that our eternal inheritance is secure for it is signposted from eternity.


Verses 15-21

The Evidence Required Before Conviction For A Crime: The Punishment of False Witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15-21).

The section on justice and the governing of the land which began at Deuteronomy 16:18 now ends with the principles on which justice must be decided laid out, and with a warning to false witnesses. The first principle is that no one should be condemned simply on the testimony of one witness. The second that a man proved to be a false witness must be punished in accordance with the severity of the charge.

What follows is a case where a man brings a charge against another, and explains what is to be done where that ‘witness’ is proved to have brought a false charge and to be a false witness. It thus also underlines the demand in all cases that one witness is not sufficient. Two or three witnesses are required if a case is to be made satisfactorily.

Analysis using the words of Moses.

a One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sins. At the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall a matter be established (Deuteronomy 19:15).

b If an unrighteous witness rise up against any man to testify against him of wrongdoing, then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before Yahweh, before the priests and the judges that shall be in those days (Deuteronomy 19:16-17).

b 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 you do to him, as he had thought to do to his brother (Deuteronomy 19:18).

a So shall you put away the evil from the midst of you, and those who remain will hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil in the midst of you, and your eyes shall not pity; life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot (Deuteronomy 19:19-21).

Note that in ‘a’ the system of accepting testimony must be fair and reasonable, and not be dependent on only one witness, for that would be suspicious, and in the parallel any judgment will thus put away evil from among them. Note the abundance of charges in ‘a’, ‘for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sins’ and the abundance of comparisons in the parallel, ‘life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot’. In ‘b’ if the charge is brought that a man is a false witness it must be brought before the judges, and in the parallel if after examination he be found to be a false witness he shall be punished accordingly.

Deuteronomy 19:15

One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sins. At the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall a matter be established.’

No man must ever be condemned on the basis of one witness. Indeed cases where there was only one witness could only be looked on with suspicion. At least two witnesses, and preferably three, were to be required before a matter could be seen as established (compare Deuteronomy 17:6). This applied to all cases and was to be the basis of all justice so that men may not be falsely accused by one person out of spite or hatred. The danger that would arise from that is now exemplified by dealing with a case of false witness.

“For any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sins.” The coverage is wide. It covers all offences, as does the final judgment in Deuteronomy 9:21.

Deuteronomy 19:16-19

If an unrighteous witness rise up against any man to testify against him of wrongdoing, then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before Yahweh, 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 you do to him, as he had thought to do to his brother. So shall you put away the evil from the midst of you.’

The section began with a warning that justices must behave justly and rightly (Deuteronomy 16:18-20). It ends with the requirement for witnesses that they behave in the same way. If a man accuses another of a serious offence, serious enough to be brought before the supreme court consisting of priests and judges in the presence of Yahweh at the Tabernacle, compare Deuteronomy 17:9 where judge is singular (here the local judges may have been called in), and on full and careful examination his accusation is seen to be false, then he himself will be punished with the punishment that would have fallen on the other if he had been found guilty. Thus will the evil of false witness be put away from among them.

The fact that a number of judges were called on confirms the seriousness with which this case was being viewed. It may well have been referred to the supreme court because it was a serious charge, and there was only one witness. But the plural may indicate that the judges local to where the men lived had also been called in.

Deuteronomy 19:20

And those who remain will hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil in the midst of you.’

And the result will be that all other members of Israel will hear, and fear, and will no longer behave in such an evil way. False witness was, and is, always a problem for justice. Even two or three witnesses might be in collusion, although hopefully an astute judge could question them to demonstrate whether they were reliable. It was such a problem to the courts that this rather drastic treatment was meted out in respect of it. The accuser had desired to bring this punishment on an innocent party, instead it would come on themselves. And the fact that there could be such a false witness evidenced why at least two witnesses must always be required.

Deuteronomy 19:21

And your eyes shall not pity; life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.’

No pity was to be shown to such a false witness. The punishment should be exactly according to what he was trying to bring on the other, whether life for life (for accusations which could cause the death penalty), eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. It should be noted that this law of retribution was actually a merciful one. It limited the punishment that could be given to a fair basis. Nothing worse must be done to a person than they had done to another. It did not always mean that it had to be literally applied. Agreement could be reached on a lesser penalty or on compensation. But in the final analysis it was the limit past which punishment could not go. The law was common throughout the Ancient Near East. Jesus stressed that the Christian should not use it in personal dealings (Matthew 5:38-39). Christians were to respond in love, even to their enemies and those who offended against them.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 19:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/deuteronomy-19.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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