Laws Concerning Cities of Refuge
19 “When the LORD your God cuts off the nations whose land the LORD your God is giving you, and you dispossess them and dwell in their cities and in their houses, you shall set apart three cities for yourselves in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess. You shall measure the distances and divide into three parts the area of the land that the LORD your God gives you as a possession, so that any manslayer can flee to them.
“This is the provision for the manslayer, who by fleeing there may save his life. If anyone kills his neighbor unintentionally without having hated him in the past—as when someone goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down a tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies—he may flee to one of these cities and live, lest the avenger of blood in hot anger pursue the manslayer and overtake him, because the way is long, and strike him fatally, though the man did not deserve to die, since he had not hated his neighbor in the past. Therefore I command you, You shall set apart three cities. And if the LORD your God enlarges your territory, as he has sworn to your fathers, and gives you all the land that he promised to give to your fathers—provided you are careful to keep all this commandment, which I command you today, by loving the LORD your God and by walking ever in his ways—then you shall add three other cities to these three, lest innocent blood be shed in your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, and so the guilt of bloodshed be upon you.
“But if anyone hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and attacks him and strikes him fatally so that he dies, and he flees into one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die. Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may be well with you.
“You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.
Laws Concerning Witnesses
“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Deuteronomy 19 Commentary
by Hank Workman
God established a remarkable thing for the people of Israel. In all of His plans for the future, He knew the hearts of humankind, the wickedness that rested there and how people were likely to take matters into their own hands as an act of revenge. God provided a way for safety until a fair trial was found – cities of refuge.
They were to establish three of these upon entering the land promised to them. If they continued to obey and walk in the ways of Him, when more land was taken they were to establish more. He would dictate this. More details on these cities are found in Numbers 35:9-28 and Joshua 20:7-8. The people understood these as Moses had already established 3 of them on the west side of the Jordan. But God would continue to lead people toward their own personal safety as they went forward.
What is interesting is the detail God gave about keeping the roads in good repair to such places. These cities would be of no good if a person could not flee to them. Many who would be in need of such a refuge were literally running for their lives. As the roads were dirt, they easily could fall into disrepair or literally be washed away through the seasons of rain. God wanted the people to maintain these roads for the safety of those in need.
The case in point was for those who killed someone accidentally or in self-defense. Israel’s history had people taking matters into their own hands again and again. As Guzik remarks, “when one was killed, it was the responsibility of the avenger of blood to make certain the murder was punished.” This was based on something all the way back to Genesis 9:6, but as the case with the wicked human heart, people still acted in their own malice and hate with revenge.
Cities of refuge were necessities in finding safety until the case was tried.
To us, this may seem so foreign. It makes sense that God was looking out for the innocent but having a physical place to run is something we don’t really have here today. Yet there is a city of refuge, a place all can hide and that is in our God. Within the Psalms, God is called a refuge and strength. A place where one can hide themselves. There are at least 15 of these. Hebrews 6:18 also speaks toward this thought for those who flee to Him and take refuge.
Jesus has become our own refuge throughout all of life. All we need to do is run to Him. Trust Him. Give ourselves to Him.
David Guzik lays out some spectacular points on this matter.
- Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are within easy reach of the needy person. They were of no use unless someone could get to the place of refuge.
- Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are open to all, not just the Israelite. No one needs to fear that they would be turned away from their place of refuge in a time of need.
- Both Jesus and the cities of refuge became a place where the one in need would live. You didn’t come to a city of refuge in time of need just to look around.
- Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are the only alternative for one in need. Without this specific protection they will be destroyed.
- Both Jesus and the cities of refuge provide protection only within their boundaries. To outside meant death.
- With Both Jesus and the cities of refuge, full freedom comes with the death of the High Priest.
- A Crucial distinction: The cities of refuge only helped the innocent. The guilty can come to Jesus and find refuge!
Deuteronomy 19 Commentary
by Brad Boyles
We find the familiar “eye for an eye” passage in Deuteronomy 19.
In such cases show no mercy; the punishment is to be a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, and a foot for a foot.Deuteronomy 19:21 GNB
If we take a look back at the context of this verse, we will see exactly why this law was given. The entire last section of chapter 19 places boundaries for those testifying as a witness. It has already been established that one person’s testimony is not enough to convict. That one person could have been lying or could have been mistaken in what they saw. This naturally brings up the question – what will happen to someone who tries to falsely accuse another?
If you were a witness testifying against someone who was accused of murder, and the judge did a thorough investigation discovering that you are lying and the victim is innocent, the murder charge would go against you instead of the person you accused. This was a natural way to protect against false witnesses. This is where the “eye for an eye” and “tooth for a tooth” method was developed. As you can see, it’s not a license for revenge. It simply provides justice to the one who has been falsely accused. It provides a strong deterrent to keep others from bringing false charges against the innocent.
Furthermore, Jesus clarified this passage during His ministry.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too.  And if someone takes you to court to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well.  And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles.  When someone asks you for something, give it to him; when someone wants to borrow something, lend it to him.Matthew 5:38-42 GNB
“The “eye for eye” and “tooth for tooth” principle is called the Lex talionis in Western culture (Latin for “law of retaliation”). It is commonly misrepresented as vindictive, but it is not. This law is not a license for cruelty, but a limit to it. In the context it refers to what kind of penalty could be inflicted upon a false witness.”Believer’s Bible Commentary
I have to admit, before studying this, I had no idea this was the application for this passage! It makes much more sense that this law was not given to justify revenge with personal relationships, but rather, to guide the judges in giving a reasonable punishment to false witnesses. Another point to consider was that this law protected false witnesses from receiving an even greater punishment. It would not have been uncommon for the ancient world to prescribe the death penalty for someone who brought a false charge against another. This is an important reason to be saturated in the Scriptures. Sometimes what we have heard about a passage is not actually what God meant.