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Chapter 19:1-13 (ESV)

Posted on March 18, 2024  - By Chris LaBelle  

Chapter 19:1-13 (ESV) - “When the LORD your God cuts off the nations whose land the LORD your God is giving you, and you dispossess them and dwell in their cities and in their houses,  you shall set apart three cities for yourselves in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess. You shall measure the distances and divide into three parts the area of the land that the LORD your God gives you as a possession, so that any manslayer can flee to them.

“This is the provision for the manslayer, who by fleeing there may save his life. If anyone kills his neighbor unintentionally without having hated him in the past— as when someone goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down a tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies—he may flee to one of these cities and live, lest the avenger of blood in hot anger pursue the manslayer and overtake him, 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. Therefore I command you, You shall set apart three cities. And if the LORD your God enlarges your territory, as he has sworn to your fathers, and gives you all the land that he promised to give to your fathers— provided you are careful to keep all this commandment, which I command you today, by loving the LORD your God and by walking ever in his ways—then you shall add three other cities to these three, lest innocent blood be shed in your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, and so the guilt of bloodshed be upon you.

“But if anyone hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and attacks him and strikes him fatally so that he dies, and he flees into one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die. Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may be well with you.

Question to consider: Why does the LORD have Israel set up sanctuary cities?

Today the term “sanctuary city” is used to describe those cities which are willing to take in those who have crossed over the US-Mexican border through illegal channels without fear of deportation or legal consequences. This is not the way that the LORD defined it in today’s passage. In fact, if someone who was guilty of a crime fled to a sanctuary city, that person would be extradited to the elders of his city and turned over to the executioner to carry out justice.

The cities were set up for those whose actions in the normal course of work or life resulted in the accidental death of another. Given the specificity of the ax-head slipping from the handle and striking his neighbor, I have to wonder if Moses was providing a real-world example that he presided over in the course of judging Israel. The main point of the example was that there was no intent to harm the neighbor by the one who swung the ax.

Accidents happen, and our mortal bodies are sometimes the victims of these accidents. It would be an over-correction of justice to take the life of the one who caused the accident, and yet for those who survived their lost loved one, it would have been a terrible injustice to make them continue to live in the same town as the neighbor who caused the accident as if nothing happened. There would always be the temptation by the surviving neighbors to mistreat or exact revenge on the one responsible for the accident. The sanctuary city was the LORD’s solution so that life could go on for both parties.

The topic of capital punishment is one which tends to cause heated debate in our society today. The subject becomes much more complex when a society is not a theocracy because there are a variety of views pertaining to life, death, and justice. Israel was built upon the Law of God. Therefore man was viewed as a being who was made in the image of God. No one had the right to end a life unless it was specifically sanctioned or decreed by God to do so. When someone committed an intentional act of murder, they forfeited their own life in exchange for the one they took.

Those who committed adultery or blasphemed God through the worship of an idol were given a specific form of execution: stoning. It was a gruesome and personal way to die since your own family and neighbors were the ones who took up stones against you. The intent though was to purge the worship of other gods from the land. Those who were willing to violate the covenant of marriage were also willing to violate the covenant God had made with Israel. These actions had the same effect as a contagious disease so they had swift consequences to keep them from spreading to the rest of the nation.


Dear heavenly Father, even though we no longer stone the idolator, adulterer or false prophet today, please help us to recognize how terrible and pervasive these sins are so that we may seek to love Christ above all else. Amen.