This chapter and the following two chapters deal with different situations in which life is in danger. In view of these situations, Moses gives instructions to protect life. He wants to awaken in the people a holy respect for the life of man. In this chapter, three commandments of the law are discussed in more detail:
1. The sixth commandment: you shall not murder.
2. The eighth commandment: you shall not steal.
3. The ninth commandment: you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
1 - 13 The Cities of Refuge
1 “When the LORD your God cuts off the nations, whose land the LORD your God gives you, and you dispossess them and settle in their cities and in their houses, 2 you shall set aside three cities for yourself in the midst of your land, which the LORD your God gives you to possess. 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. 4 “Now this is the case of the manslayer who may flee there and live: when he kills his friend unintentionally, not hating him previously— 5 as when [a man] goes into the forest with his friend to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down the tree, and the iron [head] slips off the handle and strikes his friend so that he dies—he may flee to one of these cities and live; 6 otherwise the avenger of blood might pursue the manslayer in the heat of his anger, and overtake him, because the way is long, and take his life, though he was not deserving of death, since he had not hated him previously. 7 Therefore, I command you, saying, ‘You shall set aside three cities for yourself.’ 8 “If the LORD your God enlarges your territory, just as He has sworn to your fathers, and gives you all the land which He promised to give your fathers— 9 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. 10 So innocent blood will not be shed in the midst of your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance, and bloodguiltiness be on you. 11 “But if there is a man who hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and rises up against him and strikes him so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities, 12 then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. 13 You shall not pity him, but you shall purge the blood of the innocent from Israel, that it may go well with you.
Moses has already appointed Bezer, Ramoth and Golan on the wilderness side of the Jordan as cities of refuge for Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh (Deu 4:41-43). Anyone who kills his neighbor unintentionally can flee there. In accordance with God’s original instructions (Num 35:9-34), he instructs Israel that when they have entered the land, they must also set aside three cities of refuge there. The actual choice is made by Joshua (Jos 20:7).
Moses says in verse 3: “You shall prepare the roads for yourself.” Non-biblical history mentions that it was the duty of the Senate to annually check the roads to the cities of refuge. Decayed roads had to be repaired and obstacles removed. There should be no river over which there was no bridge. The road should not be too narrow, but should have a certain width. At intersections the direction had to be indicated by signs with the words ‘Refuge, Refuge’. It seems that Isaiah has borrowed this precept of ‘road maintenance’ when he says: “A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. “Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; and let the rough ground become a plain, and the rugged terrain a broad valley”” (Isa 40:3-4).
Although any manslayer may flee to the city of refuge, this city only offers protection to someone who killed someone else by accident. The example of the man cutting wood in the forest makes that clear. A forest is accessible to everyone and cutting wood is free for everyone. In the example it is assumed that someone unintentionally causes the death of his friend. It does not happen from intent or premeditation, but purely and simply by accident. With the example given here, any similar case can be compared for assessment.
The example also shows how human life is in danger on a daily basis. Death surrounds us and can strike at the most unimagined moment, without any reason. It is necessary to always be prepared. “Moreover, man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil time when it suddenly falls on them” (Ecc 9:12).
However, it is not only “an evil time” for him who is killed, but also for the one who killed him. Even if it is by accident, God takes the termination of life so high, that the manslayer has to flee to a city of refuge. He must stay there until the death of the high priest (Num 35:32). Thereby he is deprived of the enjoyment of his inheritance all this time.
Fleeing to the city of refuge can be applied to the sinner. The sinner must fear the wrath of God. In the gospel he can be pointed to Christ, of Whom the city of refuge can be seen as a picture. The city of refuge is a refuge given by God and thus a proof of His love and mercy, which indicates the escape route to man in his greatest need.
However, it applies not only to the sinner, but also to the people of God. And the latter is what we are talking about here in the first place. The special character of the cities of refuge is therefore that God can offer, in His love and mercy, to His people a solution in cases of great sin, but committed in ignorance. The free city for Israel is (still) the church (Acts 2:37-41). Since the foundation of the church, every Jew who repents of his sins must separate himself from what has always been held as God’s people. That makes the step difficult, but it is the only outcome. The confession of sin to be complicit of the death of Christ is necessary. Peter tells this to the people in his speech on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:23).
In a subsequent speech he speaks of their acting in “ignorance” (Acts 3:17). Therefore repentance and forgiveness are possible for them, and if they do, they can still receive the promised blessings (Acts 3:19-21). This is completely in keeping with the prayer of the Lord Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). In this same sense mercy can be shown to Paul, who was such an ardent persecutor of the church and thus of the Lord Jesus (1Tim 1:13).
