Read Deuteronomy 19
Cities of Refuge
19 When the Lord your God has destroyed the nations whose land he is giving you, and when you have driven them out and settled in their towns and houses, 2 then set aside for yourselves three cities in the land the Lordyour God is giving you to possess. 3 Determine the distances involved and divide into three parts the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, so that a person who kills someone may flee for refuge to one of these cities.
4 This is the rule concerning anyone who kills a person and flees there for safety—anyone who kills a neighbor unintentionally, without malice aforethought. 5 For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life. 6 Otherwise, the avenger of blood might pursue him in a rage, overtake him if the distance is too great, and kill him even though he is not deserving of death, since he did it to his neighbor without malice aforethought. 7 This is why I command you to set aside for yourselves three cities.
8 If the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as he promised on oath to your ancestors, and gives you the whole land he promised them, 9 because you carefully follow all these laws I command you today—to love the Lordyour God and to walk always in obedience to him—then you are to set aside three more cities. 10 Do this so that innocent blood will not be shed in your land, which the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance, and so that you will not be guilty of bloodshed.
11 But if out of hate someone lies in wait, assaults and kills a neighbor, and then flees to one of these cities, 12 the killer shall be sent for by the town elders, be brought back from the city, and be handed over to the avenger of blood to die. 13 Show no pity. You must purge from Israel the guilt of shedding innocent blood, so that it may go well with you.
14 Do not move your neighbor’s boundary stone set up by your predecessors in the inheritance you receive in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess.
15 One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
16 If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse someone of a crime,17 the two people involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the Lord before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. 18 The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite, 19 then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you. 20 The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. 21 Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
It’s often claimed that the God of the Old Testament is somehow different from the God of the New, that one has a different system of values and a different ethos from the other. But what we find upon close reading of passages like Deuteronomy 19 is that God is the same. He never changed even when we did. In one hand He holds abundant mercy, and in the other He holds justice. The same is true today.
As the law is laid out for the Israelites, they must account for every kind of situation, including accidental manslaughter. There is a clear distinction between manslaughter and murder; one is an unintentional killing that is not motivated by malice (think self-defense, or an accidental flying ax handle) (v. 5), while the other is an intentional act of violence meant to end someone’s life. For those in Israel who committed the former, God designated three cities where they could find refuge and be taken in. This was not necessarily to avoid judgment of any kind, but to protect their own lives from the retribution of those who might come looking for them. God also instructed that good roads be made to these cities. They were to exist and be easily accessible. There the accused could wait until the evidence was gathered and the matter was settled justly. And if Israel continued to expand, they were to add additional cities of refuge.
We hear this today and shrug it off as sensible. We have bail, juries, and an understanding that everyone will have their day in court. But keep in mind the context of when this passage was written. This kind of commitment to the protection of the guilty is unusual, to say the least. God is for justice. But oftentimes justice is deeply entwined with mercy, even for those who have done something terrible—something they wish could be taken back.
If, on the other hand, the act was indeed proven to be murder, the Israelites were instructed to turn that person away from the city of refuge so they might face what was due to them. Deuteronomy 19 ends with further instructions on property lines, but the key takeaway is the foundational system of justice that protects people from false witness. Israel was to be a nation of justice—true justice.
For us, Christ is our city of refuge. The guilty flee to Him and find sanctuary. And today, and all days, we thank God for setting Him aside on our behalf.
- What does this passage teach you about God? What does it teach you about humanity?
- What is God’s stated motivation for setting aside cities of refuge (v. 10)? How does this apply to us today?
- Read verses 15-19. How does this system of justice parallel ours today, and how does it differ?
By the Way
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