I’ve said before that some Bible commentators believe that in this part of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is explaining the Ten Commandments and showing the Israelites how the commandments applied to them at that time. The passage before us today is therefore related to the sixth commandment which is ‘You shall not murder’ and which forbids us from harming anyone including ourselves; and which requires us to help others, instead of harming them. And nearly everything in today’s passage is related in one way or another to that commandment.
And so, in today passage there are regulations about the following topics: about cities of refuge which provided protection for those who killed accidentally; about what to do about false witnesses; about warfare; about making atonement for unsolved murders; about how to treat captive brides and firstborn and rebellious sons; about God’s curse on murderers; as well as various other laws at the end of the passage. These regulations make clear the value of life and the need to protect it. But, of course, the fact that these laws were required in Israel also makes clear that the Promised Land of Canaan — which the Israelites were about to enter — was not the true Promised Land, because in the true Promised Land, where God’s people will dwell in the presence of the Lord forever, there will be no more death and everyone will dwell in peace and safety forever.
Cities of Refuge
Let’s turn to the first section which is about these cities of refuge. Moses looks forward to the time when the Lord has given the land of Canaan to the Israelites. When that time comes, they’re to set aside three cities. They’re not called cities of refuge in this passage, but that’s how they’re designated in Numbers 35, which contains a more detailed description of these cities.
The cities were to be centrally located and the people were to build roads to them, so that everyone in the land had easy access to them. According to Numbers 35, there were to be six cities of refuge in total, because three of them were to be located on the eastern side of the Jordon River where the Reubenites and Gadites settled; and three of them were to be located on the western side of the river where the rest of the tribes settled. According to verse 8, they were commanded to set aside three more cities of refuge, once their territory expanded.
Whenever a man killed another man accidentally, he was to flee to the city of refuge in order to save his life from the avenger. An example of accidental death is given in verse 5. So, two men go into the forest to cut wood. One of them swings his ax, but the head of the ax comes off and hits his friend and kills him. The man did not intend to kill his neighbour; it was an accident. Numbers 35 gives other examples of accidental death and explains how to distinguish manslaughter from murder.
The word ‘avenger’ is interesting, because elsewhere in the Bible the Hebrew word used here is translated ‘kinsman-redeemer’. We’re familiar with the idea of a kinsman-redeemer from the story of Ruth, because Boaz was Ruth’s kinsman-redeemer. The kinsman-redeemer was responsible for delivering his family from danger or from other difficult situations. In the case of Ruth, Boaz was responsible for delivering her from poverty and childlessness. However, the kinsman-redeemer was also responsible for seeking justice whenever one of his relatives was murdered. Life is so valuable, so precious, that the person who took a life was not allowed to get away with it. Justice had to be done. Someone had to pay for taking the victim’s life. It was to be — according to Genesis 9 — a life for a life. And so, the kinsman-redeemer, the avenger, was responsible for ensuring that justice was done for his family; he was responsible for ensuring that someone paid for the life which was taken.
And so, Moses describes how the avenger of blood might — in a rage — pursue the man who killed accidentally and kill him even though he did not deserve to die, because he killed by accident and not deliberately. To avoid that from happening, the man who killed accidentally may run to the nearest city of refuge for protection.
However, the cities of refuge provided protection only for those who killed accidentally. So, if a man hated his neighbour and killed him deliberately, and then fled to one of the cities, he wouldn’t get away with his crime. If he was found guilty of murder, then the elders of the town were to send for him and they would hand him over to the avenger, who was permitted to kill the murderer. According to Numbers 35, the guilty person must die in order to make up for the life that he had taken. Numbers 35 also makes clear that the person who killed accidentally must remain in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest, because the death of the High Priest was deemed to make up for the life that had been taken. The principle, once again, was a a life for a life. When a life was taken deliberately, that life must be paid for by the death of the murderer. But when a life was taken by accident, that life is paid for by the death of the priest. Someone had to make up for the life that has been taken. That was the only way to cleanse the land of Israel from the guilt of innocent blood. However, even though this was the case, the life of the man who killed by accident had to be protected from the avenger, because the Lord forbids murder. And that’s why cities of refuge were needed.
