THE LAW ENSURES BOTH PERSONAL PROPERTY RIGHTS AND THE INTEGRITY OF JUDICIAL WITNESSES
Daniel Block: These guidelines regarding witnesses in judicial proceedings flesh out the eighth command of the Decalogue (cf. 5:20; cf. 17:6). The text divides into two uneven parts:
(1) a call for more than one witness in all cases (v. 15), and
(2) instructions on how to deal with malicious witnesses (vv. 16–21).
Both are driven by a concern for righteousness in judicial procedures.
Warren Wiersbe: Every system of justice depends on people knowing the truth and speaking the truth. To bear false witness is to break God’s commandment (Ex. 20:16) and to undermine the foundation of the legal system. The person who swears to tell the truth and then tells lies is committing perjury, which itself is a serious crime.
I. (:14) LAW ENSURES INVIOLABLE PERSONAL PROPERTY RIGHTS
“You shall not move your neighbor’s boundary mark, which the ancestors have set, in your inheritance which you shall inherit in the land that the LORD your God gives you to possess.”
MacArthur: These “boundary marks” referred to stones bearing inscriptions which identified the owner of the property.
Charlie Garrett: Before going on, the context of the previous passage should be remembered. In the previous thirteen verses, it spoke of the cities of refuge, set up to protect the life of the manslayer who killed in innocence.
At first, it’s hard to think of why Moses would suddenly jump to an entirely different and unrelated subject, but such isn’t the case. The general consensus of scholars is reflected in the words of Albert Barnes.
He says – “As a man’s life is to be held sacred, so are his means of livelihood; and in this connection a prohibition is inserted against removing a neighbor’s landmark.”
The idea here is that of theft, as is defined in the eighth commandment. However, that obviously occurs because of a violation of the tenth commandment, that of coveting. Someone sees something that is not his, he covets it, and then he takes action to steal it.
In this, he then deprives the livelihood of the person. One thing follows after another. Thus, there is no unexplained leap from murder to the removing of a boundary. It is a logical progression of thought.
Daniel Block: If verses 1–13 build on the fifth command of the Decalogue, then verse 14 addresses the seventh and tenth commands (5:19, 21b). This verse seems oddly placed, but it is linked to the preceding by its theology of land and vocabulary. The plots of land marked by boundary markers are microcosms of the Promised Land as a whole: both represented inviolable “granted” properties. Inserted here, this fragment heightens the significance of respecting others’ right to property. Justice outside the town walls—in the fields—is as vital as justice inside the gates. The pursuit of righteousness extends to all of life.
The inviolability of boundary markers is fundamental to a settled agricultural economy, where ownership of land is critical for well-being. The present expression, “set up by your predecessors,” assumes a formal procedure allocating parcels of tribal lands to specific clans and families (Num. 26:52–56; 34:13–29; Josh. 14–19). Though evidence is lacking, records of these allotments may have been stored in the central sanctuary. Israelite law viewed Yahweh as the true owner of the land, and the allotments to tribes and families were inviolable. The gravity of these grants is reflected in the covenant curses (27:17) and the custom of kinsmen redeemers (gôʾēl) reclaiming land when someone outside the clan possesses it (Lev. 25:23–28).
Duane Christensen: Roman law considered the moving of such landmarks a capital offense, but biblical law does not allow for capital punishment in matters of property law. . .
In subsequent Jewish tradition the command not to displace a neighbor’s boundary marker was extended to encompass a wide range of issues, including that of copyright violations. “In Jewish law the phrase ‘moving landmarks’ (hassagat gevul), in the sense of ‘violating boundaries,’ refers to unfair competition that encroaches on another’s livelihood and other rights” (Tigay  183). Though Jesus denied the use of this law in matters of personal relationships, he did not deny its validity as a principle for a court of law (see Matt 5:38–42).
