“Make its people an offer of peace” (Deut. 20:10).Human life is precious to God. Even in cases where the taking of life is permissible—in executing a murderer and in war—God’s people are to honor the Lord by showing respect for life.
Definition of Key Terms
Hebrew makes a distinction between personal killings (rasa’) and the general act of taking life (harag). Murder and manslaughter are rasa’, while a judicial execution or killing in warfare is harag. A number of additional words are also used in describing slaughter in war. It is important to understand that the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” takes a stand against rasa’, a personal rather than judicial or military killing. Deuteronomy 19 deals with rasa’, and chapter 20 deals indirectly with harag. Whether intentional or unintentional, rasa’ is sin. But only intentional personal killings—what we would call first-degree or premeditated murder—merits the death penalty. As these chapters teach, imposing the death penalty on a murderer is not wrong, but required. One circumstance even required Israel to engage in wars of extermination. Old Testament laws do not deal with all the issues raised by those who decry the death sentence, or those who take a pacifist stand on war. Yet these laws do make important distinctions we need to understand to discuss such issues intelligently. These laws do show that Israel was to honor God by showing unusual respect for human life.
Detailed regulations required Israel to honor God by respecting human life. Cities of refuge had to be established to protect those who committed accidental homicide (19:1–14). Strict rules of evidence governed all criminal cases (vv. 15–21), just as strict rules had to be followed in making war (20:1–20). Unsolved murder called for cleansing (21:1–9). Women captives were to be treated with unusual care and respect (vv. 10–14).
Understanding the Text
“Build roads to them” Deut. 19:1–3. Old Testament Law called for the establishment of cities where a person who killed another accidentally might be safe. The phrase “build roads to them” is significant. God wanted nothing to hinder or delay any person’s flight to safety. You and I are responsible to see justice done in our society. But we are also responsible to “build roads” that will guard the innocent. “In a rage” Deut. 19:4–13. In Israel a near relative of a murder victim was responsible to execute the killer. Understandably such a person, a son or brother or father, might be angry enough to kill without waiting to check circumstances. The cities of refuge were established so that a person who killed another accidentally might be safe while the killing was investigated. If it truly was an accident, as in the illustration provided in verse 5, the killer could remain in the city of refuge until the current high priest died, and then return home. But if investigation showed the killing was intentional, then the elders of the city of refuge were to “hand him over to the avenger of blood to die. Show him no pity.” This law reflects the precious nature of human life. No amount of money, no possible penalty, can replace the life that has been taken. The death penalty affirms to the entire community the supreme value God places on a single human life. “Do not move your neighbor’s boundary stone” Deut. 19:14. The boundaries of family land were marked by stones in biblical times. Why is this law placed here in a discussion of life and death issues? Possibly because of the connection between a family’s means of support—its land—and life itself. The command not to murder establishes the significance of human life. It stands forever as a barrier to any act which in any way, directly or indirectly, might threaten the well-being of another human being. Christians today need to take a stand for laws that promote justice, as well as to call for the punishment of wrongdoers. “One witness is not enough to convict” Deut. 19:15–21. In any criminal matter two or three witnesses were required to establish guilt. The judges were also to carefully examine the witnesses. Justice is so important that a lying witness must pay the penalty not of lying, but the penalty established for the crime about which he or she lied. Strict justice is required, that “the rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you.” The surest way to promote crime is to fail to punish criminals. “When you go to war” Deut. 20:1–9. Early Israel had no standing army. Instead a militia of citizens reported when the nation was threatened or went to war. Biblical law granted humanitarian exemptions, and anyone who was afraid was sent home “so that his brothers will not become disheartened.” These exemptions reflected a belief in God which Israel’s priests were to proclaim before every battle. Victory did not depend on the size of Israel’s army, but on God. “The Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you.” Whenever you or I feel small and powerless, this is an important principle to remember. Neither our strength, nor that of the foe, is at issue. The issue is whether or not the Lord goes with us. “When you march” Deut. 20:10–18. The passage makes an important distinction. When Israel went to war against an enemy outside the boundaries of Canaan, its armies were to invite surrender. Only if the enemy city resisted was the army free to kill and plunder. However, within Canaan, Israel was commanded to “completely destroy” foreign settlements. The reason is clearly stated. “Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.” “Do not destroy its trees” Deut. 20:19. No parallel exists in the rules of war of other ancient nations. Only Israel was to preserve fruit trees when attacking a walled city. This law does more than reflect God’s concern for all people. It shows that to Israel the ideal state was one of peace, not war. The Assyrians and Babylonians and other ancient world powers thrived on war and thought nothing of the devastation they caused. Only in Israel was peace to be the nation’s first concern. “If . . . it is not known who killed him” Deut. 21:1–9. The whole covenant community was responsible to enforce God’s Laws. If a killer was unknown, the elders of the nearest town were to break the neck of an animal representing the killer, symbolizing their willingness to carry out the penalty God required. They then publicly announced ignorance of the killer’s identity before priests, who represented the Law itself. This ceremony purged the land of guilt for shedding “innocent blood.” The ceremony portrays again the fact that in Old Testament Law the whole community of faith was responsible for the conduct of individual members. “You may take her as your wife” Deut. 21:10–14. Ancient armies were noted for rape and pillage. But God’s Law replaced rape with marriage. A change of clothing and cutting off of the captive woman’s hair symbolized separation from her nation and adoption into Israel. She was then given time to mourn the loss of relatives, and when taken became a wife, not a slave (v. 13). If for any reason a divorce took place, the woman was to be given her freedom rather than treated as a slave. Rules of warfare in other ancient nations recovered by archeologists show much more brutal treatment of captive women.
Road Builders (Deut. 19)
“I heard this rumor about you,” my caller said. “And I just wanted to check it out for myself.” I really appreciated his phone call. I’d heard the story was going around, and laughed at it. I’m far from faultless, but this tale was ridiculous. The only trouble was that people who heard it kept on repeating it as if it were true. Ultimately a lot of Christian brothers and sisters heard the story, believed it, and repeated it. Yet this caller was the first—and only-person who ever bothered to check out the facts with me personally. After a while the story died out. It wasn’t true in the first place. And God guarded my ministry, so the rumor hadn’t really hurt me. But the incident reminds me how much more eager we Christians are to grab a hatchet and take off after someone suspected of wrong—like modern avengers of blood—than we are to pick up our hatchets to build roads so the innocent can find their way to a city of refuge. Yes, let’s punish the guilty. But let’s make sure that no one who is innocent suffers unjustly. So what are we to do when we hear about a supposed fault or problem in a brother or sister’s life? Deuteronomy 19 suggests several road-building principles. First, delay before you repeat a rumor. An Old Testament city of refuge was first of all a place where a person could find temporary refuge while his case was being investigated. Second, check the facts. It’s not enough to remain silent. Confront the one who told you the rumor. Where did he get his information? How does he know it is reliable? If the rumor is being repeated without personal knowledge of the facts, confront the person who told you. It is sin to testify falsely against anyone. Third, if the rumor persists, speak to the person who is accused. He or she has a right to know what is being said and a right to be heard. In no way are Christians to clear the guilty or to ignore sin. But rumor, gossip, and false accusation are evils to be purged from the believing community.
“Do this so that innocent blood will not be shed in your land.”—Deuteronomy 19:10