The next chapters of Deuteronomy, chapters 19 through 26, continue God’s rules and laws for living in community with other people. Earlier, He spoke on who the leaders of Israel were, what the religious festivals were, what the religious laws were, and which people God cared for in His chosen nation – every Israelite including the orphans, widows, poor, and foreigners living in the Promised Land. In Deuteronomy 19, God taught the Israelites how to live in community and what to do about manslayers, property infringements, and reputation offenders. These three relate to a person’s body, property, and integrity. In later chapters, God taught the Israelites rules and laws about wars, deaths, wives, crimes, and other daily concerns. Our study today deals with chapter 19 – manslaughter, places of refuge, land boundaries, and witnesses.
Cities of Refugee
Before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, God told them to set aside cities of refuge. Numbers 35 and Deuteronomy 19 of the Pentateuch speak of this. The Numbers 35 passage gives much detail on the purpose of the cities of refuge and in what way God wanted justice administered in them. In Numbers 35, God told the Israelites to set aside six cities throughout the Promised Land, east and west of the Jordan River, as places of refuge for people who kill other people. Moses spoke of three cities in Deuteronomy 19:2. In Joshua 20, we learn these cities were Kedesh in Galilee, Shechem in Ephraim, Kiriath-arba (Hebron) in Judah, Bezer in Reuben, Ramoth in Gilead, and Golan in Bashan. The cities of refuge were six of the forty-eight cities the Israelites were to give the Levites for them to live in and pasture their animals (Numbers 35:1-5). Remember, the Levites were God’s chosen people to be His priests and to lead the Israelites. The Levites were His judges and officers in matters of law. Hence, it makes sense that the cities of refuge would be cities of Levites.
God knows the hearts of humankind. He knows their desire for revenge when they feel wronged and when someone kills a family member. God gives great weight to the sanctity of life. He prepared in advance for the refuge of a manslayer until His judges rendered judgment. God told the Israelites in Deuteronomy 19:3, “You 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.” The word “prepare” in this verse comes from the Hebrew word kuwm. It means to set up and make ready. This passage is like the road Isaiah spoke of in chapters 40 and 42 when he told the people to prepare the road/way for the LORD. God knew people would kill one another accidentally and intentionally. He wanted a smooth road leading to redemption made for manslayers. He wanted godly justice meted out, not blood by the avenging family member. Like God declared prepare a way for the LORD, the true Redeemer, He said to prepare the road to refuge. He wanted to be the judge of people and not allow angry humans to be judges.
In Deuteronomy 19:4-10, God told the Israelites what His judgment is of the person who accidentally killed another person. In verse 4, God told them the accidental manslayer could flee to the refuge and live. That summarizes the law about accidental/unintentional manslaughter. To give more depth to His ruling, God gave an example of an unintentional manslayer. When a man chops down a tree and the axe slips off the handle and kills his friend, he is free from the judgment of death. God taught this same thing in Numbers 35:22-25 using three examples, each of which speak of the accident occurring without anger or enmity toward the one killed by the manslayer. The important point of who is a premeditated killer deserving the judgment of death and who is an accidental manslayer is made in these passages – the manslayer’s intention. Accidental manslaughter is a reason God established cities of refuge. Without the cities of refuge for a manslayer, the avenger of blood could pursue and kill the innocent person in the heat of anger. God provided redemption for the accidental manslayer.
“Avenger of Blood”
Let us look closer at who this “avenger of blood” from 19:6 is. The Hebrew word for “avenger” is ga’al. It means to redeem, avenge, revenge, or ransom. The Hebrew word for “blood” is dam. So the title of the person avenging a kinsman’s death was the “avenger of blood” or go’el ha-dam in Hebrew. The avenger was the relative closest, by blood, to the one harmed in body, property, or reputation. This avenger of the relative would confront the abuser of the relative and demand reparation and justice. The avenger/ga’al also redeemed a kinsman’s land or self from a creditor to whom the relative became indebted. The Hebrews called this person the avenger or the redeemer. People called this avenger the kinsman redeemer. From this idea of the kinsman-redeemer came the idea the Messiah as the redeemer of His people from their woes.
Purpose of Refuge Cities
As we return to our Deuteronomy 19 text, we must notice the Hebrew definition for the English word “manslayer.” The English word “manslayer” is ratsach in Hebrew. It means a killer, accidental or premeditated. God taught through Moses that killings occur by accident and by purposeful intention. People easily anger over the killing of a relative and in the heat of the moment seek revenge. God wanted the people to stop and realize manslaughters occur by accident, too. For this, He provided places of refuge for a set amount of time so that the avenging family’s anger cooled. In Numbers 35:25-28, God said the accidental manslayer has refuge from the avenger of blood within the walls of the refuge city. He or she could leave the refugee and be safe when the high priest at the time of the slaying died. The manslayer could then return to the land of his possession. In Numbers 35:29, God said, “These things shall be for a statutory ordinance to you throughout your generations in all your dwellings.” He said this exact law people must uphold for all manslayers without hedging, bribes, or any corruption.
