Deuteronomy 19:1-21 – Cities of Refuge and Honest Witnesses


Deuteronomy 19:1-21


God commands the Israelites to designate three cities of refuge for people who unintentionally kill someone to flee to in order to escape revenge. Additionally, when trials are conducted, multiple witnesses and thorough investigations are required. 


Unlike in Numbers 35, Deuteronomy starts with three, rather than six, cities of refuge, and they are all within the land. These three cities are to be within three designated regions as safe havens for someone who has accidentally killed another. These cities are to be safe havens from the go’el (the kinsman-redeemer and blood-avenger who provides safety and redemption for his clan) whose duty it was to avenge the killing of a family member. 

Deuteronomy allows for the possibility that the land may be enlarged if the Israelites obey faithfully, and in that case, three more cities of refuge, corresponding to three more districts, may be added (Deuteronomy 19:8-10). This perspective is the inverse of Numbers 35, in which the three sanctuary cities outside of the land were the first to be settled. 

The section continues with an insistence that at least two honest witnesses are necessary for any kind of conviction or judgment. If someone is accused of being a malicious witness, the parties in dispute are obligated to appear before a judge, and the matter will be thoroughly investigated. The punishment for a witness who is found to have perjured herself/himself will be whatever would have happened to the guilty party. 

This example continues Deuteronomy’s insistence that justice is essential for dwelling within the land, and that leaders – judges, officers, priests, kings, and prophets – should not advance their own agenda, but consistently and fairly provide reliable justice for all of society. In the midst of the late monarchical period, in which 2 Kings tells of injustice and abuse at all levels of society, Deuteronomy was meant to be a counter-narrative that steered Judahites toward predictable, equitable enforcement of laws.