Verse 14 of chapter 19 forbids the people from moving boundary stones. The boundary stones — as the name implies — marked out the boundary between one family’s land and another family’s land. People were tempted to move the boundary stones in order to enlarge their own land. However, since each family had received the land as an inheritance from the Lord, they were forbidden from tampering with the boundary stones. It’s not entirely clear why this law appears here, since it seems to have nothing to do with murder. However, one commentator suggests that land disputes were a common cause for hostility and could easily lead to murder. The story of Naboth’s vinyard — when Naboth was killed, so that King Ahab could take over his land — did not involve boundary markers, but it shows how conflict over land could lead to someone’s death.
The rest of chapter 19 is concerned with witnesses. The testimony of one witness is not enough to convict a person of a crime. At least two or three witnesses is required. This makes perfect sense, because if there’s only one witness, the witness may lie about the accused because of some personal grudge. However, there may be cases when there is only one witness. That’s what verses 16 and following are about. In those cases, the witness and the accused must stand in the presence of the Lord and before the priests and the judges in Jerusalem. We learned last week that while most cases were tried locally, difficult cases such as these ones were to be referred to the priests and judges in Jerusalem. The judges must make a thorough investigation; and if they discover that the witness had lied, then the false witness must be punished. Whatever penalty the accused would have suffered is to be imposed on the false witness. When this happens, others will hear of it and they will be afraid to give false testimony themselves. Show no pity, says Moses. Show no pity to false witnesses: for their sin, pay them back life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. Whatever penalty the accused would have suffered must be imposed on those who are guilty of false testimony. In this way, the life of the innocent was protected in the land. Again, the story of Naboth’s vineyard is relevant here, because Queen Jezebel arranged for wicked men to bear false witness against him. Their false testimony was accepted as true and poor Naboth was killed. An innocent man’s life was taken from him. And that was a great evil, because the Lord forbids murder.
Chapter 20 is concerned with warfare. First of all, Moses instructs the people not to be afraid when they have to go to war against their enemies, because the Lord is with them. And since — when Moses said these things — the people were at that time preparing to cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land where they would face many enemy nations, it was important for Moses to remind them that the Lord would go with them. And the Lord had already demonstrated his ability to help them whenever he rescued them from the hands of the Egyptians.
Then, when they go to war, the priest shall address them to encourage them not to be afraid, but to trust in the Lord who will go with them to fight for them. Then the officers shall address them. And the officers shall allow some of them to return home. Whoever had built a new house and had not dedicated it was exempt from fighting. Whoever had planted a vineyard and had not enjoyed it yet was exempt from fighting. Whoever was engaged to be married was exempt from fighting. Whoever was afraid was exempt from fighting. All of those men were allowed to return home, because they were to be given time to enjoy the good things that the Lord has promised to give to them in the Promised Land. The sixth commandment not only forbids murder, but it’s about persevering our life and the life of others. And here we see that the army officers were commanded to do what they could to preserve the life of their men as far as possible.
Furthermore, they were to show mercy to even their enemies. So, when they go to attack a city, they were not to attack their enemies immediately, but they were to allow them to surrender first. If their enemies surrendered, the Israelites were to subject them to forced labour so that they would serve the Israelites as slaves. However, if their enemies refused to surrender, the Israelites should besiege the city. When the Lord gives them the victory, they should kill the men, but take their wives and children and everything else as plunder.
However, those rules only applied to enemies who lived outside the Promised Land. They were to treat the nations in the Promised Land differently. Instead of sparing them, they were to destroy them completely, otherwise the nations in Canaan would only lead the Lord’s people astray. If they let the pagan nations remain in the Promised Land, the pagans will teach them to worship their idols and to forget the Lord their God. And, of course, the history of Israel, shows us that the temptation to turn from the Lord was very great; and in the days of Ahab and Jezebel, many of the people had turned from the Lord and were worshipping Baal instead. Of course, another reason for destroying them completely was that the Lord was using the Israelites to punish the Canaanites for their wickedness. The Lord had given them four hundred years — the length of time the Israelites were in Egypt — to repent of their wickedness. But instead of repenting, they continued in their wickedness. And so, in the end, the Lord sent the Israelites to destroy them as punishment for their sin.
