The Word Made Fresh
1“When the LORD your God has defeated the peoples whose land is being given to you and you have removed them and taken over their towns and houses, 2you must then set apart three cities. 3Divide the land into three sections and measure the distance to the three cities and provide roads to them so that someone who has caused the death of another can flee to one of them. 4The rule is that if the death was accidental and not intentional, and there is no evidence that the two were enemies, the person who caused the death may flee to one of the cities. 5For example, if two men go to cut wood in the forest and one of them has the axe head fly off the handle while chopping down a tree, and it strikes and kills the other man, the one who swung the axe may flee to one of the cities and live. 6If the distance is too great, the dead man’s relative who in anger wants to avenge the death might catch up with him and kill him before he reaches the refuge, even though the death was accidental. 7That is why I want you to designate three cities.
8“If your territory grows larger as the LORD your God promised your ancestors, 9assuming you obey all the rules I’m giving you today and love the LORD your God and live according to the LORD’s rules, then you must designate three more cities 10so that an innocent person’s blood will not be spilled in the land and taint all of you with that guilt.
11“But if someone known to be an enemy of another should lie in wait and kill that person, and then runs to one of the cities, 12the leaders of that city will see to it that the killer is handed over to the dead man’s relative seeking revenge, and the guilty man will die. 13Don’t pity a murderer! Get rid of that guilt from Israel so that things will go well with you.
14“When you have settled the land, and a parcel is allotted to you, do not move your neighbor’s property marker set up by their ancestors.
15“Do not convict anyone of a crime on the basis of a single witness. A conviction requires the testimony of two or three witnesses. 16If a spiteful person steps forward to accuse someone of wrongdoing, 17bring both of them to the LORD to appear before the priests and judges. 18They must make a thorough investigation, and if the accusation is false 19you must levy the punishment against the one who brought the false charge. That will help you get rid of such evil in your midst 20because others who might think of doing such a thing will hear about it and hold back, and you will put an end to such behavior among you. 21Have no pity for such people. Take a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.”
1-3: Moses reminds them to set apart three “cities of refuge” in Canaan (see Numbers 35:14) so that someone who commits involuntary homicide will have a place safe from the “avenger of blood” — that is, the kinsman responsible for avenging the death. He adds a rule about the distances between the cities to make sure there is one accessible from every part of the land.
4-7: The necessity for care in designating the cities is emphasized. Compare Numbers 35:22-28.
8-10: Moses foresees that in the future the Israelites might annex more territory (as they will under King David), and orders that additional cities of refuge be designated so that a refuge will be accessible wherever one might be in the new territories.
11-13: However, no one may use the cities of refuge as a way of escaping justice. Here, the murderer is simply turned over to the avenger of blood. In Numbers 35 the rule was that the murderer would be extradited to his city of residence and dealt with by the authorities there. (In Numbers the law was voiced by the LORD to Moses. Here, the law is voiced by Moses to the people. There are a number of places where Moses appears to modify things a bit.)
14: This verse repeats a law against moving boundary markers, but it seems out of place in the present discourse.
15-21: We tend to forget that the rule “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was intended to discourage false testimony. If someone gives false testimony, that one was to suffer the penalty intended for the accused.
Although we may find these rules a bit barbaric, remember that this is a huge step beyond the usual practice in a world where the primary idea of authority was ‘might makes right.’ There is an honorable attempt here to protect the innocent. Slowly, slowly over the course of human history the move is made for more humanitarian treatment of the guilty. Even when the verdict is “guilty,” the accused is given certain rights.