Can I Get a Witness?

Bruce Green



Even though disciples are under the new covenant Jesus inaugurated rather than the old covenant God gave Israel through Moses, there’s still a lot we can learn from the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 19:15-21 is part of a section that’s largely concerned with government and administration. That being so, we hear about judges (16:18-20), how to handle difficult court cases (17:8-13) and witnesses (19:15-21). It’s not hard to see a focus on those who were to lead Israel and the legal processes and standards they were to implement. Brueggemann reminds us that Israel is being given “a pattern of public order that manages public power in responsible ways in order to enhance community.”

In the section on witnesses, there are two important areas covered. The first has to do with the need for multiple witnesses (v. 15). No one is to be convicted on the basis of a single witness — two or three witnesses are called for.

It’s not difficult to see the wisdom in this. Eyewitnesses weren’t infallible. A second witness offered confirmation and therefore provided more confidence in determining what had actually happened.  A third witness would add another layer, as well as provide a way of ironing out any differences between the testimony of the other two witnesses. We experience this every day whenever we have multiple people tell us about the same event. We’re almost always able to gain a deeper, fuller picture than if we relied on just what one person told us.

The better part of the witness instruction focuses on the problem of a false, “malicious” witness (v. 16-21). When there is a single witness pressing an accusation against someone, both the witness and the accused were to stand before the priests and judges. A “thorough” investigation was conducted, and if it showed that the witness was testifying falsely and with malice, then they were to do to the witness what would have been done to the accused if they had been found guilty! The concluding two verses of this section make it clear that this is to serve as a deterrent. “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (v. 21). The punishment of the individual was merited (After all, what would happen to them was what they wanted to happen to someone they knew to be innocent!).

But it was also done for the preservation of the community. There would be no community without justice, and no justice without truth-telling. It seems to me that this message is needed as much today as ever. Next week, we’ll expand on truth-telling as we think about Paul’s words in Ephesians 4.

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