The opening and ending verses of this chapter are rather unpleasant, but in between are some nice ideas.
The first verse in the NRSV is rendered “When the Lord your God has cut off the nations whose land the Lord your God is giving you.” “Cut off” is a nice euphemism. The NCT translates it as “wipe out” or “exterminate.” I’ve noted that sometimes the Bible seems to talk about the previous residents of Canaan fleeing before the Israelites, but here it’s definitely talking about an eradication campaign. From the looks of it, the next whole chapter will be dedicated to talking about how to conquer the land, and I think the “they’ll flee before you” narrative is over for now.
Most of the chapter, however, is dedicated to three pretty good ideas. The first is the creation of the cities of refuge, which were already covered a little in Numbers. Deuteronomy changes up only a few things. The examples it uses for what an accidental death might look like are different, and it makes it clear that killing someone who didn’t intend to murder anyone is itself murder. For this reason, it insists that the cities of refuge have to be placed where people can get to them easily. The NRSV even offers an alternative translation where they had to build roads to them, to make it easy for people to escape angry relatives.
The other thing Deuteronomy does is expand the cities of refuge from three to six. It excuses this discrepancy by saying that God will expand their territory even further if they continue to obey him (v 8). That actually explains some of the conflicting descriptions of the boundaries of the promised land. Some of them may reflect the smallest extent of the territory Israelites occupied, which corresponds to the older accounts that list only three cities. Deuteronomy, being somewhat later, was thinking of a larger territory and needed extra cities. God’s law is adaptable to changing circumstances.
The second idea is just one verse, saying that you can’t “move your neighbour’s boundary marker, set up by former generations” (v 14). Basically a law against cheating families out of their land, which again, is something the Bible really cares about: fair distribution of land/wealth.
The final idea is the expansion of the rule on witnesses. Previously there had only been mention of a need for multiple witnesses in cases concerning charges of idolatry, but here they’re clearly stated to apply to all capital offenses. And if anyone is found to be conspiring to make their testimonies match and accuse someone innocent, they get the death penalty themselves. This is the other gruesome bookend, as Deuteronomy again uses its litany of “So you shall purge the evil from your midst” (v 19), which has already shown up three times, and according to my word search on oremus will appear another five times as I keep going. This is also tied up to the idea of deterrent: “The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you,” (v 20), which was previously used in the command to execute anyone who committed idolatry.
It would be awesome if deterrence actually worked like that, but the reality is that everyone believes they’re the exception who will get away with it. Making a crime more severe doesn’t make people less likely to commit crime. Make crime harder to get away with, on the other hand, does. This is one of the many reasons I don’t support the death penalty. You’d think it would work, the way the author of Deuteronomy does, but it’s not effective.
The Japanese: tayasu “to exterminate, to kill off” (v 1), ito suru “to intend to,” sekinen “long-standing” (v 4), shibakari “firewood gathering,” ono “axe” (v 5), gekkou suru “to be enraged” (v 6), machibuse suru “to ambush, to lie in wait for” (v 11), jizakai “land border, boundary” (v 14), oyoso “some,” risshou suru “to prove, to verify” (v 15), keisouchuu “pending dispute” (v 17), takuramu “to plot, to conspire,” mukui “penalty” (v 19).