After a brief hiatus, we return to our study of the book of Deuteronomy. As we begin, we find ourselves in the legal code.
This passage focuses on the unintentional taking of the life of another. While the same root is used to describe both the act and the perpetrator ( Heb. ratsach, often translated as “kill” or “murder”) in v3, in v4 this is qualified by a negative of knowledge. We find the intentionality aspect of this particular set of laws described in Exodus 21:12-14, where it is also promised that a place will be provided where the person can flee for safety and a fair hearing. V5 contains an example of the situation in which a person could be killed where such a flight may be required.
The reasoning behind this is found in v6, “…lest the avenger of blood in hot anger pursue the manslayer and overtake him… (ESV).” I. G. Wisely, in the LBD, describes this as a legal term, writing that in such a situation as this,
If a family member was murdered, it was the duty of the “avenger of blood” to restore justice to the family and to the land by killing the one responsible. Bloodshed polluted the land, and the only atonement was through the blood of the killer.
Brueggemann, in his commentary on this passage notes,
The present text is concerned with the danger of homicide and an ensuing cycle of homicide. The provision for cities “set apart” as places of sanctuary is a remarkable feature of a covenantal vision of society. The provision for such cities is an attempt to curb the violence of murder within the fabric of the community…
—Walter Brueggemann. The Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Deuteronomy. Abingdon Press. Nashville, TN. 2001. p 197.
Given that the cities of refuge that are described in the passage are to be somewhat distant in relation to one another, yet centrally located within the region they inhabit is meant, as v6 continues, to give the avenger time to consider his and the perpetrator’s actions so that he doesn’t act rashly, “… because the way is long, and strike him fatally, though the man did not deserve to die, since he had not hated his neighbor in the past (ESV).”
The law also recognizes that someone might try to abuse the system set up to protect an otherwise innocent person.
Brueggemann notes here,
One is judged guilty if there has been “malice aforethought,” a preexisting condition of hate. In that case, the elders who manage the process of adjudication and asylum willingly let the killer be killed by blood revenge. That is, the adjudicating powers of the elders, required by the provision for cities of refuge, have only a judicial, not an “executive” function. When the condition of guilt is satisfied, the elders cease to function and the old processes of family vengeance are permitted to operate. (p 199)
We would like to pretend that we are beyond such primitive sentiments as “blood guilt” and “vengeance”, but our innate impulses tell us a different story. The demands of justice still beats in our ears. The secularization of our society disconnects us from the explanations of our impulses and, more importantly, how we should react to those impulses. We have fits and complain as a society about injustice, but have severed ourselves from any coherent definition of the term. God, in his wisdom, has given us the means to hone and direct the senses that he has given us. To give us wisdom to establish and distinguish between categories of innocence and guilt.
Here, in this brief section, we find two lives: the man who in his everyday life accidentally takes a life, and one who intentionally takes a life. Both require judgement. Both judgments require wisdom. Both have to be sorted out, and outside of biblical categories there is no other source that can make sense of the claims.