Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Laws Concerning the Cities of Refuge, the Sacredness of Landmarks,and the Punishment of False Witnesses - Deuteronomy 19
After laying down the most important features in the national constitution, Moses glances at the manifold circumstances of civil and family life, and notices in this and the two following chapters the different ways in which the lives of individuals might be endangered, for the purpose of awakening in the minds of the people a holy reverence for human life.
The laws concerning the Cities of Refuge for Unintentional Manslayers are not a mere repetition of the laws given in Num 35:9-34, but rather an admonition to carry out those laws, with special reference to the future extension of the boundaries of the land.
As Moses had already set apart the cities of refuge for the land on the east of the Jordan (Deu 4:41.), he is speaking here simply of the land on the west, which Israel was to take possession of before long; and supplements the instructions in Num 35:14, with directions to maintain the roads to the cities of refuge which were to be set apart in Canaan itself, and to divide the land into three parts, viz., for the purpose of setting apart these cities, so that one city might be chosen for the purpose in every third of the land. For further remarks on this point, as well as with regard to the use of these cities (Deu 19:4-7), see at Num 35:11. - In Deu 19:8-10 there follow the fresh instructions, that if the Lord should extend the borders of Israel, according to His promise given to the patriarchs, and should give them the whole land from the Nile to the Euphrates, according to Gen 15:18, they were to add three other cities of refuge to these three, for the purpose of preventing the shedding of innocent blood. The three new cities of refuge cannot be the three appointed in Num 35:14 for the land on this side of the Jordan, nor the three mentioned in Num 35:7 on the other side of Jordan, as Knobel and others suppose. Nor can we adopt Hengstenberg's view, that the three new ones are the same as the three mentioned in Deu 19:2 and Deu 19:7, since they are expressly distinguished from "these three." The meaning is altogether a different one. The circumstances supposed by Moses never existed, since the Israelites did not fulfil the conditions laid down in Deu 19:9, viz., that they should keep the law faithfully, and love the Lord their God (cf. Deu 4:6; Deu 6:5, etc.). The extension of the power of Israel to the Euphrates under David and Solomon, did not bring the land as far as this river into their actual possession, since the conquered kingdoms of Aram were still inhabited by the Aramaeans, who, though conquered, were only rendered tributary. And the Tyrians and Phoenicians, who belonged to the Canaanitish population, were not even attacked by David.
Innocent blood would be shed if the unintentional manslayer was not protected against the avenger of blood, by the erection of cities of refuge in every part of the land. If Israel neglected this duty, it would bring blood-guiltiness upon itself ("and so blood be upon thee"), because it had not done what was requisite to prevent the shedding of innocent blood.
But whatever care was to be taken by means of free cities to prevent the shedding of blood, the cities of refuge were not to be asyla for criminals who were deserving of death, nor to afford protection to those who had slain a neighbour out of hatred. If such murderers should flee to the free city, the elders (magistrates) of his own town were to fetch him out, and deliver him up to the avenger of blood, that he might die. The law laid down in Num 35:16-21 is here still more minutely defined; but this does not transfer to the elders the duty of instituting a judicial inquiry, and deciding the matter, as Riehm follows Vater and De Wette in maintaining, for the purpose of proving that there is a discrepancy between Deuteronomy and the previous legislation. They are simply commanded to perform the duty devolving upon them as magistrates and administrators of local affairs. (On Deu 19:13, see Deu 8:8 and Deu 8:5.)
The prohibition against Removing a Neighbour's Landmark, which his ancestors had placed, is inserted here, not because landmarks were of special importance in relation to the free cities, and the removal of them might possibly be fatal to the unintentional manslayer (as Clericus and Rosenmller assume), for the general terms of the prohibition are at variance with this, viz., "thy neighbour's landmark," and "in thine inheritance which thou shalt inherit in the land;" but on account of the close connection in which a man's possession as the means of his support stood to the life of the man himself, "because property by which life is supported participates in the sacredness of life itself, just as in Deu 20:19-20, sparing the fruit-trees is mentioned in connection with the men who were to be spared" (Schultz). A curse was to be pronounced upon the remover of landmarks, according to Deu 27:17, just as upon one who cursed his father, who led a blind man astray, or perverted the rights of orphans and widows (cf. Hos 5:10; Pro 22:28; Pro 23:10). Landmarks were regarded as sacred among other nations also; by the Romans, for example, they were held to be so sacred, that whoever removed them was to be put to death.
The Punishment of a False Witness. - To secure life and property against false accusations, Moses lays down the law in Deu 19:15, that one witness only was not "to rise up against any one with reference to any crime or sin, with every sin that one commits" (i.e., to appear before a court of justice, or be accepted as sufficient), but everything was to be established upon the testimony of two or three witnesses. The rule laid down in Deu 17:6 and Num 35:30 for capital crimes, is raised hereby into a law of general application (see at Num 35:30). קוּם (in Deu 19:15), to stand, i.e., to acquire legal force. - But as it was not always possible to bring forward two or three witnesses, and the statement of one witness could not well be disregarded, in Deu 19:16-18 Moses refers accusations of this kind to the higher tribunal at the sanctuary for investigation and decision, and appoints the same punishment for a false witness, which would have fallen upon the person accused, if he had been convicted of the crime with which he was charged. סרה בּו לענות, "to testify against his departure," sc., from the law of God, not merely falling away into idolatry (Deu 13:6), but any kind of crime, as we may gather from Deu 19:19, which would be visited with capital punishment.
The two men between whom the dispute lay, the accused and the witness, were to come before Jehovah, viz., before the priests and judges who should be in those days - namely, at the place of the sanctuary, where Jehovah dwelt among His people (cf. Deu 17:9), and not before the local courts, as Knobel supposes. These judges were to investigate the case most thoroughly (cf. Deu 13:15); and if the witness had spoken lies, they were to do to him as he thought to do to his brother. The words from "behold" to "his brother" are parenthetical circumstantial clauses: "And, behold, is the witness a false witness, has he spoken a lie against his brother? Ye shall do," etc. זמם, generally to meditate evil. On Deu 19:20, see Deu 13:12.
The lex talionis was to be applied without reserve (see at Exo 21:23; Lev 24:20). According to Diod. Sic. (i. 77), the same law existed in Egypt with reference to false accusers.