CERTAIN EGREGIOUS CRIMES ARE WORTHY OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
Any society which does not punish these types of offenses severely will be undercutting its own survival. The rationale is not so much deterrence as it is the protection of the image of God in mankind. The sanctity of human life must be upheld. Civil government has been granted the authority by God to mete out capital punishment for such offenses. The Israelites were commanded by God to mete out capital punishment in these particular cases.
These commands are presented as ranked by the degree of violence involved – striking to kill, striking to wound, kidnapping, repudiating one’s parents, etc.
Charlie Garrett: The law concerning violence committed to another follows directly after the law concerning slaves. This is not haphazardly stuck here, but intent is seen in this placement.
As Keil notes –
“Still higher than personal liberty, however, is life itself, the right of existence and personality; and the infliction of injury upon this was not only prohibited, but to be followed by punishment corresponding to the crime.”
Laws which are not enforced by penalties are rather pointless. They remain inoperative because there is no accountability for a violation of the law.
Nathan Carter: So in short, what we’re going to see today from this text is just this: every crime has a fitting punishment. This was true in ancient Israel and in our contemporary civil context, but it’s also a reflection of an even weightier eternal reality – we live in a moral universe… and we are responsible for our actions… and God is our Righteous Judge… and every crime has a fitting punishment.
I. (:12-14) MURDER AND MANSLAUGHTER
A. (:12) Murder – General Rule
“He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.”
John Oswalt: Human life is so valuable to God that wanton destruction of it for one’s own advantage can only result in forfeiture of the murderer’s life.
David Guzik: God said also that unpunished murderers defiled the land: Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death … So you shall not pollute the land where you are; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. Therefore do not defile the land which you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD dwell among the children of Israel. (Numbers 35:31, 33–34). The principle that unpunished murders defile a land is a sobering, humbling thought among Americans, were so many are murdered and few are brought to justice for those murders.
B. (:13) Unintentional Homicide (Manslaughter) – City of Refuge
“But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand,
then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee.”
Charlie Garrett: The word for “lie in wait” here is tsadah. It is used for the first of just three times in the Bible and this is exactly what it means. It means that someone willfully and with preplanning came to destroy another person.
Douglas Stuart: The present law anticipates the system of cities of refuge with the wording “a place I will designate.” These six cities, spread throughout Israel, would be controlled by Levites and would give sanctuary from the “avenger of blood” (the person who set out to avenge the death of a member of his family by seeking to kill the one who had taken his life) until such time as full, careful, patient legal processes could look into the fatality and rule fairly. God’s covenant thereby eliminated for obedient Israelites what had been a long-established but inherently unfair practice that dominated the way of life in the ancient Near East, blood vengeance.
John Oswalt: However, some deaths are not the result of malicious intent, and among tight-knit clans, even accidental death can create a demand for vengeance. Almost inevitably, these vengeful killings escalate into a “blood-feud” that is all but uncontrollable. This is why God insists that vengeance must be left in his hands (Deut 32:35; Ps 94:1; Rom 12:19). However, human life is so precious that even accidental death cannot be simply dismissed. So God provided “a place of refuge” (21:13) where the killer could be protected while the case could be investigated and passions cooled. The fact that the precise nature of this refuge is not spelled out here is one more piece of evidence that these are covenant stipulations and not a full-blown law code.
Wiersbe: Israel didn’t have a police force; the family of the victim was expected to see that justice was done. But in the heat of anger, they might be more interested in revenge than in justice, so the law stepped in to protect the accused until he was proved guilty.
James Jordan: A special provision was set up for the man who accidentally killed his fellow. [without parallel in the entire ancient Near East] The negligent manslayer could run to a city of refuge to escape the avenger of blood. The details of this are set out in Deuteronomy 19:1-13 and Numbers 35:10-34.
C. (:14) Intentional Homicide – No Escape from Death Penalty
“If, however, a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbor, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from My altar, that he may die.”
John MacKay: It may have been that at the altar the individual grasped the horns of the altar (27:2) and in this way sought the protection of the power and holiness of the Lord (1 Kings 1:50–51; 2:28–29). This would have been recognised as a temporary measure until the situation with respect to the offender could be clarified. But this too was not intended for the deliberate murderer who had ‘schemed’, that is, had been inwardly raging against another and so had been driven to act in a way that went beyond the bounds of what was proper.
Douglas Stuart: In other words, the Sinai covenant allowed no such thing as altar sanctuary. When Adonijah tried to make altar sanctuary work for him in 1 Kgs 1:50–51 and when Joab tried it again in 1 Kgs 2:29, they were doing so without warrant from the covenant. Likewise, the New Covenant makes no provision for any such practice, whether in churches or shrines or any other location. There is no location by which one can escape responsibility for one’s civil or other crimes. Neither forgiveness nor freedom from prosecution is spatially connected. Such things are instead relational and in terms of their eternal dimension, dependent upon knowing Christ and his benefits, not where to hide or flee.