We see a similar practice in the laws on the sin offering, where forgiveness is for the sins that are unintentionally, unknowingly committed (Lev 4:1,13,22,27).There is no forgiveness for sin committed intentionally – which means the sin of rebellion and apostacy from God (Num 15:30).
There is an interesting connection to be noted between the Prophet announced by God in the last chapter (Deu 18:15-19) and the killed neighbor in this chapter. In both cases we see here a picture of the Lord Jesus. In both cases, the relationship with Israel is paramount. This is shown by the fact that the section about the prophet of Deuteronomy 18 is quoted twice in the book of Acts. Peter applies the first quotation (Acts 3:22) to the Lord Jesus. Moreover, in the verses before it (Acts 3:14-17) Peter refers to the case of the killing of neighbor in Deuteronomy 19 when he says that his countrymen did it in ignorance.
The announcement of the Prophet in Deuteronomy 18 (Deu 18:15) is quoted a second time and applied to the Lord Jesus, by Stephen (Acts 7:37). Stephen, however, does not stand in front of an ignorant people, but in front of those who consciously rejected the Lord Jesus. He does not speak to them of ignorance. They are guilty murderers. They are no longer ignorant. That is why they are being overtaken by the blood avenger. They resist the Holy Spirit and have killed the Righteous of Whom they became murderers (Acts 7:51-52). The judgment will come upon them and was also exercised in the year 70 in the destruction of Jerusalem.
But there is also an application for Christianity. We live in the same position in which Israel has been in the days of the Lord Jesus. What has Christianity done with what has been entrusted to her? Israel is entrusted with the truth of the one God and of the coming Messiah. The truth of Christ as the Glorified One in heaven is entrusted to the church. What is left of it? For the mass of confessing Christians applies that, “they are enemies of the cross of Christ” and that they think of “the earthly things” (Phil 3:18-19) and not the things that are above (Col 3:1-2).
The result is the great mistake of ignoring the Holy Spirit on earth. The sin against the Holy Spirit is that sin which is directed against the Person of the Holy Spirit, that He is set aside and ignored. Expressions of this are: Bible criticism with intellectual people, fanaticism with emotional people and legalism with strong-willed people. These are some great sins of Christianity that stand against the free working of the Holy Spirit and also of the Word.
We live in the time when we experience the downfall of Christianity, the post-Christian period. Characteristic of this period is the return to paganism (cf. Rom 1:22-32 with 2Tim 3:1-9). In 2 Timothy 3 it is said of Christians: “Holding to a form of godliness” (2Tim 3:5). These Christians are mentioned in the same breath as magicians and women molded in the character of Jezebel.
There is no way out for Christianity as a whole, but there is a way out for individuals. But to flee is necessary. We can think of what God gave in the Reformation. This work can be so depraved by man that it is necessary to flee to a place of refuge. This can be applied today to the church where you have always been, but where spiritual life has become suffocated, perhaps by ignorance.
The way of escape is shown: “Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.” Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these [things], he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love [and] peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2Tim 2:19-22). This means to separate from the vessels of dishonor and go the way God indicates. Whoever doesn’t flee, will eventually fall into the hand of the blood avenger.
The cities of refuge are priestly cities and Levite cities. Whoever takes refuge there comes to a place of blessing. The manslayer leaves a lot behind, but gets more in return. He may share in the blessings that are part of priests and Levites. He comes into a dwelling place of people for whom the LORD Himself is their inheritance. These cities lie on the mountains, a picture of the heavenly things that are pondered there, the blessings of the church. [N.B. Many good orthodox churches still set their minds on earthly things. For example, they think they have to involve in politics.]
In verses 8-10 there follows a separate instruction with regard to three extra cities of refuge. Those may be added by the Israelites to the six already assigned cities when the LORD has enlarged their territory in accordance with the promises to the fathers (Gen 15:18). That enlargement of their area is again dependent on their obedience to the LORD. Because they have been unfaithful, they have not (yet) had the expansion of the area and therefore neither the cities.
Where are the priestly and Levite cities today that really serve as cities of refuge? As God’s people today, we have not done any better than the Israelites did then. We too have become unfaithful. Therefore, the number of churches where the heavenly blessings are enjoyed is not really increasing. Because of our unfaithfulness, because the blessings do not really live for us, the road to the city of refuge, the local church, has become full of obstacles. Instead of clearing them away, we are adding more obstacles. This prevents the ‘manslayer’ from taking refuge there.
14 Do Not Move the Boundary Marks
14 “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.
