Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy 19

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Deuteronomy 19

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Cities of Refuge, Manslaughter and Deterrence 

Moses commands Israel to set aside three cities of refuge in the land west of the Jordan just as three cities had already been set aside in the land east of the Jordan for any manslayer—one who killed another person accidentally (see Numbers 35:9-29; Deuteronomy 4:41-43). Such a person could flee to any of these cities to escape a possible execution by an avenger of blood (a close relative of the victim), but he had to stay there until the high priest died (Deuteronomy 19:1-13; Numbers 35:25). Further, as Numbers 35:12 shows, the cities of refuge were established so that the manslayer could flee there in order to be tried fairly.

Several points should be considered here:

The perpetrator was only saved from death if he was a "manslayer," that is, if the death of the victim was caused accidentally (compare Numbers 35:15). Several examples are given throughout scripture to illustrate accidental conduct (which might not be the same as man's understanding of an "accident.") This would include unintentional or ignorant or unknowing conduct (Deuteronomy 19:4; compare margin in King James Version)—for example, the perpetrator kills a person by throwing a stone without knowing that the victim is there (compare Numbers 35:23). It would also include unintentional conduct—the perpetrator kills a person without wanting to do it (compare Deuteronomy 19:5; Numbers 35:22). On the other hand, if the perpetrator hated the victim in the past, he had to be executed (Deuteronomy 19:4, 6, 11; Numbers 35:20-21). Also, if he struck the victim intentionally with a stone, an iron implement, or a wooden hand weapon, even though he might not have hated the victim (Numbers 35:16-18), he was still considered deserving of death.

In addition, the accidental manslayer was not considered innocent, as his conduct, albeit unintentional or unknowing, led to the death of a person. The real sin here appears to be negligence because, with proper precautions, it would seem that such a death could have been avoided. The manslayer still had to flee to a city of refuge and stay there until the high priest died. If he left the city before the death of the high priest, the avenger of blood was permitted to kill him. Thus, the awareness that careless actions could lead to an extended period of confinement within a city would tend to make people more careful.

A manslayer would undoubtedly have been given refuge in any of the cities of refuge. However, he would most likely flee to the respective city assigned to the territory in which he happened to be, since it would almost always be the closest one and the most accessible. This is because each city of refuge was located in the center of its respective territory—and, within that territory, roads (with bridges and signs) were built that led to that city (Deuteronomy 19:2-4).

Moses next cautions the people not to remove their neighbor's landmarks (Deuteronomy 19:14). This was not a simple matter of moving a rock. Landmarks were stones that marked property boundaries. This law prohibited manipulating boundaries so as to rob someone of part of his property—his rightful inheritance. Moses next warned against testifying as a false witness (verses 16-17). If a witness was found to have brought up a false accusation, "then you shall do to him as he thought to have done to his for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot" (verses 18-21)—that is, punishment to fit the intended harm. Moreover, the purpose for severe penalties is also given here—to serve as a deterrent to others against committing similar crimes (verse 20). And when rightly administered, such laws do act as a deterrent.

Under the New Testament dispensation, a Christian is not to kill or harm anyone (Romans 13:9-10) or seek vengeance in any manner (Matthew 5:38-39; Romans 12:19). This does not mean we must desist from righting a wrong, such as taking disciplinary action or requiring restitution.