Verse 19 returns to the subject of sieges. Interestingly, Moses commands the people not to destroy any fruit trees whenever they lay siege to a city. Don’t put an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. And don’t cut them down, because ‘Are the trees of the field people?’ They’re permitted to cut down other trees, which do not bear fruit, and use them to build siege works. But fruit trees are not their enemies, so why destroy them? Furthermore, why destroy the resources of the land you’re trying to conquer? So, leave the fruit trees alone.
In the sixth commandment, the Lord forbids murder. In other words, he forbids unlawful killing. However, war is different. Killing their enemies in war was not regarded as unlawful and therefore it was not forbidden by the sixth commandment. And the army officers were to do whatever they could to preserve the life of the men, allowing some of them to return home so they could enjoy the good things the Lord has prepared for them in the Promised Land.
Chapter 21 begins with an unsolved murder. A dead body is found, lying in a field and it’s not known who killed the victim. In that case, the elders and judges shall measure the distance from the body to the surrounding cities to determine which city is nearest. The elders of the nearest city are deemed to be responsible for the body. And so, they must make atonement for the murder. They did this by taking a heifer down to flowing stream in a valley where they were to break the animal’s neck. The priests were to oversee what happened and the elders of the city had to wash their hands over the heifer and declare that their hands did not shed the victim’s blood, nor did they see who did it. And they’re to ask the Lord to accept this atonement on behalf of his people so that he will not hold against them the blood of an innocent man. In this way, they made atonement for the death of the man.
The word ‘atonement’ can mean either ‘to wipe clean’; or it can mean ‘to pay a ransom’ depending on the context. Since the ceremony described in this passage including the washing of hands, we may take it that here atonement means ‘wipe clean’. The guilt for this man’s murder needed to be washed away; and the land had to be wiped clean from the stain of this sin. So, the animal was killed in place of the unknown murder. And by doing this beside running water and by washing their hands as part of the ceremony, the elders were asking the Lord to cleanse them from the guilt associated with the murder of this man.
Since the sixth commandment forbids murder, the people could not disregard a murder that has taken place, even when the identity of the murderer was unknown. Something had taken place in the land which the Lord forbids; and the Lord’s people must cleanse the land from this guilt.
In the next section, Moses anticipates a time when they go to war against their enemies and take some of the women captive. Presumably Moses is referring here, not to the Canaanites, whom they were to destroy, but to other nations beyond the Promised Land. If they so desired, they could marry the women they’d taken captive. Before doing so, the woman’s head had to be shaved, her nails had to be trimmed and her old clothes had to be replaced. It’s possible this was to symbolise that she was no longer a slave. Furthermore, she was to be allowed time to mourn for her parents, either because they were dead or because she would not see them again. Only then could the Israelite man marry his new wife. If the marriage did not work out and he wanted to divorce her, the man could not sell her or treat her as a slave. Though she was once a slave, she became his wife and had to be treated accordingly.
The sixth commandment not only forbids murder, but it requires us to show kindness and compassion to others and to defend and protect the innocent. Instead of harming others, we’re to do good to them.
In verses 15 to 17 of chapter 20, Moses sets forth the case of a man who had two wives, but he loved one and not the other. However, his firstborn son was the child of the woman he didn’t love. Now, in those days, it was the custom that the firstborn son received a double portion of the inheritance. And so, in this case, the man might want to give the double portion to one of the sons of the woman he loves. He may want to play favourites. But Moses forbade him from doing so: the rights of the firstborn son must go to the firstborn son, no matter who the mother was.
And in verses 18 to 21, Moses describes what parents should do with a rebellious son. If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his parents or listen to them, then they shall bring him to the elders. And the elders were to stone the son in order to remove this great evil from among them. And the rest of Israel will hear what happened and be afraid. So, other sons will be careful not to become stubborn and rebellious lest the same thing happen to them.
Notice a few things though. The verbs Moses uses to describe the son’s behaviour indicate that this was not a one-off act of rebellion, but it was the son’s habit. He had been persistently stubborn and rebellious. Also, the parents were not allowed to take matters into their own hands, but they had to present their case to the elders. Presumably the elders were required to investigate whether or not the accusation was true. And finally, stoning the son to death was the most extreme penalty which could be imposed, but presumably lesser forms of penalty could also be imposed. And so, the purpose of this law was not only to warn rebellious sons, but it was to prevent angry parents from harming their children in a fit of rage. It was designed to preserve the life of their children.
