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Gerald Gerbrandt: Cities of refuge are one way in which Deuteronomy protects due process and arrests the spiral of vengeance and violence that easily follows when justice is motivated by revenge.

Michael Grisanti: This entire passage lays great emphasis on God’s role in providing this land for his chosen nation. It is a land that he “is giving you” (19:1), “is giving you to possess” (19:2), “is giving you as an inheritance” (19:3, 10), “enlarges your territory” with (19:8), and “promised on oath to your forefathers” (19:8)—a promise he fulfills as he “gives you the whole land he promised them” (19:8).

John Schultz: The first thing that comes to mind when we read this chapter is that Canaan, the Promised Land, the rest into which God was leading His people, was not heaven; it was a place on earth, part of the world that lies under the curse of sin. There would be death, accidents, murder, and revenge in the Promised Land. The appointment of the cities of refuge is an accommodation to the condition of sin which is part of the existence of the people. The fact that the sinful nations that inhabited Canaan had been evicted by Israel did not bring about their own perfection.

Peter Pett: The lessons that come home from these cities of refuge are firstly the seriousness with which God treats deliberate murder, secondly that those who kill by accident should not bear guilt, and thirdly that just as the city of refuge was available for men to find deliverance, so our Lord Jesus Christ will be our city of refuge, even though in our case we are guilty. For as our High Priest He has died for us so that we may be forgiven and go free.


A. (:1-3) Provision of Three Cities of Refuge

1. (:1) Anticipation of Three Cities of Refuge

“When the LORD your God cuts off the nations,

whose land the LORD your God gives you,

and you dispossess them and settle in their cities and in their houses,”

Daniel Block: The opening paragraph serves as a thesis statement for the entire unit. Echoing 12:29, verse 1 sets the context by citing three preconditions to when these instructions take effect: Yahweh has cut off the nations (cf. 7:1), the Israelites have dispossessed them, and they occupy their towns and houses. However, whereas in 12:29 Moses only spoke of occupying the Canaanites’ land, here he refers to living “in their towns and houses” (cf. 6:10–11). Apparently he did not envision the Israelites razing all the Canaanite towns.

2. (:2) Allocation of Three Cities of Refuge

“you shall set aside three cities for yourself in the midst of your land, which the LORD your God gives you to possess.”

David Thompson: God did not want these cities in remote areas that were almost impossible to access. He wanted these cities within a distance that one could literally flee.

3. (:3) Access to Three Cities of Refuge

“You shall prepare the roads for yourself, and divide into three parts

the territory of your land, which the LORD your God will give you

as a possession, so that any manslayer may flee there.”

Daniel Block: Continuing his penchant for triadic expression, verses 2–3 prescribe three actions once the Israelites have occupied the land.

(1) They must designate three towns in the heartland (NIV “centrally located”) to complement the three already set apart east of the Jordan (4:41–42) and complete the six called for in Numbers 35:9–15.

(2) They must establish the routes to the towns of asylum. Since all six asylum towns eventually selected were also Levitical cities, they were invested with a sacral character (cf. Josh 20:7). Even so, it seems “the way/road” and “the land” have been intentionally juxtaposed, suggesting the boundaries of the regions falling under the influence of the respective towns were to be determined by the towns rather than vice versa. The towns were probably selected on the basis of their established significance rather than their centricity.

(3) Having identified these three focal points, the Israelites were to divide the entire territory into three regions, for which the towns would function as umbrellas of protection for those fleeing from avengers of blood.

Eugene Merrill: The definition of manslaughter and its proper redress are the theme of 19:1-13. In anticipation of it occurring in the sedentary life of Israel in the land, Moses instructed the people to select three cities as places of refuge to which persons accused of manslaughter could flee for protection. This is the second time in the book such instruction appears, the first adding the specification that these be cities to the east of the Jordan, that is, in Transjordan (Deut 4:41-43). Numbers provides an even earlier listing of cities of refuge, three on each side of the river (Num 35:6, 11-15), and Josh 20:7-9 gives their names. It is likely that the three cities of the Transjordan already were recognized as places of refuge by the time the law of Deut 19 was given, so here it is necessary to speak only of the other three.

