CONSIDERING EVIL (Deuteronomy 19)
As we observe how the Israelites went about setting up their community and culture, there is much to learn. However even with guidance from Moses (and God) there were still many challenges for them and subsequently for us today.
Even in this theocentric community, evil continued. The Book of Deuteronomy reminds us continually of the need for structures that help us to combat and to diminish rampant evil. The source of evil is shrouded in mystery and has to do with the freedom of man that God has allowed. In the broad sense evil arises from rebellion against God, the selfishness and pride of man, the broken creation, the unpredictability and the order of the universe, and human frailty and brokenness. As we have seen, all of these dimensions of evil have their roots in human choice and the desire of man to have his own way and not be subject to God.
The main purpose of the chapter is to show how the Israelites were to distinguish good intention from bad intention – unintentional mistakes as opposed to malice aforethought. Several cities of refuge were to be set up. To these cities the accused could flee and find just recourse. Procedures for the proper handling of such cases are described.
The specific passage in Deuteronomy 19 under consideration outlines three examples of evil as personified in the manslayer, the thief, and the false witness.
The progression of the manslayer’s sin is described in verse 11: “ . . . a man hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him, assaults and kills him . . . ” (Deuteronomy 19:11 NIV).
Here is a man who hates, who plans, who waits, who attacks, and who kills. For him there is no respite in the cities of refuge. Even if he gets there, he will be brought back to pay for his sin. The manslayer is presented in contrast to the man who kills his neighbor unintentionally. For him, there is recourse in the city of refuge.
The thief described here is the one who moves the boundary lines and thus steals his neighbor’s property; more specially, his neighbor’s livelihood, since this is an agrarian society. The restatement of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) given in Deuteronomy 5 specifically includes “his field” in the list of the neighbor’s things that must not be coveted. There is no discussion here, just “You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark” (ESV)!
The false witness is balanced by the calling of one or two true witnesses and then there is the opportunity for diligent inquiry before the priests and judges.
The passage finishes with the well-known lex talionis, the law of retaliation – an eye for an eye. This is not meant to imply that the punishment is to be exactly the same as the crime. This is not a “pound of flesh” as argued by Shylock of Shakespearean fame. The intention is that the punishment be appropriate. See Exodus 21:23-27 which outlines the use of comparable “punishments.”
God through Moses desires to establish an Israelite community which:
- Encourages righteous living
- Protects the vulnerable
- Provides appropriate restitution
- Restrains the wicked
- Restores the penitent
What are the respective roles of government, family, and church in implementing these principles today?
Colin S. Smith, Unlocking the Bible Story, Volume 1. Moody Press, 2002
Raymond Brown, The Message of Deuteronomy. Inter-Varsity Press, 1993