At first sight it is not obvious how passages like Deuteronomy 19 apply to the world of the 21st Century. It is a complicated chapter which covers a number of issues. So let’s unpack them.
Deuteronomy 19 :1 When the LORD your God has destroyed the nations whose land he is giving you, and when you have driven them out and settled in their towns and houses, 2 then set aside for yourselves three cities centrally located in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess. 3 Build roads to them and divide into three parts the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, so that anyone who kills a man may flee there.
Deuteronomy 19 introduces the idea of cities of refuge, places to which innocent people can escape to in order to find safety – what we today would call places of sanctuary.
Accidents do happen!
Deut 19:4 This is the rule concerning the man who kills another and flees there to save his life—one who kills his neighbour unintentionally, without malice aforethought. 5 For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbour to cut wood, and as he swings his axe to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbour and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life. 6 Otherwise, the avenger of blood might pursue him in a rage, overtake him if the distance is too great, and kill him even though he is not deserving of death, since he did it to his neighbor without malice aforethought. 7 This is why I command you to set aside for yourselves three cities.
The Book of Numbers allows for the same possibility that accidents do happen.
Numbers 35:22 “ ‘But if without hostility someone suddenly pushes another or throws something at him unintentionally 23 or, without seeing him, drops a stone on him that could kill him, and he dies, then since he was not his enemy and he did not intend to harm him, 24 the assembly must judge between him and the avenger of blood according to these regulations.
Accidents do happen. Here is an important truth which is increasingly forgotten with the growth of the “culture of blame”. “Have you had an accident at work?” “Did you trip over a hole in the pavement?” “Were you injured in a car accident which wasn’t your fault?” “Contact ‘Injury Lawyers for You’. We will get you the compensation you are entitled to. Minus our own cut of course!”
This “blame culture” leads people to think that if something bad happens, if somebody is suffering, the right thing to do is to find somebody you can blame and then sue them for every penny you can get. One advert for “injury lawyers for you” was explicit – if you are suffering then the definition of a lawyer is a person who finds out who was to blame and gets you compensation. In this blame culture, threats of legal action and the spread of “Health and safety” are being used not only to keep people safe but at times to trample over human rights.
A few years ago a Christian nurse in Exeter was been removed from caring for patients because she refused to obey a policy preventing her from wearing a pendant with a visible cross, allegedly for health and safety reasons. The Christian Legal Centre commented, “Unfortunately an aggressive, secularist, politically correct agenda is being driven in the NHS and in other public sectors at present.”
In other places, human rights legislation is being applied in a different direction to persecute Christians! In case after case, the freedom of Christians to express their beliefs is being overruled by the alleged rights of all kinds of groups not to be offended. Something has gone very wrong in the way our legal system understands accidents, blame, and human rights!
So Moses was told to establish three “cities of refuge” to protect the rights of innocent people. In time three cities would not be enough.
Deut 19 8 8 If the LORD your God enlarges your territory, as he promised on oath to your forefathers, and gives you the whole land he promised them, 9 because you carefully follow all these laws I command you today—to love the LORD your God and to walk always in his ways—then you are to set aside three more cities.
These special cities were created specifically in order to provide a vitally important
Right of sanctuary –
Num 356 “Six of the towns you give the Levites will be cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone may flee. ….
Numbers 35: 9 Then the LORD said to Moses: 10 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, 11 select some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. …. 15 These six towns will be a place of refuge for Israelites, aliens and any other people living among them, so that anyone who has killed another accidentally can flee there.
Through the centuries churches have been seen as places of refuge or asylum, for soldiers, political refugees and others whose lives were at stake. Here is a timely reminder that the church should still be at the forefront of fighting for justice for the oppressed and persecuted, immigrants seeking asylum, Gypsies, Travellers and Roma fighting to keep their homes, or even Christians being persecuted for their faith right here in England. Tonight we could think especially about the crisis of refugees leaving Syria, travelling to Europe to find sanctuary. We could think about those currently being sent back from Greece to Turkey and those just over our border in France. But I’m not going to focus on those particular situations tonight. Just highlight that ideas of refuge and sanctuary and asylum are thoroughly Biblical and should very much be the concern of Christians today.
Preventing the shedding of innocent blood
Deut 19 10 Do this so that innocent blood will not be shed in your land, which the LORD your God is giving you as your inheritance, and so that you will not be guilty of bloodshed.
The important principle here is the Presumption of Innocence. It is better than a crime goes unpunished than an innocent person is punished for a crime they did not commit. Our legal system embodies the principle that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty! But again, here is a principle which is being eroded, particularly in the area of safeguarding.
Under the rules for child protection with the new Independent Safeguarding Authority, parents who regularly drive children for sports or social clubs will have to be vetted or face fines of up to £5,000 under new rules. Along with parents who host foreign exchange students, they will fall under the scope of the Vetting and Barring Scheme, the Home Office has confirmed. Critics have branded the new rules “insulting” and say they could deter volunteers. Informal arrangements between parents will not be covered, but anyone taking part in activities involving “frequent” or “intensive” contact with children or vulnerable adults three times in a month, every month, or once overnight, must register, it has emerged. It is thought that 11.3 million people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – close to one in four of all adults – may register. After November 2010 failure to register could lead to criminal prosecution and fine. The clubs themselves also face a £5,000 penalty for using non-vetted volunteers.
