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Deuteronomy 19


Three Cities of Refuge The Administration of Justice The Cities of Refuge Homicide and Cities of Refuge
19:1-3 19:1-3 19:1-7 19:1-4a
19:4-10 19:4-7   19:4b-6
  19:8-10 19:8-10  
19:11-13 19:11-13 19:11-13 19:11-13
Property Boundaries   Ancient Property Lines Boundaries
19:14 19:14 19:14 19:14
The Law Concerning Witnesses   Concerning Witnesses Witnesses
19:15-21 19:15-21 19:15-21 19:15

READING CYCLE THREE (see introductory section)


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the four modern translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.


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, 2you shall set aside three cities for yourself in the midst of your land, which the Lord your God gives you to possess. 3You 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."

19:1 "cuts off" This verb (BDB 503, KB 500, Hiphil imperfect) is used in several senses:

1. to make ("cut") a covenant, 4:23; 5:2,3; 7:2; 9:9; 29:1,12,14,25; 31:16

2. remove, destroy, 12:29; 19:1

3. cut down (literal, i.e., a tree), 19:5; 20:19,20


▣ "whose land the Lord your God gives you" See note at 1:8.

▣ "settle in their cities" The description of God's activity in accomplishing this task on the eastern side of the Jordan River is seen in Deut. 4:41-43.

19:2,7 "three cities" These were Levitical cities of refuge, discussed in Num. 35; Josh. 20, where someone accused of murder (i.e., "manslayer") could flee to protect himself from the dead person's relatives (i.e., "blood avenger"). The leaders of these cities were to hold a trial (cf. vv. 11-13) to determine the facts of the case.

A list of the cites of refuge is found in Joshua 20:7-8:

1. Trans-jordan

a. Bezer in Reuben

b. Ramoth-Gilead in Gad

c. Golan in Manasseh (Bashan)

2. Canaan

a. Kadesh in Naphtali (Galilee)

b. Shechem in Ephraim

c. Hebron in Judah

The idea of a place of safety or refuge was not unique to Israel. Most ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures provided these special places. Usually they were located at religious shrines. Israel also had this concept by one grabbing the "horns of the altar" (cf. Exod. 27:2; 30:10) at the central shrine (cf. Exod. 21:14; I Kgs. 1:50-53; 2:28-34). However, special cities were unique to Israel. YHWH was concerned with the death of innocent manslayers.

19:3 "prepare the roads" The verb (BDB 465, KB 464, Hiphil imperfect) here means "prepare a road." There are three possible meanings:

1. equal distance apart

2. easy access

3. "provide road signs pointing the way" (Rashi quoting a Maccabean document)


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-5as 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; 6otherwise 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. 7Therefore, I command you, saying, 'You shall set aside three cities for yourself.'"

19:4 "case of the manslayer" This is an expansion of Exod. 21:12-14, which relates to the central sanctuary. This expanded the safety of the central sanctuary to the six Levitical cities of refuge.

▣ "who may flee there and live" If the one who killed someone fled (BDB 630, KB 681, Qal imperfect) to one of the designated cities and if the ensuing trial found that there was no premeditation then he must live (BDB 310, KB 309, Qal perfect) in that city of safety until the death of the current High Priest (cf. Josh. 20:6).

▣ "unintentionally" See note at 4:42. This is the opposite of "premeditated act."

19:6 "avenger of blood" The phrase is a construct (BDB 145 I, KB 169, Qal participle and BDB 196, cf. Num. 35:9-28). This person is also known as "kinsman redeemer"(one who acts on behalf of the family). This is an example of v. 21's limited revenge (cf. Exod. 21:23-25; Lev. 24:19-22).

▣ "though he was not deserving of death" This is a theological development of Gen. 9:5-6. Here the motive behind the action is taken into consideration. That which was accidental and unpremeditated is reprieved from "eye-for-an-eye" retaliation. There were consequences (had to live in the city of refuge until the death of the current High Priest).

Israel, like YHWH, was to be concerned with justice and limited revenge!

19:7 Moses gave them YHWH's word in vv. 1-3; he explained them in vv. 4-6 and, then he reasserts YHWH's command in v. 7.

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-9if 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. 10So 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."

19:8 "If" The hypothetical particle (BDB 49) expresses the conditional nature of YHWH's covenant with Israel (cf. v. 9). He had given them the trans-jordan area and now if they obeyed He would give them Canaan.

19:9 "carefully observe" There is one verb "to observe" (BDB 1036, KB 1581, Qal imperfect, see note at 6:12) followed by several infinitive constructs:

1. "to do" - BDB 793, KB 889

2. "to love" - BDB 12, KB 17

3. "to walk" - BDB 229, KB 246, cf. 10:12; 11:1,13,22; 30:16


▣ "all this commandment" This singular term (BDB 846, see Special Topic at 4:1) is used to describe all of YHWH's covenant (cf. 4:2; 6:1; 11:8; 15:5; 19:9).

▣ "you shall add three more cities" These three plus the three of v. 2 show the six cities of refuge mentioned in Joshua 20. These refer to (1) the future three cities on the western side of the Jordan, not yet conquered or (2) Israel's later expansion of the text after Joshua's conquest (editorial update).

