Numbers 35:30-31a. “Anyone who kills a person is to be put to death as a murderer only on the testimony of witnesses. But no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. Do not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer.”
Exegesis and Application
This is the first mention in the Bible of the legal requirement for multiple eye-witnesses for an event, in this case, a capital crime. Moses is giving these commands to the Israelites on the banks of the Jordan before they cross into Canaan. The chapter refers primarily to the “cities of refuge” but that is not our focus in this blog. Nor is our focus on capital punishment. Rather, my focus is the need for multiple eye-witnesses in order to establish a matter.
There is the Old Testament legal regulation of multiple eye-witnesses for homicide (Num. 35:30), for false worship (Deut. 17: 6) and for every other crime against the nation (Deut. 19:15). This is a progression in legal sophistication: from blood-letting to idolatry to all criminality. No room for shifty attorneys in the Mosaic law at this point. This eye-witness requirement is a practical outworking and expansion of the ninth commandment (Ex. 20:16), “You shall not be a lying witness against your neighbor.” The New Testament confirms this entire multiple eye-witness ordinance (Matt. 18:16; etc.). I will deal with the New Testament teaching in another blog.
Furthermore, throughout the biblical narrative we have historical examples of multiple eye-witnesses being employed to substantiate a conclusion. In 1 Kings 21, Jezebel orders that the elders and nobles in the city of Jezreel “find two scoundrels and have them testify” against Naboth so that she can get Naboth’s vineyard. The purpose of the two witnesses was to legally settle the issue of her expropriation of his land and his subsequent stoning death. She needed more than just one witness to have any legal merit (vss. 10, 13). Jezebel’s “eye-witnesses” were worthless reprobates and yet their false “testimonies” were enough to send a long-standing local property owner to his death. Another example: Multi-eyewitnesses were needed in King David’s acceptance of Ziba’s lying account of Miphibosheth. David made a decision without corroboration from another source and consequently stole from Miphibosheth (2 Samuel 16:3-4; 19:16-27).
The multiple eye-witness requirement was, and is, important for several reasons:
1) It eliminates the danger of one person’s word (witness) against one other person’s word (accused). The problem of deciding between two people is diminished.
2) It eliminates the personal vindictiveness or prejudice of one witness.
3) It eliminates the opportunity for poor perception, mistaken identity or fertile imagination on the part of a single witness.
In Deuteronomy 17:6-7, the eye-witness safeguard is further extended to require that the eye-witnesses be the first to commence the stoning-to-death which results from their testimony. Thus, forcing the eye-witnesses to take responsibility for their testimony. There is the exceptional provision in Deuteronomy 19:15-19 for only one witness to a crime because not every crime/event has multiple eye-witnesses. However, when there is only one witness to an event, that does make confirmation more difficult and there must be “a thorough investigation” by those in leadership to determine the truth.
Christian journalist, I see at least two main points in this passage to be applied to us in the 21st century:
1) Clearly, we need multiple eye witness accounts to substantiate our reporting of events. We can be one eye witness but we need at least one other witness, and in Deut. 19:15 it suggests we get another eye-witness to make three sources of an event. All the reasons why it was important in the time of Moses are applicable to us 3500 years later. The Biblical teaching of the requirement of multiple eye-witnesses will come up again in other blogs.
2) There must be no unnamed sourcing for our stories. Our sources, our eye-witnesses, must be prepared to go on record or their testimony is suspect. Moses required those who would testify against another in a capital crime to be responsible to execute the person they testified against. The principle is the same now: Your sources must take responsibility for their stories and not be able to hide in secrecy.