In this chapter we see different instructions about justice and how the Israelites were to deal with others.
Cities of refuge – God already had given them three of these cities east of the Jordan River, and three more were to be added after they entered Canaan (19:1,2). What was the purpose of these cities? If someone unintentionally killed another person, he could flee to this city for refuge – to escape an avenger of blood (19:3-6).
The cities of refuge actually provide evidence that the Lord fulfilled the land promise which He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “Now if the LORD your God enlarges your territory, as He swore to your fathers, and gives you the land which He promised to give to your fathers . . . then you shall add three more cities for yourself besides these three” (19:8,9). God later did supply those three new cities of refuge (Joshua 20:7-9); their establishment proved that the Lord fulfilled His land promise.
The cities of refuge reminded Israel of the value of human life. God did not want innocent blood to be shed (19:10), and the cities of refuge helped in that regard. Murder – the intentional killing of an innocent human, always has been against God’s will because He made man in His own image (Genesis 9:5,6). The key to abstaining from murder was the removal of hatred from the heart (19:11). A murderer is a hater, and God “went to the heart” to help remedy this evil.
Witnesses in matters of crime/sin – The Israelites were God’s people, but wherever there are humans, even those who strive to serve Jehovah, there will be some misconduct in their dealings one with another. In Israel, God required that there be two or three witnesses before a person could be punished for a crime (19:15). But what if a witness (or self- proclaimed witness) did not tell the truth? By definition, what does a “false witness” do? “A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness will utter lies” (Proverbs 14:5). It the judges determined that one “testified falsely against his brother,” then he was to be punished in the fashion that he wanted the one whom he accused to be punished (19:16-19).
Eye for eye and tooth for tooth – Many people today quote this passage, misapplying it as they do so. Taking a person’s life, eye, or other body part never was intended to be a matter in which an individual carried out punishment in some vigilante fashion. No, only the judicial authorities could carry out such punishment, and it was intended to eliminate people giving false testimony (19:19-21). It was used to make people think long and hard before making untrue accusations.
— Roger D. Campbell