Deuteronomy 19: Chiasms and Cases

James T. Dennison, Jr.
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The legislation in Deuteronomy 19 (especially verses 1-13 and 21) is concerned with life. Even in the case of capital punishment, it is life that is prominent. Life for life (v. 21) places the spotlight on life, not death. So precious is life, only life will do justly—rightly—fairly when life is unjustly—unrighteously—unfairly taken away. It is life that is in view here in Deuteronomy 19—the protection, the preservation, the extension of life. Life given by God; life which may not be taken away except by God and his providence. Here in Deuteronomy 19, God endorses life—even in the event of death.

This chapter is an expansion of the sixth commandment: "Thou shalt not kill" (Ex. 20:13; Dt. 5:17). In this chapter, we have several cases that involve killing. This case law or casuistical law, as it is called, is directed to the "what if" situations. Thou shalt not kill, but what if the head of an ax flies off while men are chopping wood and that ax head kills another human being? Is that murder? Thou shalt not kill, but what if a person kills another person unintentionally? Is that murder? What are we to do in the case of accidental death—unintentional homicide? Case law addresses these situations.

Deuteronomy 19 is part of a larger biblical revelation of case law regarding homicide. Beginning with Exodus 21:12-14 and moving to Numbers 35:9-34, Deuteronomy contains two (deuteros) sections on homicide: Deuteronomy 4:41-43 and our passage in Deuteronomy 19. The conclusion of this discussion of homicide is found in Joshua 20:2-9. Life! so precious is life in the sight of God that he gives us five passages dealing with the taking of human life.

The City of Refuge

One of the features of Deuteronomy 19 is the role of the city of refuge (vv. 1-3 and vv. 7-9). This is a place of refuge or safe retreat, where life may go on. The emphasis once more is on life—its preservation and protection in a city of refuge. In each of the five biblical passages dealing with homicide, the city of refuge is featured. Repeating myself, notice again life in the face of death—even with the city of refuge.

Exodus 21 mentions the city of refuge as a place God will "appoint" (v. 13). Numbers 35:14 specifies the number of cities of refuge—six in all—three on the east side of the Jordan River and three on the west side of the Jordan River. Deuteronomy 4:43 names the three Transjordanian cities of refuge—that is, those east of the Jordan: Bezer in the territory of Reuben; Ramoth in the territory of Gad; and Golan in the territory of Manasseh. In addition to these three cities, Joshua 20:7 specifies three on the Cisjordanian or west bank of the Jordan River: Kadesh in the territory of Naphtali; Shechem in the territory of Ephraim; and Hebron in the territory of Judah. Thus in each of the five passages where the Bible reveals God's will with respect to homicide, the cities of refuge are also in the context.

But, you may ask, what is a city of refuge? It was a "safe place"—a city where the manslayer could flee and live (notice Dt. 19:4). The city of refuge is God's provision for the case of accidental or unpremeditated homicide. A person involved in killing another person accidentally or without premeditation may preserve his life by taking refuge in one of the six cities. Notice how this accidental or unpremeditated homicide is specified: the manslayer did not "lie in wait" for the person he killed (Ex. 21:13); he killed the person "unintentionally" (Num. 35:11); the manslayer slew the person without having hated him previously (Dt. 4:42); he is innocent "of the blood" of the person he accidentally killed (Dt. 19:10); he kills the person "without premeditation" (Josh. 20:3). Unintentional, unpremeditated, accidental homicide is not murder according to these Scripture passages and in the Old Testament, God provided life in these cases. The person innocent of intentional, premeditated, willful murder may live—in a city of refuge.

But the person guilty of intentional, premeditated, willful murder shall be put to death. Life—life for life! If the manslayer strikes a person craftily or willfully (Ex. 21:14), he is to be put to death (no city of refuge for him or for her). If the murderer intentionally strikes a person with a metal object, a stone, a wooden object—an instrument of death—the murderer shall be executed (Num. 35). If the manslayer hated his victim and strikes him so that he dies (Dt. 19), he shall receive the capital punishment. If the murderer acted with premeditation—malice aforethought—deliberate homicide—he or she shall surely die (Josh. 20). Whoever sheds a person's blood murderously, deliberately, intentionally, willfully, hatefully—by man shall that murderer's blood be shed (Gen. 9:6).