19:10 YHWH is concerned about the death of people who do not deserve to die (i.e., "innocent blood," cf. II Kgs. 21:16; 24:4; Jer. 22:17). In the OT there is no distinction between ethical and ritual purity. Life is precious! Its loss has consequences ("blood-guiltiness," cf. Num. 35:33-34). It is this consequence and other ritual uncleanness that is dealt with (1) annually by the Day of Atonement, described in Leviticus 16 and (2) locally by the sacrifice of a heifer (cf. 21:1-9). As the cities of refuge dwelt with individuals, Deut. 21:1-9 deals with the ritual guiltiness of communities.

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, 12then 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. 13You shall not pity him, but you shall purge the blood of the innocent from Israel, that it may go well with you."

19:11 Notice the series of verbs describing the premeditated murder:

1. "hates" - BDB 971, KB 1338, Qal participle, cf. 4:42

2. "lies in wait" - BDB 70, KB 83, Qal perfect

3. "rises up" - BDB 877, KB 1086, Qal perfect

4. "strikes" - BDB 645, KB 697, Qal perfect


19:12 "the elders of his city" This refers to either the city nearest the crime or the city of the man's residence.

19:13 "You shall not pity him" This (BDB 299, KB 298, Qal imperfect) is a recurrent theme in Deuteronomy (cf. 7:16; 13:8; 19:13,21; 25:12). Human compassion or national feelings cannot change YHWH's laws. Israel must be holy! Israel's future prosperity (and even her remaining in the Promised Land) is conditioned on her obedience.

NASB"you shall purge the blood of the innocent from Israel"
NKJV"you shall put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel"
NRSV"you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel"
TEV"Israel must rid itself of murders"
NJB"You must banish the shedding of innocent blood from Israel"

The verb (BDB 128, KB 145, Piel perfect) means "burn," used metaphorically here of the complete removal (cf. 13:8; 17:7,12; 19:13,19; 21:21; 22:21,22,24; 24:7).

Murder affects individual's (cf. Genesis 4) and communities' (cf. 21:1-9) relationships with and the blessings of YHWH. Sin and self destroy everything they touch!

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."

19:14 "you shall not move your neighbor's boundary mark" In the ancient world villages farmed the land together (i.e., plowing, sowing, reaping). From a passerby's observation it looked like one big field. However, each family had its own field, which was marked by white stones. That family, though working the entire field with the village, received the produce of their land. If someone moved the stones, thereby giving themselves more land (i.e., produce), it was a crime against the whole community and YHWH, because He gave the land as an inheritance for each tribe and family (cf. 27:17; Pro. 22:28; 23:10; Hos. 5:10).

▣ "which the ancestors have set" This is the kind of statement that has caused many scholars to reject Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy. It seems to refer to the allocation of land by lot, which occurred after Joshua's conquest (cf. Joshua 13-19). Egyptian scribes updated their texts, while Mesopotamian scribes did not. Israel's scribes were trained in Egypt.

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. 16If a malicious witness rises up against a man to accuse him of wrongdoing, 17then 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. 18The judges shall investigate thoroughly, and if the witness is a false witness and he has accused his brother falsely, 19then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you. 20The rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you. 21Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot."

19:15 This verse shows how careful they were to be in their judicial process (cf. 17:6; Num. 35:30). The verb "rise up" (BDB 877, KB 1086, Qal imperfect) is used three times in the Hebrew text in vv. 15 and 16.

19:16 "malicious witness" The noun "malicious" (BDB 329) basically means "violence," but here it denotes a purposeful, false judicial witness (cf. Exod. 23:1; Ps. 27:12; 5:11), they speak in YHWH's name (legal oath), but knowingly distort the truth. Verse 19 shows the consequences of a false witness (cf. Deut. 5:20 and chapter 11).

TEV"false accusations"
NJB"a charge of apostasy"

The Hebrew term (BDB 694 II) usually means "a rebellious attitude which becomes an action," cf. 13:5; Jer. 28:16; 29:32. Here the context implies purposeful, premeditated "lying."

19:17 "the priests and the judges" This refers to:

1. local judges, 16:18-20; 17:8-13

2. Levitical priests of the central sanctuary, 18:1-8

Notice that appearing before these appointed judges is the same as appearing before YHWH (cf. 17:9,12).

19:18 "The judges shall investigate thoroughly" See note at 13:15. This same word (BDB 405, KB 408, Hiphil infinitive absolute) is also used in 17:4.

19:19 "you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother" This is an example of "we reap what we sow" or "an eye-for-an-eye" justice (cf. Lev. 24:19).

19:20 "The rest will hear and be afraid" There is a social deterrent in individual punishment by the community (cf. 13:11; 17:13).

19:21 See note at v. 13. The "eye-for-an-eye" justice of Israel, which seems so cruel (i.e., Lex talionis, which is also characteristic of the Code of Hammurabi, see Old Testament Times, by R. K. Harrison, pp. 57-59) was in reality meant to stop "revenge wars" between families and tribes as well as maintain the ritual purity of God's covenant people.

One wonders about how literally this law was actually carried out. It seems that physical mutilation was replaced by appropriate compensation. This is based on the surrounding context of the parallel in Exod. 21:23-25. The immediately preceding and following contexts deal with compensation. The later rabbis assigned appropriate compensation for actions resulting in personal damage. However, murder retained its religious taboo. It negatively impacted the covenant of blessings from YHWH and had to be dealt with appropriately!


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. Why did God establish cities of refuge?

2. Explain the concept of "the avenger of blood."

3. How did the Hebrews handle perjury?

4. What was the purpose of "eye-for-eye" justice?


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