READ: Deuteronomy 18-19
BACKGROUND: This is a section with plenty of things that can easily get lost in translation. Please feel free to ask questions you may have that aren’t covered here:
18:9 – The “detestable practices” are listed. This is the longest list on the Old Testament of evil pagan spiritual practices.
18:14-22 – This is a prophetic section talking about Jesus. As big as the shoes of Moses (the author of Deuteronomy) would be to fill, this section promises that an even greater one would come, and describes his prophetic role and function in detail. It’s a really cool prophetic passage!
19:4 – The key word is “unintentionally.” This is not a protection for murder but for accidental manslaughter.
19:14 – Boundary stones marked the edge of fields/possessions/territory. Moving them meant dishonestly trying to bring gain to yourself while robbing from someone else, and this was a serious offense.
19:21 – This is one of the most misunderstood verses in the Old Testament (along with the verses in Exodus and Leviticus where this principle is brought up). It is one that was misunderstood even in Jesus day, and one that Jesus addressed and helped us understand in Matthew 5:38-42. The big idea: punishment must be limited to fit the crime. There are consequences for actions, but they must not be unduly harsh. This wasn’t so much a demand that equal consequence be doled it as it was a prohibition – much like the one found in the United States Constitution – of cruel and unusual punishment.
THINK: Philo, the Jewish philosopher, once wrote, “Holiness toward God and justice toward men usually go together.” This principle is reflected over and over again in the book of Deuteronomy. God gives laws to govern his people, and those laws establish order in the society. But it is clear when reading them that God wants to do something more, that his law is aiming to accomplish the same things as Hammurabi’s Code or the Magna Carta or the U.S. Constition. God is interested in more than just an orderly society where every man, woman, and child is obedient. He want’s restoration and community. He wants people to move towards something, and that something is the kind of perfect life with him that they were designed for. And so God’s law is careful about protecting life and justice.
The establishment of the cities of refuge is an incredible example of this. Once Israel has settled in the Promised Land, they were instructed to establish places – in central locations with roads providing easy access – where anyone who had accidentally killed another person could go and be safe. Why was this necessary? Because ancient customs – in every culture that surrounded and influenced Israel – dictated that death must be avenged no matter what. An individual from the deceased person’s family would be put in charge of exacting a revenge killing of the one responsible for the death even if it was an accident.
God set up a protection against this injustice. Not for those guilty of murder. For this there were consequences. But for those whom, after trial, were found not to be guilty of murder. There had to be a way to protect and honor the sanctity of their lives. And to value justice and community above retribution and personal feelings. This is what the cities of refuge were all about.
God’s holiness and love are reflected in his passion for justice. And his justice is tempered with mercy. In the person and work of Jesus Christ God’s justice and mercy come together in and incredible way.
PRAY: Ask God how and where you can seek justice in a loving and merciful way. Ask him to line your heart up with his so that you are willing to pursue community and reconciliation above selfishness and revenge.