Intentional/Unintentional Homicide: Structure

We have discovered that the case law on killing in the Bible is divided between intentional and unintentional homicide. In Deuteronomy 19, the case law is in fact structured as a division between the two situations. Notice that verses 4-6 deal with unpremeditated homicide; verses 11-13 deal with premeditated murder. This pattern is also found in two of the other four passages dealing with homicide, i.e., cases of deliberate murder are distinguished from cases of accidental death by a bracketing/structuring device.

In Exodus 21:12-14, verse 12 deals with premeditated homicide as does verse 14. Verse 13, dealing with unpremeditated homicide, is thus bracketed by cases of premeditation. We may refer to this as a sandwich technique where one type of case surrounds another.

A. Premeditated Homicide (12)
    B. Unpremeditated Homicide (13)
A'. Premeditated Homicide (14)

Notice the provision for the city of refuge at the center of this sandwich/bracket.

Numbers 35:9-34 is perhaps the most complete revelation of cases and provisions regarding homicide. The unit opens with the assignment of six cities of refuge (vv. 9-15). The case of premeditated homicide follows (vv. 16-21). Then we read of the case of unpremeditated homicide (vv. 22-28) and conclude (again) with the case of premeditated homicide (vv. 31-34). As in Exodus 21:12-14, Number 35:16-34 exhibits the bracketing pattern: premeditated homicide sandwiches unpremeditated homicide.

A. Premeditated Homicide (16-21)
    B. Unpremeditated Homicide (22-28)
A'. Premeditated Homicide (31-34)

There is a bracket in Deuteronomy 4:41-43, but it is not the unpremeditated/premeditated bracket; it is the cities of refuge sandwiching the case on unpremeditated homicide.

A. Cities of Refuge (41)
    B. Unpremeditated Homicide (42)
A'. Cities of Refuge (43)

Joshua 20:2-9 is found to be the reverse of Deuteronomy 4:41-43. This chapter reveals the complete assignment of the cities of refuge following the conquest of the Cisjordanian (west) region. Unpremeditated homicide brackets the cities of refuge.

A. Unpremeditated Homicide (3)
    B. Cities of Refuge (4-8)
A'. Unpremeditated Homicide (9)

Deuteronomy 19 presents the most challenging and interesting structure in the five casuistical passages. It is closest to Numbers 35. As that passage began with the cities of refuge, so this one. But here three Cisjordanian cities are projected (vv. 1-3) as a complement to the three Transjordanian cities listed in the fourth chapter (the delay awaits the conquest of the land; hence the names in Joshua 20:7). Verses 4-6 discuss the case of unpremeditated homicide followed by a repeat discussion of the Cisjordanian cites of refuge (vv. 7-10). It would appear that the cities of refuge will once more sandwich the case of unpremeditated homicide. But no, the second category of homicide succeeds the second mention of the cities of refuge. Premeditated homicide is the case under consideration in verses 11-13. Are we in the midst of a parallelism? i.e., A/B, A'/B'?

A. Cities of Refuge (1-3)
    B. Unpremeditated Homicide (4-6)

A'. Cities of Refuge (7-10)
    B'. Premeditated Homicide (11-13)

The mention of boundary markers (v. 14) threatens to disorient our homicide cases. There is no precedent for this in any of the other four casuistical passages. However we should not be too quick to dismiss verse 14 as an editorial interpolation or statement out of context with the thrust of the passage. Boundaries are 'truth tellers'; and cases of homicide require truthful testimony (as verses 15-20 make clear).

The fact that Deuteronomy 19 does not appear to follow the bracketing or sandwiching pattern of the other passages dealing with the casuistry of homicide directs us to look elsewhere for a structuring pattern for this unique chapter. I am suggesting that a chiastic pattern provides that structure for the entire chapter. Below is the outline of chiasmus in the five sections of the chapter.