Some people have argued that it will be worth all the time, effort and expense of this if just one child is saved from abuse. But others have argued that the system won’t be foolproof. Those who wish to commit crimes against children, like the school caretaker who murdered the schoolgirls at Soham, will just find ways to trick the system. But more fundamentally it completely goes against the presumption of innocence – the whole system says, “you are wanting to work with children so you have to prove you are not a paedophile!” And some writers have pointed out that the system may be used maliciously against individuals and groups. Teachers and social workers will be at risk of false accusations by those they work with. And churches could easily face problems with malicious accusations against those working with children and young people.
Making the punishment fit the crime
Deut 19 11 But if a man hates his neighbour and lies in wait for him, assaults and kills him, and then flees to one of these cities, 12 the elders of his town shall send for him, bring him back from the city, and hand him over to the avenger of blood to die. 13 Show him no pity.
Deut 19 21 Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Numbers 35:31 “ ‘Do not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. He must surely be put to death.
Making the punishment fit the crime
This passage reminds us of the importance of punishing crime. In legal and ethical theory, punishment serves three possible purposes. Retribution means causing the person to suffer, either physically or socially for example by imprisonment or financial penalty. Deterrence is a punishment to deter that individual or others from committing the same crime. Prevention refers to putting the criminal in a situation where they will not be able to reoffend, for example because they are in prison. And rehabilitation is a form of punishment which is designed to change the criminal’s attitudes. Today’s world accepts the importance of deterrence and prevention and rehabilitation. Ideas of “retribution” are considered old-fashioned. The idea that a person deserves to suffer because they have inflicted suffering on others is considered “barbaric”. But the roots of morality in the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam see punishment as the fair and appropriate retribution for wrongdoing. Such punishment should never be excessive and always be proportionate – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and ultimately, with the death penalty, a life for a life. In many instances, scales of punishment in today’s legal system have lost this principle. So crimes against property, such as stealing and fraud, are often punished more severely than crimes of violence against a person. And I can understand why the families of victims of murder are upset by so called “life sentences” qualified by “serving a minimum of ten years”. I would not argue for the death penalty, except perhaps for extreme instances of evil, but the principles revealed in Deuteronomy certainly support the idea that life imprisonment should mean the whole of life. Life should mean life.
The Bible commands “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life.” Let the punishment be proportional to the offence. Instead in today’s world we have a paradox. Murder is punished by a sentence of “life imprisonment” which can mean less than 10 years. On the other hand, defending your Christian faith in a private conversation can land a person in court, as happened last year to a Christian nurse who gave a Muslim colleague a Christian book and invited her to church. Christians are being threatened with the sack for wearing a cross, the symbol of our faith. It appears the courts are soft on serious crimes but far too ready to defend the so-called rights of people who claim to have been offended.
Evidence of two witnesses
15 One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offence he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
Here again the problem comes when people can be attack by false accusations. The children’s charity Childline does wonderful work protecting children from all kinds of abuse. But there are also teachers whose careers have been ruined by malicious and false accusations by children or parents. It is completely right that an accusation by a single individual can trigger an investigation – but guilt or innocence needs to be established by other kinds of circumstantial or forensic evidence. The word of the accuser with no corroborating evidence should not be enough to convict. The evidence given by only one witness would always lead to the risk of condemning the innocent. In the investigation of accusations of historic sexual abuse some horrendous crimes have come to light. But at the same time the reputations and even the lives of some individuals have been completely ruined by malicious or even mistaken accusations. The principle of requiring the evidence of two witnesses, or in English law one witness plus some corroborating physical or circumstantial evidence, is an important principle but in some areas it is being ignored. In many kinds of circumstances accusers have the right to remain anonymous whilst the identity of the accused is made public. This cuts across the principle of presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
Seriousness of perjury – lying to the court, false accusation.
16 If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse a man of a crime, 17 the two men involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the LORD before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. 18 The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against his brother, 19 then do to him as he intended to do to his brother. You must purge the evil from among you.
This is an important principle. Perjury, lying to the court and false accusation are very serious offences because they can have devastating consequences on a person who is falsely or maliciously accused. The consequence to the career of a teacher or a church worker falsely accused by a child or even an adult they are trying to help can be devastating. The consequence to the child or even an adult accuser can be minimal – they may well have the right to remain anonymous even after their accusation has been proved to be false. Here I do see a very easy way for the enemy to attack Christians and churches, through police and courts. What I don’t see is any guarantee of justice!
So – what have “cities of refuge” got to do with England in 21st century – much more than we think! Christians should be concerned for the plight of refugees fleeing persecution. But more than that, Deuteronomy 19 points us to important principles of law and justice. The cultures of blame, health and safety and political correctness are conspiring to silence the gospel. People are presumed to be innocent – except in wanting to work with children and young people, we are presumed to be guilty and have to demonstrate our innocence. And when one word of malicious accusation can do as much damage than the evidence of many witnesses, justice will not always be served.