II. (:15) VIOLENCE TOWARDS PARENTS
“And he who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.”
“attack with great force”
John Oswalt: The rabbis ruled that this referred to an adult child who struck an aged parent with intent to injure.
Philip Ryken: Notice as well that although these cases did not involve murder, in Old Testament Israel they still demanded the death penalty. To understand why, it helps to know what kind of attack the Bible has in mind. The Hebrew used here (naka) refers to a vicious assault, virtually an attempted murder. Ordinarily such a violent attack only required the death penalty if someone actually got killed. But this crime was aggravated by its assault on parental authority. The fifth commandment said, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exod. 20:12). If someone so dishonored his parents as to strike them with the intent to kill, he deserved to die. While this law may seem harsh, it was for the preservation of the family, and thus for the protection of the nation.
III. (:16) KIDNAPPING AND SLAVE TRADING
“And he who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him
or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.”
John Davis: The death penalty is established for the practice because it was a crime against the dignity of that man and a violation of the image of God.
John MacKay: The death penalty was also prescribed for kidnapping, that is, taking and keeping an individual against their will with a view to profiting from the situation, whether by demanding a ransom or otherwise. Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death (21:16). In the circumstances envisaged here it is not a ransom that is in view, but the gain from selling the individual into slavery. Although many argue that this law envisages a breach of the eighth commandment because ‘kidnap’ here is the same word as ‘steal’ there, it is much more serious than misappropriation of property. The severity of the penalty shows that such treatment of human life made in the image of God was viewed as equivalent to murder. In other ancient Near Eastern law codes kidnapping was a capital crime only when a member of the nobility was involved, but it is part of the egalitarian nature of Israel’s law that the offence was treated with the same severity no matter who was involved because all were equally made in the image of God.
John Oswalt: The fourth occasion for capital punishment was kidnapping (21:16). Once again, the issue revolves around contempt for human life and personhood. A kidnapped person is treated as an object to be used for one’s own gain, and this can never be. The point is underscored when this command is compared with that regarding stealing an animal in 22:1, 4. There, if the animal is not recoverable, fivefold compensation to the owner is required. But if the animal is recovered, only twofold compensation must be given. However, in the case of kidnapping, death is the result whether the victim is restored or not. Persons are not objects to be used.
IV. (:17) CURSING PARENTS
“And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.”
Douglas Stuart: Most likely this law envisions a situation in which someone would not merely in a moment of rage say to his parents something like “I wish you were dead!” but would publicly, perhaps by an oath spoken in the name of Yahweh, assert that he wanted never again to have anything to do with his parents and would not respect or serve them any longer as their child, wishing only harm for them. Thus the curser would, carrying out the curse, neither obey his parents nor care for them in their old age as was the expected duty but would openly declare something to the effect that he wanted them “out of the way.” Such behavior was sufficiently outrageous that God would not tolerate its continuation within the covenant community, and he therefore declared it a capital crime.
Walter Kaiser Jr.: Notice that the father and mother are mentioned together, thereby stressing their basic equality.
John MacKay: “Curse” on the other hand is a matter of lightness, and points to speech about parents which is disparaging and insulting, repudiating their authority and treating it—and them—with utter contempt. This was an assault on the social cohesion of the covenant community and a major threat to its well-being as it sought to live out its God-appointed role.
Philip Ryken: The death penalty also applied when someone cursed his parents. What is in view here is not a single act of disrespect but a total repudiation of their parental authority. The man who cursed his father and mother disowned them. To be more specific, he treated them with such utter contempt that he refused to care for them in their old age. This is the way Jesus understood the law when he challenged the Pharisees: “Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ he is not to ‘honor his father’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matt. 15:3–6). This law reminds us to honor our parents. If we speak against them—or even worse, if we strike them—we are guilty of a great sin against God. And if we fail to care for our parents, we curse them and thus violate the law of God.
Bruce Hurt: The reason the punishment was so serious is because this type of behavior was considered to be an expression of rebellion against God’s authority. And since the family was the basic unit of a society, it was critical that it’s integrity be stringently maintained.
Charlie Garrett: Cursing one’s parents is placed on the same level as striking a parent because it stems from the same attitude of the heart. God’s appointed authority and His personal majesty are violated when the parents are violated. He ordained the parents of the child and therefore He is cursed implicitly in the curse. Thus it is seen in the Bible that the cursing of parents and blaspheme against God are the two sins of the tongue which are to be punished with death – Prov. 20:20.