Verses 1-3

A. Lord your God (1)
                    B. Lord your God gives you (1)
                                        C. Land (1)

                                                            D. 3 cities (2)
                                        C'. Land (2)
                    B'. Lord your God gives you (2)
A'. Lord your God (3)

Verses 4-6

A. Manslayer (4)
                    B. Flee and live (4)
                                        C. Not hating previously (4)
                    B'. Flee and live (5)
A'. Manslayer (6)

Verses 7-9

A. 3 cities (7)
                    B. Lord your God (8)
                                        C. Love (9)
                    B'. Lord your God (9)
A'. 3 (more) cities (9)

Verses 10-13

A. Innocent blood (10)
                    B. Dies (11)
                                        C. Avenger of blood (12)
                    B'. Die (12)
A'. Innocent blood (13)

Verses 13-21

A. Not pity (13)
                    B. Purge (13)
                                        C. Iniquity and sin (15)
                                                            D. Malicious witness (16)
                                                                                E. Before the Lord (17)
                                                            D'. False witness (18)
                                        C'. Evil (19)
                    B'. Purge (19)
A'. Not pity (21)


Deuteronomy 19 is composed of a series of rolling chiasms. The overlap between the fourth (vv. 10-13) and fifth (vv. 13-21) chiasms creates an interface between the cases of homicide and the testimony of the witnesses—a salient legal reminder! The chiasms contain a type of bracket or sandwich device; however not as previously noted in the other four passages we have been considering. These are not three-piece brackets/sandwiches; rather they are multi-level symmetries centered upon a focal element.

The first chiasm (vv. 1-3) begins and ends with the "Lord your God" (^yh,'l{a/ hw"Ühy>).1 The repetition ("Lord your God") plus the verb ("gives," !tEïnO:) and object ("land," ~c'_r>a;//^êc.r>a;) sandwiches the three cities (~yrIß[' vAlïv' ). Verses 1-3 begin where they end, in doublets of the divine name and gift, centered on the three Cisjordanian cities of refuge.

Verses 4 and 6 contain the term "manslayer" (x:ceêroh'). The life-flight duplicate ("flee . . . and live," yx'_w" . . . sWnðy") follows (precedes, v. 5d). The center of this unit is the case of "not hating previously" (~Av) lAmïT.mi Alß aWh± anEïfo al{, i.e., unpremeditated homicide). The repetition of the latter phrase ("not hating previously") at the end of verse 6 may indicate an even more complex symmetry, i.e., split-member chiasmus or partial chiasmus.

Verses 7 and 9 contain the phrase "three cities" (~yrIß[' vlïv' ) as the outer chiastic envelope. We discover the phrase "Lord your God" (^yh,'l{a/ hw"Ühy) recurring from the first chiasm (vv. 1-3)—a chiasm which also includes the "three" cities. The center of this chiastic unit is "love" (hb'úh]a;l.)—love of the Lord himself manifest in observing his commands.

Verses 10 and 13 contain the phrase "innocent blood" (yqiên" ~D"ä). The center of this unit is the "avenger of blood" (~D"Þh; laeîGO). Here the chiasm reverses the case of the second chiastic unit (vv. 4-6)—premeditation is involved in this case thus invoking the "redeemer of the blood." The inner bracket here (B/B') thus contains parallel tme_w" ("and he dies") forms. We once again discover the symmetry between unpremeditated and premeditated homicide, i.e., all five of our biblical passages contain the balanced consideration of both types of cases. Deuteronomy 19 is no exception.

The largest and final chiastic unit in this chapter spans verses 13 to 21. The overlap with verse 13 is justified (perhaps as a 'hook' pattern) from the clear duplication of the phrase "not pity" (sAxït'-al{, vv. 13 and 21). The lack of mercy pertains to the witnesses as well as to the perpetrators. Hence they are folded into the broader context of the casuistry about homicide. Especially appropriate is truth telling in the context of matters of life and death. False witness is as the 'murder' of the truth and must be "purged" (T'ór>[;bi(W, vv. 13 and 19). The biblical vocabulary for violation of God's will is replete in this unit: "iniquity" ( '!wO[) and "sin" (taJ'êx;) in verse 15 is balanced by "evil" ([r"²h') in verse 19. We are driven "before the Lord" (hw"+hy> ynEåp.l, v. 17), flanked by the "malicious witness" (sm'Þx'-d[e, v. 16) and the "false witness" ( 'rq,v,'-d[e, v. 18). At the center is the omniscient arbiter of truth, not falsehood; life, not death; righteousness, not iniquity.

Deuteronomy 19 is a carefully constructed (and inspired) chapter of five chiastic units: Cities of Refuge (vv. 1-3); Homicide Case—unpremeditated manslaughter (vv. 4-6); Cities of Refuge (vv. 7-9); Homicide Case—premeditated murder (vv. 10-13); and a fifth unit drawing evil, sin and iniquity into the forum Dei ("forum of God"). There is an A/B A'/B' parallelism here climaxing/concluding in C.