Connected to their Covenant with God
In Deuteronomy 19:7-9, God reiterated that the Israelites set up three cities of refuge and that other cities (the remaining three) be set aside as their borders grew. As an added incentive to do this, God tied the establishment of cities of refuge and the administration of God’s statutory laws to the Israelites’ covenant with Him. In verse 9, God said, “If 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.” Notice the words “carefully observe” in this verse. Moses used his most spoken word here that the Israelites would know well, shamar, meaning hear, listen, and obey. The covenant spoken of in verse nine is the same one they agreed to in Deuteronomy 6:5. Moses reiterated it here for them as a reminder – to love the LORD your God and walk in His ways always. The Israelites were to love the LORD with all their being so it manifested itself in their lives – actions and speech. God tied their covenant faithfulness to Him with the establishment of His redemptive judgment of innocent manslayers. If the Israelites remained faithful to their covenant with Him, He would give refuge and redemption to people involved in accidental harm of others. God did this because of His love for them so that innocent blood would not be shed and the guilt associated with it would not stain them, God’s consecrated people.
In verses 11-13, God gave His laws about premeditated manslaughter. He explained in verse eleven what determined if the slayer premeditated the killing. God said if the manslayer hated his neighbor, laid in wait for him, rose up against him, and struck him so he died, then he or she premeditated the slaying. Notice God did not use these four verbs when He described an innocent manslayer in verses four through ten. The premeditated manslayer harbored hate in his heart for his neighbor. He waited to ambush, rise against, and kill the person so that died. The intention of the heart is what determined an innocent from a premeditated manslaughter. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, Jesus said what comes from the heart is what defiles a person. He taught in Matthew 5:1-12 about what is in a person’s heart. Jesus told them committing murder and being angry with a brother (kinsman, national citizen/Israelite) are the same and makes the person guilty in court (Matthew 5:21-22). What is in a person’s heart, one’s feelings toward a person and one’s plans, cause the person to be guilty as much as one’s actions. When the premeditated manslayer flees to the nearest city of refuge, the elders in the city (see Deuteronomy 17-18) must hand him or her over to the avenger of blood (Deuteronomy 19:11-12).
God added one other teaching to this. The Israelites must not show pity or compassion on the premeditated manslayer, but must purge the guilt of the innocent blood from Israel. This means they avenged the blood of the innocent victim by judging and handing the life of the premeditated murderer to the avenger of blood for the judgment of death. It meant, too, that the people in Israel would recognize God’s judgment and be afraid in the positive and negative sense – fear of God’s judgment should they break His laws and reverence for the omniscient and omnipotent God.
God made a definitive distinction between accidental and premeditated manslayers in this chapter as He did in Numbers 35. What is in a person’s heart and acted upon is the determining factor. Relating to people throughout each day involves this same interplay of choice in the heart. Will a person act with integrity out of respect for the person and in faithfulness to his or her covenant with God or not? In this chapter of Deuteronomy, God spoke to the Israelites about two other aspects of living within community.
Inheritance and Law
Deuteronomy 19:14 speaks of real property - land. God, in specific, spoke of stealing another person’s land. Each person of Israel received an inheritance as an heir to God’s promise with Abraham. Stealing another person’s land, even just a small part of it, shows discontent and covetousness (see the 10th Commandment). God commanded His leaders give each man of Israel an equal share of the Promised Land. Yet because God knows the hearts of people, He repeated the basis of the land allotment along with a related law. In verse 14, God stated, “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.”
People often want what is not theirs. They sometimes believe others have a better portion in life. God reminded the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land that they each were inheritors of His promise with Abraham. They did not earn the land, nor was the promise made to them. The Israelites inherited the land as a benefit of Abraham and God’s faithfulness to their covenant with each other. So they were not to feel they were due any more than they received because they deserved none of the land.
Connected to their Covenant with God
God then reminded the Israelites that the way they would possess the land was to stay faithful to their covenant with Him. In Deuteronomy 6, God said they would “possess” the land, which means keep and not be disinherited, if they remained faithful to their covenant with Him. This covenant Moses just reiterated to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 19:9, “to love the LORD your God and to walk in His ways always.” In loving God with all their heart, soul, and mind, their actions and words would show their love for Him. The Israelites’ love meant they would obey God’s laws, commands, statutes, and decrees, including the tenth commandment and this current statute of not moving another person’s boundary mark. If they did not obey God, they would disinherit – dispossess - the land as the Canaanites did before them. Later in Deuteronomy 27:17, God added a curse to this law. He said, “Cursed is he who moves his neighbor’s boundary mark. And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’.” Just as the Israelites’ covenant with the LORD contained a blessing for those who were faithful and curse for those who were unfaithful, this law contained the same blessing and curse – possession of the land or death, respectively.