B. (:4-7) Procedure for Utilizing the Three Cities of Refuge

“Now this is the case of the manslayer who may flee there and live:”

Daniel Block: Verses 4–7 are a self-contained subunit framed by a formal introduction (v. 4a) and conclusion (v. 7). The introduction illuminates the form and the function of the passage.

1. (:4b-5) Typical Type of Case that Would Apply

“when he kills his friend unintentionally, not hating him previously—

5 as when a man goes into the forest with his friend to cut wood,

and his hand swings the axe to cut down the tree, and the iron head slips off the handle and strikes his friend so that he dies—

he may flee to one of these cities and live;”

2. (:6) Typical Type of Vengeance that Would be Averted

“lest the avenger of blood pursue the manslayer in the heat of his anger, and overtake him, because the way is long, and take his life, though he was not deserving of death, since he had not hated him previously.”

Daniel Block: However, the involvement of the elders as representatives of the community (v. 12) prevented “avengers of blood” from operating independently or being driven by thirst for vengeance. The purpose of the institution was not to foster revenge but to promote righteousness. In cases of murder, righteousness demanded the expiation of the bloodguilt incurred by the death. Moses recognizes that despite the lofty goal of communal righteousness and the expiation of bloodguilt, personal passion could drive avengers of blood (v. 6). In rage they might pursue the “killer,” overtake him, and kill him. But since the “killer” in this case has committed no crime and has not previously expressed hatred toward the victim, the sentence of death does not apply.

Peter Craigie: avenger of blood — the exact meaning of this expression has been the subject of considerable debate. Traditionally, it has been taken to refer to the nearest male kinsman of the deceased, upon whom rested the responsibility for avenging the blood of the dead man. More recently, however, the expression has been interpreted as referring to a representative of the elders of the city in which the death took place; he was therefore an official (the “protector of blood”), not a close relative of the deceased.

The meaning of the expression possibly lies somewhere between these two alternatives. The avenger of blood may well be the nearest male kinsman of the deceased; his responsibility, however, was not simply to kill the person responsible for the death (whether manslayer or murderer), but to bring him before the established courts of law in his home town, who would determine the case in the proper manner. If the death was manslaughter, the manslayer would be sent to the city of refuge; the city of refuge was not simply a place of safety, but a place in which the manslayer made atonement for the deed of which he was guilty. If the death was determined to be murder, then the culprit would be executed.

Meredith Kline: One function of the kinsman-redeemer was to be the avenger of the blood (Gen 4:10ff.). This institution was not necessarily the mark of an ethically primitive society; rather, it was a mark of a less complex and less centralized form of government. Ideally, the avenger was to act out of passion for justice. However, because of the possibility of his acting out of mere passion, his office, while continued, was wisely controlled in the new, more highly centralized government of Israel established by Deuteronomy. The control was achieved by exploiting and expanding the institution of asylum early associated with the altar (cf. Gen 4:15; Ex 21:14b).

3. (:7) The Command to Set Aside the Three Cities of Refuge

“Therefore, I command you, saying,

‘You shall set aside three cities for yourself.’”

C. (:8-9) Potential for Additional Three Cities of Refuge

1. (:8) Expansion of Territory = the Contribution

“And if the LORD your God enlarges your territory,

just as He has sworn to your fathers,

and gives you all the land which He promised to give your fathers—“

2. (:9a) Exemplary Covenant Obedience = the Condition

“if you carefully observe all this commandment,

which I command you today,

to love the LORD your God, and to walk in His ways always—“

Daniel Block: In verses 8–9 Moses digresses momentarily, contemplating the future when Yahweh expands the Israelites’ territory, delivering into their hands all the land he promised on oath to their ancestors. Whereas verses 1–7 had in mind the core Promised Land west of the Jordan, the conditional construction raises the possibility of further expansion (v. 8). Should Israel’s territory expand beyond the original tribal allotments, three towns of asylum on each side of the Jordan would be inadequate. Therefore Moses calls for the addition of three more towns of asylum to serve the people living beyond the narrowly defined Promised Land (v. 9b).