The Cases

The avenger of blood in verse 12 also appears in verse 6. He is also mentioned in Numbers 35 (vv. 19, 21, 24, 25, 27) and Joshua 20 (vv. 3, 5, 9). He is an official of the community of Israel, perhaps a member of the family of the homicide victim, who is charged with avenging the blood of the person killed. And how does he execute his official function? life for life—blood for blood. The avenger of blood is authorized by God and the community of Israel to impose the sentence of the capital punishment upon the perpetrator


of homicide. Notice that the avenger of blood may impose capital punishment on the agent in a case of homicide even if the killer did not kill his victim with malice, premeditation or intention. The avenger of blood is not a judge or a lawyer or a jury; he is an executioner. He does not stop to examine evidence; to sort out the casuistry; to conduct an investigation. His charge is plain; it is clear; it is simple—shed the blood of anyone who sheds blood. Except! Except! if the person flees to a city of refuge. There the avenger of blood halts. He may not pursue the perpetrator of homicide inside the walls of the city of refuge so as to execute him. The perpetrator of homicide is safe from the avenger of blood inside the city of refuge. Remain inside—life. Venture outside and the avenger of blood finds him—death.

But what about the case where a person deliberately and intentionally murders a person and hightails it to a city of refuge for safety? Then the citizens of the city of refuge will investigate the case (Num. 35:24, 25; Josh. 20:4) and determine whether the killer is entitled to refuge and life or whether life must be forfeit for life. And in the city of refuge, the person innocent of murder though he has killed someone shall remain until the death of the high priest. In that year, he may go out of the city of refuge untouched and untouchable by the avenger of blood.


There is in the compilation of this legislation and these cases of homicide a wonderful equity and justice derivative from the Lord God ever equitable and ever just. After all, justice is to give what is due—what is deserved. And that principle of equity and justice is enshrined in this 19th chapter of Deuteronomy. Premeditated murder? capital punishment is deserved. Accidental homicide? no capital punishment is deserved. Life! Life is precious in the sight of the just, equitable and righteous God of all the earth. And the only thing which will satisfy for the murder of a human life is life—life for life. Justice requires the capital punishment for premeditated murder; equity requires the capital punishment for deliberate murder; righteousness requires the capital punishment for willful murder. Apart from the Scriptures, we feel a natural or instinctive rightness about death for death—just death for murderous death. It feels just naturally; it is just biblically.

But wait a minute, you say, We don't live in Old Testament Israel. True. And we don't have high priests and cities of refuge and avengers of blood. True. So, you say, it appears that these cases do not apply to us today since we don't live under the Old Testament theocracy. And I reply, we must make distinctions with respect to Deuteronomy 19 and 2004. First, the sixth commandment has not vanished because we do not live with Israel at Sinai (Ex. 20) or with Israel on the plains of Moab (Dt. 5). We believe (and our Reformed confessions teach) that the sixth commandment is moral law, which means it is perpetually binding on all people in all times and all ages. It is no more permissible or of God's will for us to murder a human being today than it was for an Israelite to murder a human being in Moses' day. So the sixth commandment remains perpetually binding on the people of God under the New Testament. Jesus himself reinforces this in Matthew 19:18.

Second, the just principle of life for life—who sheds man's blood (murderously) by man shall his blood be shed (justly)—is given with the creation. It is not peculiar to Israel's theocracy. So capital punishment is an ordinance of God justly requiring the death penalty in the case of willful murder—and that is so from the beginning (Genesis). Therefore we hold murders accountable (as God does) and we hold murderers liable to the capital punishment for their murderous crime (as God does). BUT! BUT there are specifically theocratic elements of the case law on murder which no longer are binding on the people of God. There are no cities of refuge any longer—they passed away with the theocracy. There are no high priests any longer—they passed away with the theocracy. There are no avengers of blood any longer—they passed away with the theocracy. Specifically theocratic elements have ceased with the theocracy. But the moral, general equity or basic justice remains. Executioners—not avengers of blood. Judges and juries—not high priests and city elders. Safety in every city if innocent of intentional, willful, deliberate, premeditated homicide—not select cities of refuge. In fact, any penalty in the theocratic era which exceeds the principle of life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth—that is, any penalty in the theocratic era which exceeds proportionally just or equal punishment is abolished—not binding on the people of God of the New Testament era. Capital punishment for adultery? required under the theocracy; not required when the theocracy disappears (2 Cor. 10:4). Capital punishment for homosexuals? required under the theocracy; not required when the theocracy ceases to exist (2 Cor. 10:4). Capital punishment for cursing one's parents? required under the theocracy; not required when the theocracy passes away (2 Cor. 10:4).

