Deuteronomy 19:1–21:14: Manslaughter, War, & Murder


Note: I regret that due to some technical difficulties we’re unable to offer the audio of this teaching.

With Deuteronomy 19 we leave behind Moses’ systematic treatment of the laws. The next few chapters (19–26) bring into focus a wide variety of topics, most of which are quick bursts of thought. Moses reminds me of a doting parent who is watching their child take a first solo drive in a car. He seems to be saying, “In case I forgot, don’t forget . . . “. The Israelites are poised on the edge of the Promised Land, ready to take their first “solo” without Moses right there with them. He doesn’t want them to forget God’s teachings.

This entire nineteenth chapter emphasizes justice—for the defenseless: justice for the unintentional killer (vv. 1–13), justice for the landowner (v. 14), and justice for the accused (vv. 15–21).

Chapter nineteen begins with a focus upon cities of refuge. When Israel entered Canaan, they were to designate three cities to be places of refuge for those who had unintentionally killed another person. These cities were to be equally spaced geographically throughout the land and had to be accessible to those in need of immediate sanctuary.

Moses also gives special attention to the issue of blood revenge (or vendetta) since this was a common practice in the Ancient Near Eastern cultures. The cities of refuge offered protection from an “avenger of blood, while his anger is hot” (v. 6). We must keep in mind that there were no police forces at this time. Law was fundamentally a family or community issue to resolve. God expected each citizen to be concerned that justice was done in the land. We need to remember that in the nation of Israel, shedding innocent blood defiled the land, and one way to cleanse the land was to punish the offender.

This avenger, not to be confused with Marvel Comics, was essentially a family protector. Traditionally he was the nearest male relative, the one responsible for bringing a relative out of slavery (Lev. 25:48–49), for redeeming a relative’s property (Lev. 25:25), for marrying a relative’s widow and raising up children in the name of the deceased (Ruth 3:12–13; 4:5–10), and for avenging the death of a relative (Num. 35:19).

The Bible applies this picture of the city of refuge to the person seeking refuge in God on more than one occasion. Two Bible verses that come to mind are Psalm 46:1 and Hebrews 6:18.

The chapter then gives rapid-fire laws concerning land ownership, true and false testifying and retribution (or Lex Talionis). The legal principle for “an eye for an eye,” is found in this chapter as well as Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24:20. These Mosaic proclamations don’t encourage violence, they limit vengeance and punishment to match the crime. They were, for the Israelites, a guarantee of justice.

Chapter twenty moves us into instructions concerning warfare. Israel was a small nation surrounded by great and mighty empires, but God tells them not to be afraid. Israel was commanded not to fear what any logical military person would fear: more soldiers, more horses, and better equipment. But God asked them to recognize a greater fact: “For the Lord God is with you.”

The Text offers the soldier three reasons why they should be confident: (1) “The Lord … goes with you”; (2) He will “fight for you”; (3) He will “save you.” After this strong, concise message the warriors knew without a doubt in whose strength they stood.

In this chapter, God also offers instructions to Israel on how to conduct a war. He established rules for battle inside the country—they were to utterly destroy the Canaanites (v. 16-18) because their idolatry could infect the Jews living there. And, they were given rules for battles outside the country—first offer peace (v. 10-11). In wars outside the country, God also laid down principles for taking plunder, which was a customary practice in the Ancient Near East.

Chapter twenty-one features more random ideas. It begins with some laws concerning unsolved murders and atoning the land from the shed blood of the victim.  He then moves into a few more laws about family life, specifically laws regarding the taking of a wife from conquered peoples. In the ancient world, it was not uncommon for a man to take a wife from among the captives. Yet obviously, this practice was open to great abuse, so God gives specific guidelines to govern this practice in Israel and make it more humane for the woman.


  1. We don’t find our refuge in anything except Jesus Christ.
  2. When we walk by faith and keep our eyes on the Lord (Heb. 12:1–3), He will give us the peace we need (Phil. 4:4–9). You are heading for victory when you know that the Lord is with you and fighting for you.
  3. God wants His people to enjoy living in their land, and the secret of this enjoyment is obedience to His will. Crime and injustice defile the land, and God does not want His land, or his people, defiled.
  4.  Our own strength isn’t enough. We never get to stand on our own strength. God never makes us so strong that we no longer need Him. Never. We will continually be dependent upon Him. Ironically, realizing our weakness and dependence is the secret to our strength and success




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Trust is the winsome wedding of faith and hope.

Brennan Manning

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