Testimonies and Reputations
Another area of community life involves testimonies of witnesses. Earlier, in Deuteronomy 17:6, Moses taught the Israelites having two or three witnesses was better because of the hatred and evil that could live in a person’s heart against another person. In both Numbers 35:30 and Deuteronomy 17:6, and our current passage, Deuteronomy 19:15-21, a single witness cannot condemn a person. The first two passages deal with witnesses for a murder, but the latter speaks of witnesses for any iniquity or sin. In each of these passages, God recognizes the possibility of maliciousness and evil of a person to give a false testimony against another person to gain something of that person’s (Deut. 19:16). Because of this, God taught through Moses that the voice of one witness would not condemn a person of sin or iniquity. So when a person laid a charge against another person, God commanded the judges to investigate the charge thoroughly (Deut. 19:18). The judges (see Deuteronomy 17:9 - the town priests and elders) studied and investigated the case thoroughly and consulted with God as to His judgment so they would do well in God’s sight and for the people. Moses then used and if - then statement. He said, “If the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother (kinsman and fellow Israelite), then you (the judges) shall do to him just as he intended to do to his brother” (19:18-19).
God knows the heart of each person. He established laws of justice to discern truth in consultation with Him so that the people of Israel would stay clean from guilt and sin. Moses stated this in the last part of verse nineteen and continued God’s reasoning in verse twenty. He said following Him, His laws, and His judges would bring the purging of evil from them. It would make those who hear of the judgments, too, afraid ever to do such evil. Moses said this same thing in Deuteronomy 17:17 and 21:21. The Hebrew word for the English word “afraid” used in this verse is yare’. It means both fear of another person and reverence. When humankind follows God’s judgments people revere Him as almighty and omnipotent God. They fear His judgment on them for their sin and iniquity, too. Moses concluded this section on witnesses in the same way he did regarding laws about manslaughter. He said in verse twenty-one, “Thus you shall not show pity.” By showing pity, it would weaken the effect of God’s judgment on the sin of the false witness. Other people might question the rightness of God’s divine law and judgment on the malicious person and, as a side effect, not revere God. So Moses said, “Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” In the same way the malicious person contrived to hurt the innocent one, so he or she must be hurt so he or she will be afraid to harm another person and so he or she will fear the omnipotent, omniscient LORD.
Not For Judgment
Many times people quote the retribution passage of an eye for an eye spoken in this part of Scripture. Often they forget or do not recognize the intent. The purpose is multi-fold: to teach the malicious person not to do evil, to teach those who hear about it not to do evil, and to teach every person about God’s greatness and power. The judgment is not to be vindictive, but enlightening and educating, reminding them of God’s omniscience and omnipotence and His purpose for human life.
God’s purpose for each person is to live in a love relationship/covenant with Him. He did not allow each of us to be born then just to sin, receive punishment, and die. God brought each of us into life to be in a relationship with Him so He can share His love and humankind can spread it. How do we share His love? We share His love by obediently following Him, which means living in harmony with all people and telling them of God’s intentional and planned redemption of each of us. God did not bring us in to the world to fail and receive punishment. His love was so large He provided a way for us to be redeemed from our sin.
Just as the kinsman redeemer paid the price for his kinsman to have his land returned to him or to be set free from slavery, Jesus paid the price for each of us to be set free from the judgment due us for our wrongdoings/sin. Because God cannot be in the presence of sin – the result of our wrongdoings – we cannot be in the presence of holy God. God provided a way for us, though, to be with Him and receive His love. Because the judgment of sin is separation from God, (God being life and separation from God being death) a substitution for our penalty had to be made. God provided the substitution. He sent His Son, Jesus, to earth to be born as a human baby. Jesus was still fully God, but He experienced the weight of humankind’s sin, too. You see, He took our penalty of death for us. Jesus died the death we for the judgment of our wrongdoings/sins. He did not have to, but He did because of His love for us. Jesus wanted us to have an eternal relationship with holy God, which we could not have otherwise because our sin kept us from the presence of God. Jesus redeemed us from our death penalty. In addition, His power over death, and, therewith, Satan, makes Him our Redeemer from slavery to sin. Jesus is the Kinsman-Redeemer for humankind because of God’s love for us. Men crucified Jesus - He died as a human - but His Father brought Him back to life and restored Him to His rightful place in heaven at the right-hand side of the Father. Jesus is 100% God. He was 100% man, too, while He lived on earth. God loves us so much that He created us. He loves us. He provided a substitute for our sin judgment. He welcomes us to Himself with open arms and says, “Welcome home!”
God is not vindictive; He is just. His justness comes from His righteousness. God is omniscient and omnipotent. God means for His judgments to be more than punishment of malicious and evil people. He gave them to bring our hearts and minds back to Him, to revere Him. God’s creating, calling, providing, guiding, and redeeming us proves His greatness and love for us. Who can deny God and His Son, Jesus Christ, when you look at His eternal purpose for humankind – to be in a love relationship with us?
“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son,
that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but will have eternal life.” [John 3:16]