A Place of Refuge: Deuteronomy 19

In Summary:

Establishing the nation of Israel is no picnic. Deuteronomy 19 lays down principles for the judicial system. Both of the major concepts in this chapter related to slowing down the wheels of justice to ensure they don’t turn too fast and run over the innocent.

Two concepts are in view here. The first is the cities of refuge. This idea went hand-in-hand with the principle of personal retribution in the justice system. It was the right and responsibility of the near relatives of a murder victim to bring the murderer to justice. They were to bring him before the city elders and be the first hand to strike in execution—and if he would not be brought, then they could utilize appropriate force to bring him. This might lead to his death, but that was the nature of the situation.

Note that the above paragraph is a synthesis of my understanding of Deuteronomy and what I have read regarding social customs of the time. There is not specific chapter and verse for that exact sentiment.

Unfortunately, though, accidents happen. Sometimes those accidents cost people their lives. In a loved one’s anguish over the death of their father, brother, friend, one could expect an overreaction to these accidents. One could expect that people, in their frustration, might not be cautious in apprehending the killer or in making sure he returned to face justice alive. What should the accused do in that case?

This is where the cities of refuge came in: these were defined locations where an accused person could flee. Once within the walls of a city of refuge, they were safe until a trial could be conducted. If truly guilty, then justice was still fulfilled. If they were innocent, then justice was still fulfilled.

We also see the second concept: the importance of trustworthy witnesses. While the principle of “two or more witnesses” is abused by some today to escape justice for secret sin, it is still an important concept. One must examine the trustworthiness of witnesses before rendering a final judgment. This was established to prevent one person’s lies to cost another their life. Even so, accusations were still to be considered: justice required the guilty party be found. If a lying witness, then so be it. If a criminal, so be it.

In Focus:

In focus, look at Deuteronomy 18:8-10. These verses command the Israelites that the opportunity for justice and mercy should expand with their territory. Rather than locking into the confines of the original law, the Israelites were to recognize the principle behind that law and act on it. Instead of staying with three cities, they were to add three more. This is actually fulfilled in the occupation, as the Israelites set aside three on each side of the Jordan River.

In Practice:

What does this look like in practice for us?

First: justice, mercy, and truth go together. The principle here is that justice cannot be obtained based on lies. Further, that we must be merciful until there is a point of certainty regarding guilt. These three concepts go together. Are we living that way?

Second: individual justice and community righteousness go together. There is nothing here that supports visiting punishment on an innocent person because someone needs to pay for a bad thing. That’s not an option. The wicked must be punished, but the innocent also must not. Are we living that way? Are we pushing society to work in that way?

In Nerdiness:

A short note on Deuteronomy 19:14 for the nerds: how does not moving the ancient boundary stone apply today? Is it relevant in recognizing traditions or ideas passed on from prior generations?


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