Once installed in the Promised Land, three cities are to be set aside as cities of refuge, as opposed to the six mandated in Numbers 35. Why only three this time? My study Bible says that these are separate from “the three in Transjordan” (p.239). I suppose the logic would be that at this point in the story, the Hebrews have already taken the land to the east of the Jordan River and therefore already have those cities set up. In that case, Moses is giving instructions for the land to come.

But then, later in his speech, Moses says that the number of cities should be brought up to six once God expands their borders, “and gives you all the land which he promised to give your fathers” (v.8).

Maybe I am misunderstanding my study Bible notes, but it seems to me more likely that, in a divided kingdom, there might indeed be only three cities under Jerusalem’s control, and that the scribes are describing their current reality with the hope for a future reunified country.

The other big difference from the instructions in Numbers 35 is that we actually get an example of the sort of person who might legitimately make use of a city of refuge:

If any one kills his neighbor unintentionally without having been at enmity with hi in time past – as when a man goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down a tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies – he may flee to one of these cities and save his life. (v.4-5)

Of course, letting murderers decide if they deserve to be punished or not may not be the most effective judicial policy. So if a murderer guilty of intentionally killing someone runs to a city of refuge, the elders of his city should send for him. He is then to be handed over to the “avenger of blood” (v.12).

I do like that it is the city elders who must send for him and not, say, the family of the victim. It shows an attempt at getting a neutral third party to make the call. Unfortunately, there’s no mention of the possibility that the city elders may themselves be in the victim’s family, or that the victim’s family may be powerful or wealthy enough to get the murderer summoned to them whether he really is guilty of intentional killing or not.

Still, I can appreciate the concept of the city of refuge for what it is – an attempt to rein in the disastrous blood feuds that can easily arise in these sorts of tribal societies. Even if the whole thing is put into the terms of the murder or the murderer “shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel” (v.13), nor is there any mention of why an intentional murder might have been committed, nor the way in which intentionality is even to be established.


Moses slips in a little note about not removing a neighbour’s landmarks, “which the men of old have set” (v.14). According to my study Bible, this refers to boundary stones, so a prohibition against moving them makes a lot of sense.

To specify only that the boundary stones set by “the men of old” makes some sense as well, given what’s been said before about land returning to its original owners at every Jubilee. I imagine that there would have been little respect for new arrangements and changes.


At least two or three witnesses are needed to prove any crime. Fine, I get it, you don’t want people abusing the legal system by making false accusations, but there are just so many problems with this.

JusticeThe first is that numbers are no guarantee of anything. As a kid, I was bullied quite a bit. I was the friendless loser, and the bullies had all the social power. When teachers tried to figure out the situation, what do you suppose happened? The bullies claimed innocence, sometimes even claiming that I had been the aggressor. Since they were many and I was one, I was punished more than a few times for things I hadn’t done – or that had been done to me. Simply requiring more than one witness does not actually get around the “my word against his” situation. If anything, this requirement presented without qualifications only serves to ensure that those without social power have no access to justice.

The other issue, of course, is that many crimes do not have many witnesses. Child abusers and rapists, for example, aren’t generally likely to attack their victims in crowded streets. Once again, the requirement that two or more witnesses come forward effectively puts justice out of reach for those members of the society who are the most vulnerable to abuse.

The requirement is only the more odious when compared to Numbers 5, where it is specifically stated that a man has only to have a vague suspicion that his wife may have been unfaithful for him to bring her before a judge.

We then move on to the issue of malicious witnesses. If a malicious witness makes an accusation, both parties must appear “before the Lord” (v.17) – that is to say, before a tribunal in Jerusalem. If the accuser is found to have provided false witness, then he must receive whatever punishment the accused would have gotten for the alleged crime.

Again, I can understand the rationale of this rule. Again, though, it has some rather glaring flaws. The first may just be a linguistic issue, but how can the witness be known to be malicious if he hasn’t yet been found to have made a false testimony? Since he would only be brought to Jerusalem if he is malicious and would only have been found to have made a false testimony by the court in Jerusalem, I feel like we’re missing a step.

As with the number of witnesses, this rule takes a lot of power out of the hands of the most vulnerable. Coming forth after a rape is difficult enough in a society where an unmarried non-virgin loses all her prospects. How much more difficult must it be if – unable to prove to the satisfaction of an unknown judge – she may then be punished for having come forward at all? This is the sort of argumentation that can easily lead to things like the treatment of Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow. Or, closer to home, what happened in Steubenville.

Anyone lacking in social power, anyone making a claim that would rock the boat, would have no reason to come forward with such a threat attached to the justice system.

Perhaps the silliest and most naive claim comes near the end, when Moses says that when word of the punishment gets out, “the rest shall hear, and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you” (v.20).

The chapter closes with a repetition of the lex talionis: “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (v.21).