Deuteronomy 19: 1-13: Cities of Refuge
1 When the LORD your God has cut off the nations whose land the LORD your God is giving you, and you have dispossessed them and settled in their towns and in their houses, 2 you shall set apart three cities in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess. 3 You shall calculate the distances and divide into three regions the land that the LORD your God gives you as a possession, so that any homicide can flee to one of them.
4 Now this is the case of a homicide who might flee there and live, that is, someone who has killed another person unintentionally when the two had not been at enmity before: 5 Suppose someone goes into the forest with another to cut wood, and when one of them swings the ax to cut down a tree, the head slips from the handle and strikes the other person who then dies; the killer may flee to one of these cities and live. 6 But if the distance is too great, the avenger of blood in hot anger might pursue and overtake and put the killer to death, although a death sentence was not deserved, since the two had not been at enmity before. 7 Therefore I command you: You shall set apart three cities.
8 If the LORD your God enlarges your territory, as he swore to your ancestors– and he will give you all the land that he promised your ancestors to give you, 9 provided you diligently observe this entire commandment that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God and walking always in his ways– then you shall add three more cities to these three, 10 so that the blood of an innocent person may not be shed in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, thereby bringing bloodguilt upon you. 11 But if someone at enmity with another lies in wait and attacks and takes the life of that person, and flees into one of these cities, 12 then the elders of the killer’s city shall send to have the culprit taken from there and handed over to the avenger of blood to be put to death. 13 Show no pity; you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may go well with you.
With the roles that people will play within the community to ensure justice established in chapters 17 and 18 (judges, priests, king and prophets) now this section of Deuteronomy turns to expounding upon laws that continue to flesh out the ten commandments, particularly how the people of Israel are to relate to one another. There is less of a narrative and more of a didactic tone as the exposition of the law is intended to illustrate what the covenant life of the people is to look like and the manner in which they are interconnected with their God, the land and with one another. The author of Deuteronomy may not move systematically through the various commandments in articulating this exposition of the law, but is continually concerned to relate the adherence to the commandments to the people’s continuing life under the covenant with their LORD.
The setting up of cities of refuge assumes a situation very different from our modern legal system. In ancient honor bound agrarian societies if a member of the family was killed it was the family’s responsibility to enact justice. Deuteronomy assumes this type of system but also limits it with the provision of cities of refuge where a person who has killed another may flee to. Mentioned in Exodus 21: 13 and later designated in Joshua 20 they provide a place where the cycle of violence may be stopped providing the killing is accidental. If the killing is murder, the elders fill a judicial function in having the murderer turned over from the city of refuge to the family. The family remains the executor of judgment in this system.
Within this law setting aside both the cities of refuge and the method of justice to prevent a murder from remaining in sanctuary within these cities is an understanding of innocent blood which would contaminate the land and bring bloodguilt upon the people. Perhaps the understanding of this bloodguilt is similar to God’s response to Cain in Genesis 4:
And the LORD said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now cursed you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. Genesis 4: 10-11
Innocent blood calls out to God who is ultimately the one who will have vengeance. There is an understanding that only blood can atone for blood and that the injury is not only against the individual but also the community and their holiness before God.
Issues of revenge and vengeance are huge threats to order within any society. There needs to be some manner that wrongs can be addressed. Yet, there also is a role for the legal system of a society to place a limit on the practice of revenge or vigilante justice. As much as Americans may love characters like Batman who are symbols of vigilante justice in a society where justice is perceived to be lacking. The reality of people creating their own systems of justice in a system where justice is not being carried out effectively (or rigorously enough) has led to many terrible acts throughout history. As will be outlined later in the chapter what is being sought is not vengeance but instead proportional justice. The lex talionis, (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, etc.) which probably was not enforced literally, provided a formula for justice that did not exceed the damage caused.
Deuteronomy 19:14 Honoring Boundaries
14 You must not move your neighbor’s boundary marker, set up by former generations, on the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.
The gift of the land to the people of Israel was a part of their living out of the providence of their LORD. Within this society, where land is the primary means of producing food and ultimately wealth, the book of Deuteronomy has a very different understanding of land than our modern understanding derived from philosophers like John Locke or Adam Smith. For the people of Israel land was to remain with a family and was not viewed as private property that could be bartered or sold, it was to remain with the family for as long as the people remained faithful to God’s commandments. It was contingent on their relation to God, not to their ability to acquire more wealth. Moving the boundary markers on a neighbor’s property is stealing from their neighbor in addition to failing to trust in the provision of God for their needs.
Deuteronomy 19: 15-21 Bearing False Witness
15 A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained. 16 If a malicious witness comes forward to accuse someone of wrongdoing, 17 then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days, 18 and the judges shall make a thorough inquiry. If the witness is a false witness, having testified falsely against another, 19 then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20 The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you. 21 Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Central to the pursuit of justice is truthfulness. Truth is not only about not telling falsehoods, but also about the damage it does to the neighbor and by extension the community. Fear of punishment is a part of the understanding for obedience in Deuteronomy. People are to fear the consequences of their actions both from God and from the community. Deuteronomy’s justice is a harsh justice but it is a proportional one, and here the lex talionis is applied to the concept of bearing false witness or perjury against another. The punishment is in relation to the damage the false witness intended to do to the neighbor.
Within any community people will act out of self-interest and look for advantages over their neighbor. Yet, Israel was intended to embody something different. They were to look out for and to care for their neighbor. Within the laws of Deuteronomy safe guards are put in place, like the provision of needing multiple witnesses to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing and the important role of the judges and the priests in ensuring an impartial hearing. For Deuteronomy’s author the consequences are too high for justice to be corrupted. The bloodguilt would cry out against the community before God and the people would find themselves needing to atone for the wrongs done to the innocent.
Some Christians embrace this harsh judgment within Deuteronomy and would love to see a legal system that is as unforgiving and which embraces capital punishment for a number of crimes. They may also want to ensure that they can have the right to bear arms and have the ability to be enforcers of this system like the families in the ancient world would do in relation to a murder. Yet, Christians also have to wrestle with the way Jesus engages this text Matthew’s gospel for example:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist and evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. Matthew 5: 38-42
Jesus was certainly concerned about a community that could live in justice but his manner of speaking about the way this community was centered more upon forgiveness than on justice. Perhaps Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s famous quote that, “there is no future without forgiveness.” Which came out of his experiences in South Africa, represent the challenge of constructing a society where forgiveness can lead to justice. But whether we talk about Jesus (see immediately before the above quote in Matthew 5: 33-37), or Archbishop Tutu, or Deuteronomy one of the prerequisites for a society that has justice is truthfulness.