Warren Wiersbe: In that day, officials didn’t draw detailed real estate maps, what we today call “plats.” Everybody was expected to honor the landmarks (boundary stones), because to move the stones meant to steal land from your neighbors and their descendants (Prov. 22:28). Unscrupulous officials could easily exploit poor widows and orphans and take away their land and their income (Prov. 15:25; 23:10–11). Since God owned the land and the people were His tenants, moving the stones also meant stealing from God, and He would punish them (Hosea 5:10). No wonder this crime was included among the curses announced from Mount Ebal (Deut. 27:17).
Gerald Gerbrandt: In the absence of modern surveying techniques, extensive official records, and long steel stakes, property boundaries were marked by items that were naturally available: stones or other similar moveable objects. By moving one of these markers, a boundary line could be changed, thereby stealing property from the neighbor. A prohibition like this one is common in the ancient Near East. . .
Moving a boundary marker is theft, yet much more than theft of property. It is stealing not only the means of survival but also a family’s symbolic stake in God’s election and the covenant. This conviction lies behind Naboth’s response to King Ahab when the king offers him a better vineyard in exchange for his: “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (1 Kings 21:3).
The significance of this particular theft is reflected by the number of biblical passages that treat it. Deuteronomy includes it in the list of curses in Chapter 27, preceded only by curses for making idols and dishonoring parents (27:17). Proverbs address it (Prov 22:28; 23:10), Job considers it a characteristic of the wicked (Job 24:2), and prophets inveigh against it (Hos 5:10). An indictment of Micah suggests that the concern is not limited to the surreptitious moving of a marker at night but may include the illegal and even the technically legal machinations of the powerful as they find ways of increasing their property holdings at the expense of weaker elements in society (Mic 2:1–2; cf. Isa 5:8). This prohibition may suggest contemporary property rights, yet its primary concern is not protecting impersonal property but guarding the nature of the covenant community, in which the livelihood of all is important and each family has its own access to God’s blessings. The verse reflects well the concerns of the sabbatical release provisions (15:1–18).
Michael Grisanti: Although this legislation may seem out of place, it relates to the preceding passage through the repetition of certain key words: “borders” (gebûl; 19:3, 8), “inheritance” (naḥalâ; 19:10), and the verb “to inherit” (nḥl; 19:3). The legislation concerning cities of refuge recalls 3:12–17 and 4:41–43, passages that deal with boundary issues and cities of refuge in the region of Transjordan and pave the way for this legislation concerning boundary markers (Wright, God’s People, 128–31).
Not only is Yahweh giving Israel the land as their inheritance, but the land is also allocated to the tribes, clans, and individual families. The continued possession of one’s land is a primary means to a family’s economic security. A person might move someone’s boundary for personal advantage, i.e., to gain more land. The fact that the curses of ch. 27 include a reference to this kind of conduct highlights its treacherous nature (27:17). Both wisdom writers (Job 24:2–4; Pr 15:25; 22:28; 23:10–11) and the prophets (Isa 5:8; Hos 5:10; Mic 2:2–4) refer to land grabbing as part of their warning or rebuke. To take land from a fellow Israelite represents theft (prohibited in the eighth commandment; 5:19) and covetous lack of contentment with God’s allotment (prohibited in tenth commandment; 5:21).
II. (:15-21) LAW ENSURES THE INTEGRITY OF JUDICIAL WITNESSES
A. (:15) Integrity Requires Corroboration of Multiple Witnesses
1. Single Witness is Insufficient
“A single witness shall not rise up against a man
on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed;”
Eugene Merrill: Even Jezebel knew that she had to hire more than one witness to testify against Naboth if her case were to have any merit (1 Kgs 21:10, 13).
2. Multiple Witnesses Required for Confirmation
“on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.”
Earl Kalland: Jurisprudence must have rules of evidence, and in Israel witnesses were required to supply evidence or be punished (Lev 5:1). The rule for witnesses in capital offenses (17:7) is here applied to any crime or offense. Two or three witnesses are required (17:6; Num 35:30; Matt 18:16; 2 Cor 13:1).