However, verse 9 recognizes that just as Israel’s prosperity in the land depends on their pursuit of righteousness, so Yahweh’s expansion of their territory is contingent on fidelity. Therefore, with a challenge we have often heard before (6:5), Moses appeals for scrupulous devotion to Yahweh demonstrated in action. Yahweh owes nothing to those who do not receive his grace with gratitude and respond to his covenant with obedience.

3. (:9b) Extra Cities of Refuge = the Command

“then you shall add three more cities for yourself, besides these three.”

D. (:10) Rationale for the Policy

“So innocent blood will not be shed in the midst of your land

which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance,

and bloodguiltiness be on you.”

Eugene Merrill: At last the reason for such places is clearly spelled out—to spare an innocent party from miscarriage of justice and to prevent the avenger (and, indeed, the whole community as represented by him) from the guilt of shedding innocent blood (v. 10).


A. (:11) Different Circumstances for this Contrasting Case Study

1. Premeditated Hatred

“But if there is a man who hates his neighbor”

2. Premeditated Murder

“and lies in wait for him

and rises up against him

and strikes him so that he dies,”

3. Presumptuous Flight to a City of Refuge

“and he flees to one of these cities,”

Daniel Block: Moses recognizes the potential for criminals to abuse the institution and reaffirms the demand in Numbers 35 for discrimination between intentional murder and accidental death.

B. (:12) Deliverance to the Avenger of Blood for Execution

“then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there

and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die.”

Eugene Merrill: The act, first of all, is a response to or at least linked to an attitude. Homicide following hatred gives a presumption of intention to kill. This is in line with the observation of Jesus that anger toward one’s brother is tantamount to murder (Matt 5:21). But the case was made ironclad if there was evidence that the perpetrator had killed his victim after lying in wait for him for that very purpose (v. 11). Even if this occurred, the malefactor had the protection of the law and could flee to a city of refuge while his case was adjudicated. Such proceedings are only implicit here, but the full discussion of manslaughter cases in Num 35 suggests that a murderer was to be executed by the family avenger (vv. 19-21) if and when at least two witnesses implicated him (v. 30). This could be done whether or not the accused found sanctuary in a city of refuge. He was to be retrieved from wherever he had fled and brought back to the scene of the crime to suffer his fate (Deut 19:12).

David Thompson: God will not bless a society or a country or a state that allows those who kill innocent people to just go on living. There needs to be the implementation of capital punishment. There needs to be the death penalty given to those who kill intentionally.

C. (:13) Divine Directives Regarding Justice in the Case of Premeditated Murder

1. Justice Must Not be Subverted by Pity

“You shall not pity him,”

2. Justice Requires Capital Punishment for the Shedding of Innocent Blood

“but you shall purge the blood of the innocent from Israel,”

Eugene Merrill: So heinous was murder its penalty was to be inflicted without pity or compassion of any kind. The reason is that humankind is the image of God (cf. Gen 1:27; 9:6) and therefore murder was deemed to be an assault on God himself, an ultimate act of insubordination and rebellion (Gen 9:5-6). The shedding of innocent blood polluted the very ground (Gen 4:10-11) and brought upon the community as a whole a culpability that could be atoned for only by the administration of talionic justice (v. 13). For the covenant community to tolerate such egregious sin by one of its members was to assume for itself the guilt of his deed. Only by excising the errant member could the community be restored to full covenant fellowship.

3. Justice Restores Society to a Healthy State

“that it may go well with you.”