Deuteronomy 19:1-3 This chapter defines manslaughter and the appropriate punishment for an offender if found guilty. Initially when Israel takes the over the land, they are to select three cities as places of refuge where a person accused of manslaughter could flee for protection and adjudication. Earlier in Deut. 4:41-43 Moses names these three cities. In Num 35:6, 11-15, three cities on each side of the Jordan are listed. This is because Israel conquered land on the East side of the Jordan in addition to the Land that was promised. Each city would be centrally located within three areas on the East side of the Jordan. To ensure that they could serve as cities of refuge, they would need to have easy access to roads that would lead there. If there were no roads, they would need to build them. The cities selected were Kedesh, Shechem, and Hebron and were part of the cities captured in the battle for the land.
Deuteronomy 19:4-5 These verses clarify what constitutes manslaughter giving an illustration. It defines manslaughter as an act that is not premeditated. The case listed is an accidental death that occurs while cutting wood with a companion. The definition is clarified in that it can be demonstrated that there was no previous hostility between the accused and the person killed. The avenger of blood is a relative or friend who would seek justice and revenge for the person killed. This kind of justice would be personal and in the heat of anger. To protect the person and the nation from such actions that might be unjust retaliation this law was put in place. Justice required an appropriate punishment based on the Lord’s command a life for a life based on Exodus 21:23-25. But justice must be overseen by the appointed judges and following the guidelines both here and in Numbers 35. In Num. 35 if an accused was found that the murder was premeditated, he was to be put to death by the avenger of blood after is was found by the judges to be so (Num 35:16-21). If the accused was deemed to be innocent of premeditation guidelines for his punishment are outlinef in Num 35. He would be returned to the city of refuge and needed to live there until the death of the high priest at which time he could return to his home without further retaliation by the avenger of blood.
Deuteronomy 19:6-7 Moses clarifies here the reason for the cities of refuge. It was to forestall the avenger of blood from acting in the heat of anger. The manslayer needed to have the opportunity to present his side of the incident before he was executed by the avenger. If that was not done justice would not be served and innocent blood would be shed on the land. God abhors the shedding of blood unless it is done righteously.
Deuteronomy 19:8-10 Moses now addresses the possibility of the need for additional cities of refuge once they took over the land. Moses foresaw the blessing of God and that Israel will be entrusted with additional lands. If this occurred and in fact it did then three other cities needed to be set aside. The blessing of more territory would flow from covenant faithfulness walking in the Lord’s ways according to His Word. The reason for these added cities was so that innocent people would have cities of refuge to flee to and that justice might be secured. This assured evenhandedness for both the manslayer and for the avenger of blood. Both parties came under the judgment and protection of the Lord. If there were no such procedure the avenger might incur the discipline of the Lord for taking matters into his own hands.
Deuteronomy 19:11-13 In this section clarity is given regarding pre-meditated murder. It begins by citing a preexisting attitude of hatred. Further if it was revealed that the slayer lied in wait to kill his victim this would be a reason to convict of murder rather than manslaughter. In either case both the murderer and the manslayer would have their day in court if they were able to get to the city of refuge. There was the requirement of at least two witnesses to convict of murder according to the more detailed passage on this in Numbers 35. If convicted of murder he was to be brought to the place where the murder occurred, and the avenger of blood was to put him to death so that the blood of the innocent would be avenged (Deut. 19:12). The sanctity of life is an ongoing theme in Scripture since man is a reflection of God Himself created in His image. Num 35 warns that failure to punish the guilty party would defile the Land. If the guilty were not executed, then the guilt of that crime would be on the land and the people of God.
Deuteronomy 19:14 This verse seems out of place. How does moving a boundary mark relate to what has come before and what will follow after. It may be that Moses anticipated that such behavior might cause an Israelite to react in a violent way if the matter escalated in an unresolved manner. Wars are regularly begun over such matters. Still further property borders would be established when they entered the land and were to remain in the family. Even if land was forfeited because of great debt every 50th year all land reverted to its original owner as a reminder that the land belonged to the Lord. The boundary stone or mark showed where property lines began and ended. The temptation to appropriate additional land from an inattentive or poor owner was very real. Moving the boundary was equivalent to theft and was an unjust action. Property rights were to be respected. Respect for the law of property is essential to a just nation and a key ingredient to the life of a peaceful society. King Ahab who reigned over the northern 12 tribes acquired Naboth’s vineyard illegally through the false testimony of his wife Jezebel and God judged him and his wife with death for their theft and murder to acquire the land (1 Kgs 21:1-26; 22:37-38). Naboth refused to sell or trade it because it belonged to his family and the Lord.
Deuteronomy 19:15 To emphasize the importance of two witnesses in cases where conviction will lead to death by stoning Moses repeats this. One witness would be his word against the word of the accused. God was zealous that His people purge evil from among His covenant people but it was just as important to God that His people avoid convicting the innocent.
Deuteronomy 19:16-19 Following up on false testimonies the judges were charged to fully examine the testimony of the witnesses to be sure they are truthful. The accusers would stand before the Lord and the judges and if it was revealed that they were lying then the accusers would suffer the punishment that would have come on the one falsely accused. This would be for all cases not just capital offenses. This procedure would make a false witness carefully consider his words before falsely accusing someone before God and His judges. This was enacted to purge evil from among God’s covenant people. Deut. 13:11 “Then all Israel will hear and be afraid and will never again do such a wicked thing among you.”
Deuteronomy 19:20-21 This is the reason why Moses says to Show no pity” a phrase repeated in both the Torah and the prophets (Deut 7:16; 13:9; Isa 13:18; Ezek 7:4; 20:17). Just as lex talionis was to be applied in dispensing justice to criminals the same standard was applied to false accusers. There were times when justice could be enforced with a payment of fines as Numbers 35:31 hints “Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death,” but never in the case of murder. Exod 22:30 also speaks of fines instead of lex talonis in certain cases “If a ransom is demanded of him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is demanded of him.”