Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Here a fresh section of the laws begins. See Introduction for a full analysis.
When the LORD thy God hath cut off the nations, whose land the LORD thy God giveth thee, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their cities, and in their houses;Deuteronomy 19:1-13. THE CITIES OF REFUGE.
(See for more on this subject, Numbers 35:9, &c.; Joshua 20)
(1) When the Lord thy God hath cut off the nations.—We find that the three cities of refuge on the west of Jordan were appointed by Joshua after the conquest (Joshua 20). The first three on the east of Jordan, namely, Bezer, Ramoth-Gilead, and Golan, had already been selected by Moses (Deuteronomy 4:41, &c), but Joshua assigned them to their Levitical possessors.
(3) Thou shalt prepare thee a way.—Upon this phrase Rashi remarks (from the Talmud) that “Miklot! Miklot (‘Refuge! Refuge!’) was written up at the parting of the ways.”
Divide the coasts of thy land . . . into three parts.—So that no part of the country might be too far from any of the cities of refuge.
(5) As when a man goeth into the wood.—An obvious instance.
(6) The avenger of the blood.—Literally, the redeemer of the blood. The Hebrew, gooël stands for all the three words, “redeemer,” “avenger,” “kinsman.”
(8, 9) if the Lord thy God enlarge thy coast . . . thou shalt add three cities—i.e., thou shalt add three to the six, making nine in all. There is no trace of this ever having been done in the history of Israel. The comments of Jewish writers show that nothing is known of the fact in their literature. Some of them point out that only seven nations were assigned to thehost of Joshua, and that the land occupied by these seven could not have needed more than the six cities. They lay stress upon the words “If He give thee all the land which He promised to give thy fathers” (not merely the seven nations promised to thee). They refer to the Kenites and the Kenizzites and the Kadmonites in particular, as three nations promised to Abraham. It would have been more to the purpose if they had referred to the Hittites. The cities of this people, as recently discovered, from Kedesh on the Orontes to Carchemish, lie to the north of the known territory of Israel. If “all the laud of the Hittites” (Joshua 1:4) had been conquered, the three additional cities might have been required. But though this land seems to have been tributary to Solomon, it was not so occupied by Israel as to necessitate the appointment of three additional cities of refuge. And Solomon’s empire lasted only for his own reign. But without going back to these details, they also take the promise as prophetical; holding that when the Lord has “circumcised their heart” (Deuteronomy 30:6), “to love the Lord,” and given them “one heart and one way to fear Him for ever, and shall make an everlasting covenant with them, and put His fear in their hearts ( Jeremiah 32:39-40) that they shall not depart from Him,” then the promises will be fulfilled. All the land will be given to them, and they will need these other cities. One writer adds, “Blessed is he that waiteth, and shall attain to it,” from Daniel 12:12. Thus the Jews take the passage as prophetic of their ultimate restoration. Evidently it is no addition of later times, but the genuine language of Moses. What later writer would have thought of adding it?
(10) That innocent blood be not shed—i.e., the blood of the manslayer who can find no refuge, and yet is no murderer.
(11) But if any man hate his neighbour, and lie in wait for him.—Rashi’s comment upon this is in the spirit of St. John: “By way of hatred he comes to lying in wait: and hence it has been said, when a man has transgressed a light commandment, that he will end by transgressing a greater. Therefore when he has broken the commandment, Thou shalt not hate, he will end by coming to bloodshed.” What is this but “He that hateth his brother is a murderer”?
(12) Deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood.—There is as yet no idea of a public trial and execution, which belongs to a more advanced stage of civilisation than this.
(13) Shalt put away.—Literally, consume, or, as it were, burn out.
Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour's landmark, which they of old time have set in thine inheritance, which thou shalt inherit in the land that the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it.(14) Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour’s landmark.—Another law manifestly appropriate here, where it appears for the first time, like the “field” in the tenth commandment (Deuteronomy 5:21). But the immediate connection is not obvious. Perhaps the idea is to caution the people to avoid a most certain incentive to hatred and murder. Ancient landmarks are also important and almost sacred witnesses.
They of old time.—The first dividers of the land. There is no idea of antiquity about the expression.
One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.Deuteronomy 19:15-21. FALSE TESTIMONY.
The law of retaliation is sternly laid down here; but it must be administered by the judges, not by men acting on their own behalf.
(17) Both the men . . . shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges.—This appears to mean that all cases of suspected false testimony were to go before the supreme court (see Deuteronomy 17:9); that the matter was not to be lightly decided.
(21) Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.—This is to be effected by the award of the judges, not as a matter of private revenge. But manifestly it rests with the injured party to press the case.