And the passage ends with various laws. After someone had been executed for murder, his dead body was to be hung up on a tree, presumably as a kind of warning to the people. But his body must not be left on the tree overnight, because that would desecrate the land.
If an Israelite came across someone’s lost property, he was to look after it until the owner came to retrieve it.
Cross-dressing was forbidden.
They were to show kindness to mother birds.
And when they built a new house, they were to build a parapet around the roof, so that no one will fall from it.
With the exception of the law about crossing-dressing, these laws are concerned with humanitarian acts: showing kindness to other people, even to birds. And therefore they fit with the sixth commandment which requires us to seek the good of others.
Therefore, the main thrust of today’s passage is to teach us about the value of human life and how life had to be protected and promoted among the Israelites. The life of the person who killed accidentally had to be protected from the avenger of blood. The lives of innocent people had to be protected from false witnesses. Men were exempt from war in order to enjoy the good life which the Lord had prepared for them in the Promised Land. Even the life of their enemies was to be preserved if possible. An unsolved murder could not be disregarded, and the murderer’s guilt had to be wiped away. Even though they were once slaves, the lives of captive wives mattered. Even though their mother was not loved, the lives of all firstborn sons mattered. Angry parents were to be prevented from abusing their children. And the people were to show kindness to their fellow Israelites in various small ways.
Life matters to the Lord. And it still matters to the Lord, which is why he gives us his Spirit to enable his people to be full of love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control. He gives us his Spirit so that we will love others and rejoice in all circumstances and live peacefully with each other. He gives us his Spirit so that we will be patient with others and kind and good to them. He gives us his Spirit so that we will be faithful and dependable and gentle with one another and will be able to control our temper. He gives us his Spirit so that we will be imitators of God and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us. He gives us his Spirit so that we might love one another and so keep the sixth commandment.
And he gives us elders so that, when disputes arise in the church, we can take our complaints to them; and he gives them the wisdom they need to make a ruling and to decide what is best. And he has given us civil authorities with the power of the sword to punish evildoers and to uphold law and order in the world, so that we can live quiet and peaceful lives.
Life matters to God and he commands his people to love one another and to love even our enemies, so that instead of harming one another, we’ll help one another.
However, all of these laws and regulations were also a sign that the land the Israelites were about to enter was not the true Promised Land. In the true Promised Land, all of God’s people would live in peace and safety on God’s holy mountain. And these laws about murder and manslaughter and death made clear that they would not all live in peace and safety in the land of Canaan. In the land of Canaan, some would be murdered and others would be killed by accident and there would be avengers of blood who might pursue them in a rage. False witnesses would arise to make false allegations against them. There would be foreign enemies to face and to fight and their lives would be put in danger. Marriages would break down, wives would be unloved, sons and daughters might be rebellious and parents might be quick-tempered and abusive.
Moses was preparing the Israelites to enter the Promised Land of Canaan, the land the Lord promised to give to them, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land like the Garden of Eden, where they would have everything they needed and where they would enjoy the presence of the Lord in their midst. But the land they were about to enter was not the true Promised Land, because though it may have been a land flowing with milk and honey, it was also a land where they would face troubles and trials and sorrow and sadness and death and mourning.
And, of course, our life today is like that, isn’t it? Wherever we go in the world, that’s what’ll find and that’s what we’ll experience. Even in the church, where we have the help of the Spirit to love one another, we still hurt one another, because we’re still sinners who display, not the fruit of the Spirit, but the works of the flesh in our lives. All of these laws remind us that we’re not yet in the true Promised Land. And so, these laws teach us to look upwards to heaven; and they teach us to look forwards to the new creation, where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, because the old order will have passed away, everything associated with this old, broken world. And instead, all of God’s people — all those who have been delivered from their sin and misery through faith in Christ the Saviour — will live in peace and safety on God’s holy mountain in the new heavens and earth. And in that place, there will only be joy. Fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. Isn’t that how the psalmist puts it? That’s the Promised Land which the Lord Jesus is preparing for all who believe in him. And he died on the cross, paying for our sins, to bring us there. And so, you must trust in him for eternal life. And all who trust in him can look forward to living a better life in a better world, which Christ is preparing for you. And while you wait for it, you can look to him for the help of his Spirit to live that heavenly life now and to love and serve everyone around you.