This verse is not about caring for one’s own inheritance, but about that of one’s neighbor. This means that everyone recognizes and respects the right of the other to his or her inheritance. They have to make sure that everyone can fully enjoy their inheritance. Someone like Ahab doesn’t care about that. He deprives Naboth of his inheritance (1Kgs 21:1-15).
Every brother and every sister has his and her own inheritance. That is first and foremost to be enjoyed by oneself in fellowship with God. As it is an inheritance in the land, the enjoyment is shared with others who also have an inheritance there. That is how we can all benefit from each other. It is therefore important to ensure that the neighbor is not deprived of his inheritance. It is a loss for all if one’s inheritance is reduced. If one member suffers loss, all members suffer loss: “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it” (1Cor 12:26a).
A spiritual class does not exist in God’s Word. The blessing of God does not come to us through only one channel. The exercise of the gifts is for the benefit of all. In the church therefore must be given the opportunity to do so.
To restrict the neighbor’s boundary by moving his boundary mark is a great evil (Hos 5:10; Pro 22:28; Deu 27:17; Job 24:2; Pro 23:10). It means a restriction of his life in the land and thus a reduction of the joy over his inheritance. He who is guilty of it wrongs his neighbor. In a spiritual sense, it can happen when we make a fellow believer dependent on ourselves and do not teach him to live his life independently with the Lord. This can be done by manipulating the other person, bringing him to a behavior that he does not dare to decide without our permission.
Also in a practical sense, boundaries set by God can be ignored. With regard to sexuality and marriage, it is important to observe the boundaries set by God. In 1 Thessalonians 4 those boundaries are given: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; [that is,] that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; [and] that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is [the] avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned [you]. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. So, he who rejects [this] is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you” (1Thes 4:3-8).
Here it is clearly stated that one’s own body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord (1Cor 6:13). It is equally clear that a given person has no right to the wife of his fellow brother. The Christian community fully upholds this boundary. The boundary of sexual intercourse lies around the marriage of that one man with that one woman. To violate that is to commit great injustice against his brother that the Lord will not let go unpunished.
15 Two or Three Witnesses
15 “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.
A judge may not make a judgment on the basis of the testimony of one single witness in the event of a crime. For a case to be valid, there has to be two or three witnesses (Deu 17:6; Num 35:30; 1Jn 5:7; 2Cor 13:1).
This principle must also be followed by the New Testament church in the case of sin: “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen [to you], take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED” (Mt 18:15-16). The church may not judge on the basis of what one person says, even if it is a most reliable brother or sister. It must be investigated first and indeed with the first aim to win the offender. Only when sin is confirmed and it is confirmed that the offender does not want to confess his sin, should the matter be brought in and before the church.
What applies as a general rule to a brother or sister who sins, applies especially to someone who sins, while he occupies a prominent place in the church (1Tim 5:19). Those who are concerned in a special way with the welfare of the church are also exposed to criticism in a special way. Their mistakes also have greater consequences than those of an inconspicuous member of the church. A sin that leads to an accusation must be clearly proven. An accusation should not be based on suspicion and even less on an offended feeling.
16 - 21 False Witness
16 If a malicious witness rises up against a man to accuse him of wrongdoing, 17 then both the men who have the dispute shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who will be [in office] in those days. 18 The judges shall investigate thoroughly, and if the witness is a false witness [and] he has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you. 20 The rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you. 21 Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
A dispute between two persons, where a malicious witness charges someone for an offence, but where there are no witnesses, must be brought before the priests and judges. That comes down to presenting oneself before the LORD. The judges must carefully examine the charges. They will discuss their findings with the priests. The priests who are in the presence of God shall bring the matter before the LORD. It may then turn out that the charge was made up to do harm to the accused.
A false witness may not go unpunished (Pro 19:5,9). If an indictment is found to be false, the prosecutor should receive the punishment that would have been imposed if the indictment had been found to be true. If the crime of which he has accused his neighbor must be punished with death, then the false witness must be put to death; if the crime must be punished with scourging, then he must be scourged; and if it is a fine, then he must be fined for the same amount.
This practice will have a preventive effect on people who intend to harm their neighbor with a false accusation. They will think twice about doing so when they realize that if their falsehood is discovered, they themselves will suffer the fate they have sought to bring upon others.
The Lord Jesus did not dissolve the ‘law of retribution’. Life for life, eye for eye, etc. remains fully in force for official law enforcement agencies. What the Lord does do, however, is to declare the use of the “law of retribution” inapplicable in personal matters. For those cases, He prescribes a different attitude: “You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you” (Mt 5:38-42). It does not befit a disciple of the Lord Jesus that he seeks personal retaliation or revenge for being personally wronged.