Jack Deere: This principle was to act as a safeguard against a false witness who might bring an untruthful charge against a fellow Israelite because of a quarrel or out of some other impure motive. By requiring more than one witness – at least two or three – greater accuracy and objectivity was effected.
B. (:16-21) Integrity Requires Proportionate Punishment of False Witnesses
1. (:16) Example of the Case of a False Witness
“If a malicious witness rises up against a man
to accuse him of wrongdoing,”
Jack Deere: Inevitably in some cases there would be only one witness. A single witness still was obligated to bring a charge against the offender. However, such a case would be taken to the central tribunal of priests and judges (cf. 17:8-13) for trial.
2. (:17-18a) Examination of All Parties Involved
“then both the men who have the dispute shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who will be in office in those days.
18 And the judges shall investigate thoroughly;”
Duane Christensen: the phrase “before YHWH” does not refer to the place of the trial at all, but to the fact that “the priests and the judges who are in office in those days” are the representatives of YHWH and that He is with them in their adjudication (Tigay  184).
3. (:18b-19a) Enforcement of Proportionate Justice
“and if the witness is a false witness and he has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother.”
4. (:19b-20) Evil Both Purged in the Present and Deterred in the Future
a. (:19b) Evil Purged in the Present
“Thus you shall purge the evil from among you.”
b. (:20) Evil Deterred in the Future
“And the rest will hear and be afraid,
and will never again do such an evil thing among you.”
5. (:21) Exclusion of Pity and Enforcement of Proportionate Justice
“Thus you shall not show pity:
life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
Charlie Garrett: Where justice is to be blind, and where punishment is to be meted out according to that justice, those responsible for such matters are demonstrating the greatest form of compassion for the society they serve. This is certain because the model is given in the laws for Israel as directed by the Lord.
Daniel Block: Verse 21 may be interpreted as the conclusion to either this subunit or the entire chapter. As in the case involving the murderer (v. 13a), Moses declares that personal interest and sentimentality are not to jeopardize the administration of justice. He reinforces the need for commitment to proportional justice with a fivefold recitation of equivalencies, generally known as lex talionis (“the law of retaliation”). Laws of this type are well attested in ancient Near Eastern documents7 and the Old Testament (Ex. 21:23–25; Lev 24:17–21). . .
The laws of talion demand that punishment for crimes against another person be proportional to the crimes committed rather than be more severe. Rather than promoting vengeance, the principle of lex talionis limited the penalties that adjudicators could impose on offenders.
Gerald Gerbrandt: The basic principle of the law of retribution is one of proportionality: “Let the punishment fit the crime.” It is likely that eye for eye (etc.) was a recognized saying within Israel and elsewhere that the Old Testament incorporates, a proverbial saying not necessarily understood literally (cf. Jesus instructing, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell”; Matt 5:29 RSV).
Michael Grisanti: This often misunderstood principle does not legitimize vengeance in kind but provides appropriate limits or parameters for penalties. The punishment must be commensurate with the crime, thus preventing both leniency and excess. When Jesus addressed this issue in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:38–42), he did not criticize the principle of lex talionis in general; rather, he affirmed that a strict equivalence between the “crime” and the “punishment” was appropriate in legal settings but never intended to be a guide for offenses in interpersonal relationships.
Warren Wiersbe: People who call this principle “barbaric” probably don’t understand what it means. The sentence must be neither too strict nor too easy but must be suited to what the law demands and what the convicted criminal deserves. Honest judges don’t give a murderer the same sentence they give the man who poisoned his neighbor’s cat, nor is a shoplifter given the same punishment as a kidnapper. This judicial principle emphasized fairness and humane treatment at a time in history when punishments were terribly brutal. In eighteenth century England, there were over 200 capital crimes, and a person could be hanged for picking pockets. Children who broke the law were frequently treated as adults and imprisoned for minor offenses.
Meredith Kline: That principle was not a license to vengeance but a guarantee of justice. Note again the pre-eminence of the priest in judgment (Deut 19:17).