Deuteronomy 19:15 (CSB)
15 “One witness cannot establish any iniquity or sin against a person, whatever that person has done. A fact must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
In a sort of closing passage to the previous two, Moses here outlines the rules concerning witnesses. Yet again we see how God has provided both a protection for the innocent, and a method in which to deal with those who might deceive and maliciously attempt to perverse justice for their own gain.
The opening line establishes the notion that a “fact” is established by the testimony of two or more witnesses. Obviously this is designed to protect the innocent against a false witness, to avoid false persecution. Further, the severity of the crime is not taken into account, this principle applies for all charges, “whatever that person has done.”
If there are not two or more witnesses, it would seem that a single witness could still accuse and testify against the one accused of committing a crime. The situation then becomes an investigation “in the presence of the Lord,” which appears to mean before the appointed judges and/or priests. The wrinkle here is that if the accused is found to be innocent, and the charge the accuser brought is false, then the same penalty sought by the accuser is applied to him. How different would our judicial system look if this was in place now? The phrase “frivolous lawsuit” would likely disappear from use! But this seems an appropriate punishment, since any charge is not just about a crime against men, but sin against God. Not only that, but we should be cognizant that the priests and judges were either appointed by God, or by his appointees, so there was a close tie to God. It was very dissimilar to our judicial system today, where the only involvement of God in a case is the symbolic swearing to tell the truth, never mind the notion that a judge would be operating in a capacity totally dedicated to honoring and following God.
Finally, there is an almost harsh sounding ending to the pericope. The notion of “an eye for an eye” is one that is pointed to as being a sign of a harsh and vengeful God. Although it is not stated here, there are other places that suggest certain punishments (i.e. non-capital) can be satisfied through fines. But, even if we take this literally, and the punishment is to be lex talionis, we must account for the context as well. The purpose of the “harsh” punishment is to dissuade those who might be tempted to falsely accuse another from doing so, and thus further bringing sin upon the Israelites. This is a law to keep the Israelites righteous, close to God, and free from sin. So when one corrupt accuser is exacted the just penalty for his sin (and it is just, for his sin is against God), it serves to protect the rest of the nation since “everyone else will hear and be afraid, and they will never again do anything evil like this.”
One final thought I had on this passage: anytime I see the number 3 mentioned, my mind immediately goes to the trinity: the three-in-one Godhead. Now I am not saying this is a meaning of the text, but taking the second half of Deut. 19:15 by itself, “A fact must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses,” it’s a neat though to think about that all fact is rooted solely in God, who all by himself has two built-in witnesses since he is three-in-one. Just an interesting thought about where we ground what we “know”.
Lord, thank you for protecting us! Man is sinful and, all too often, eager to falsely accuse each other for our own gain. But in your mercy you continually provide ways to try and help us not only temper the effects of sin, but escape them. I pray for a resurgence of seeking you, and I pray it starts with me. Amen.