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 Numbers 35:9-29 [9] And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, [10] Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, When you be come over Jordan into the land of Canaan; [11] Then you shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you; that the slayer may flee thither, which kills any person at unawares. [12] And they shall be to you cities for refuge from the avenger; that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment. [13] And of these cities which you shall give six cities shall you have for refuge. [14] You shall give three cities on this side Jordan, and three cities shall you give in the land of Canaan, which shall be cities of refuge. [15] These six cities shall be a refuge, both for the children of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them: that every one that kills any person unawares may flee thither. [16] And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. [17] And if he smite him with throwing a stone, with which he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. [18] Or if he smite him with an hand weapon of wood, with which he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. [19] The revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer: when he meets him, he shall slay him. [20] But if he thrust him of hatred, or hurl at him by laying of wait, that he die; [21] Or in enmity smite him with his hand, that he die: he that smote him shall surely be put to death; for he is a murderer: the revenger of blood shall slay the murderer, when he meets him. [22] But if he thrust him suddenly without enmity, or have cast on him any thing without laying of wait, [23] Or with any stone, with which a man may die, seeing him not, and cast it on him, that he die, and was not his enemy, neither sought his harm: [24] Then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the revenger of blood according to these judgments: [25] And the congregation shall deliver the slayer out of the hand of the revenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to the city of his refuge, where he was fled: and he shall abide in it to the death of the high priest, which was anointed with the holy oil. [26] But if the slayer shall at any time come without the border of the city of his refuge, where he was fled; [27] And the revenger of blood find him without the borders of the city of his refuge, and the revenger of blood kill the slayer; he shall not be guilty of blood: [28] Because he should have remained in the city of his refuge until the death of the high priest: but after the death of the high priest the slayer shall return into the land of his possession. [29] So these things shall be for a statute of judgment to you throughout your generations in all your dwellings.
American King James Version×
; Deuteronomy 4:41-43 Deuteronomy 4:41-43 [41] Then Moses severed three cities on this side Jordan toward the sun rise; [42] That the slayer might flee thither, which should kill his neighbor unawares, and hated him not in times past; and that fleeing to one of these cities he might live: [43] Namely, Bezer in the wilderness, in the plain country, of the Reubenites; and Ramoth in Gilead, of the Gadites; and Golan in Bashan, of the Manassites.
American King James Version×
). 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 Deuteronomy 19:1-13 [1] When the LORD your God has cut off the nations, whose land the LORD your God gives you, and you succeed them, and dwell in their cities, and in their houses; [2] You shall separate three cities for you in the middle of your land, which the LORD your God gives you to possess it. [3] You shall prepare you a way, and divide the coasts of your land, which the LORD your God gives you to inherit, into three parts, that every slayer may flee thither. [4] And this is the case of the slayer, which shall flee thither, that he may live: Whoever kills his neighbor ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past; [5] As when a man goes into the wood with his neighbor to hew wood, and his hand fetches a stroke with the ax to cut down the tree, and the head slips from the helve, and lights on his neighbor, that he die; he shall flee to one of those cities, and live: [6] Lest the avenger of the blood pursue the slayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and slay him; whereas he was not worthy of death, inasmuch as he hated him not in time past. [7] Why I command you, saying, You shall separate three cities for you. [8] And if the LORD your God enlarge your coast, as he has sworn to your fathers, and give you all the land which he promised to give to your fathers; [9] If you shall keep all these commandments to do them, which I command you this day, to love the LORD your God, and to walk ever in his ways; then shall you add three cities more for you, beside these three: [10] That innocent blood be not shed in your land, which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance, and so blood be on you. [11] But if any man hate his neighbor, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally that he die, and flees into one of these cities: [12] Then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him there, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. [13] 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.
American King James Version×
; Numbers 35:25 Numbers 35:25And the congregation shall deliver the slayer out of the hand of the revenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to the city of his refuge, where he was fled: and he shall abide in it to the death of the high priest, which was anointed with the holy oil.
American King James Version×
). Further, as Numbers 35:12 Numbers 35:12And they shall be to you cities for refuge from the avenger; that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment.
American King James Version×
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 Numbers 35:15These six cities shall be a refuge, both for the children of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them: that every one that kills any person unawares may flee thither.
American King James Version×
). 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 Deuteronomy 19:4And this is the case of the slayer, which shall flee thither, that he may live: Whoever kills his neighbor ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past;
American King James Version×
; 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 Numbers 35:23Or with any stone, with which a man may die, seeing him not, and cast it on him, that he die, and was not his enemy, neither sought his harm:
American King James Version×
). It would also include unintentional conduct—the perpetrator kills a person without wanting to do it (compare Deuteronomy 19:5 Deuteronomy 19:5As when a man goes into the wood with his neighbor to hew wood, and his hand fetches a stroke with the ax to cut down the tree, and the head slips from the helve, and lights on his neighbor, that he die; he shall flee to one of those cities, and live:
American King James Version×
; Numbers 35:22 Numbers 35:22But if he thrust him suddenly without enmity, or have cast on him any thing without laying of wait,
American King James Version×
). On the other hand, if the perpetrator hated the victim in the past, he had to be executed (Deuteronomy 19:4 Deuteronomy 19:4And this is the case of the slayer, which shall flee thither, that he may live: Whoever kills his neighbor ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past;
American King James Version×
, 6, 11; Numbers 35:20-21 Numbers 35:20-21 [20] But if he thrust him of hatred, or hurl at him by laying of wait, that he die; [21] Or in enmity smite him with his hand, that he die: he that smote him shall surely be put to death; for he is a murderer: the revenger of blood shall slay the murderer, when he meets him.
American King James Version×
). 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 Numbers 35:16-18 [16] And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. [17] And if he smite him with throwing a stone, with which he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. [18] Or if he smite him with an hand weapon of wood, with which he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.
American King James Version×
), 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 Deuteronomy 19:2-4 [2] You shall separate three cities for you in the middle of your land, which the LORD your God gives you to possess it. [3] You shall prepare you a way, and divide the coasts of your land, which the LORD your God gives you to inherit, into three parts, that every slayer may flee thither. [4] And this is the case of the slayer, which shall flee thither, that he may live: Whoever kills his neighbor ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past;
American King James Version×
).

Moses next cautions the people not to remove their neighbor’s landmarks (Deuteronomy 19:14 Deuteronomy 19:14You shall not remove your neighbor’s landmark, which they of old time have set in your inheritance, which you shall inherit in the land that the LORD your God gives you to possess it.
American King James Version×
). 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 brother…life 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 Romans 13:9-10 [9] For this, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, You shall not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. [10] Love works no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
American King James Version×
) or seek vengeance in any manner (Matthew 5:38-39 Matthew 5:38-39 [38] You have heard that it has been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: [39] But I say to you, That you resist not evil: but whoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.
American King James Version×
; Romans 12:19 Romans 12:19Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place to wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, said the Lord.
American King James Version×
). This does not mean we must desist from righting a wrong, such as taking disciplinary action or requiring restitution.

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