We are compelled to make distinctions—necessary distinctions—when we read Deuteronomy 19 in the light of the New Testament gospel era. The New Testament gospel era is non-theocratic; it is non-Israelite; it is not centered in a priestly caste, headquartered in Jerusalem. The New Testament gospel era is universal, Jew and Gentilic, semi-eschatological. It is a better age! Yes, it places the sword of capital punishment in the hands of the civil government (Rom. 13:4, 5), but it does so on the basis of natural equity, not theocratic specificity. Capital punishment remains the just, the righteous, the equitable penalty for premeditated murder. Distinguishing premeditation in cases of homicide is vested in judges and juries.

Cultural Context

But, you say, our culture doesn't think this way. Capital punishment is being abolished. The liberal media routinely objects to execution of murderers. Our judicial leaders, our political leaders, our media moguls don't believe in capital punishment. Not its equity, not its rightness, not its justice.

Well, they don't until someone like the notorious Northwest Green River mass murderer is found out. And then they wrestle with their natural sense of justice. Does not the willful murder of more than 48 women deserve the death penalty? Doesn't that seem instinctively fair? one life for 48 lives?

Yes, the death penalty is being abolished. The World Court is even attempting to classify it as a violation of human rights. But up from the conscience rises the unsettling notion of equity, fairness, righteousness. And so the culturally elite liberal establishment will struggle with that instinctive rightness of capital punishment, especially when murder strikes one of their darlings as it did in the summer of 2003 when the French film star, Marie Trintignant, was brutally murdered by her rock star live-in boyfriend, Bernard Cantat. The mother of Marie wrote a best seller entitled Ma fille, Marie ("My daughter, Marie") pleading for justice for the blood of her daughter.

But the (believing) Christian community will understand the justice of life for life. God himself says so. He has even planted the sense of that rightness in the natural man (suppress it though they may try). And the (believing) Christian community will teach the proportional equity of the punishment fitting the crime—in cases of deliberate murder, life for life. In cases of accidental homicide, no capital punishment. This is the natural and moral law of creation; it is the natural and moral law of the theocracy; it is the natural and moral law of the New Testament era; it is the natural and moral law of God. Notice that in Acts 25:11, Paul himself does not refuse the capital punishment if he is guilty of a capital crime.

Deuteronomy 19 is retrospectively tied to God's creation ordinance; Deuteronomy 19 is prospectively tied to God's arena and its ordinances. No murderers in heaven—no unrepentant murderers in heaven. But some who came into the New Testament church had been, once upon a time, deliberate murderers (cf. Gal. 5:20, 21). And thus we confess that there is forgiveness—wonderful marvelous forgiveness in the blood—in the life-blood of Jesus Christ even for (repentant) willful murderers. Even those deserving of the death penalty—even for the penitent and believing among them, Christ's blood suffices. It's about life. Deuteronomy 19 is about life even as the cross of Jesus is about life. His life, murderously forfeit; his life for your life, for my life; his life for every murderer's life who repents, who believes, who is reborn from above by being united to Christ's life-death. So that in Christ—yes, in Christ—life for life. His death so that you may live.

You see it don't you? Deuteronomy 19 and the other four Old Testament passages about capital punishment drive you to Christ. For Jesus was murdered! He took the capital punishment so that we who justly, rightly deserve death—we who deserve the capital punishment—he took it in our place so that we might not be eternally executed. How many murderous thoughts have we had? we would be ashamed to tell. And if by God's common grace we have been restrained from deliberately killing another human being, we are nonetheless no less deserving of God's infinite capital punishment. But grace upon grace, that is what Christ came to do. To take the death penalty you and I deserve so as to bring us to an eschatological city of refuge—so as to bring us to heaven where we may live and never die.

Northwest Theological Seminary

Lynnwood, Washington


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