God's Law On Murder/Manslaughter Dean Anderson

Exod. 21:12-14

He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. 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. If, however, a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbour, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from My altar, that he may die.

The provision of a place of asylum for one guilty of manslaughter was unique in the ancient world. The existence of places of asylum per se were commonplace. These were mostly holy places, e.g., temples. In Israel it was also permissible to flee to the temple - that much is clear from v.14 where it is stated that a murderer may be taken away from the altar (implying that one who committed manslaughter was safe there, cf. 1 Kgs 1:50ff; 2:28ff; Ps. 27:5). And this is what is unique in God's law for His people. For in the ancient world (even in the time of the New Testament), someone who had fled to a place of asylum was always safe no matter what he had done. God makes an important distinction between murder and manslaughter - a distinction unknown in the rest of the ancient world. There if you killed a man, it didn't matter whether the death was intentional or not, the same punishment applied. The fact that we take the distinction between manslaughter and murder for granted has to do with the fact that we have been brought up in a civilisation heavily influenced by God's laws.

It may surprise us, however, to learn that God makes the distinction between murder and manslaughter in a slightly different way than many modern nations. It is clear from this law that anyone who intentionally kills another person (i.e. in an illegal manner) is guilty of murder and warrants the death penalty. But how does God define manslaughter (killing without intent)? The text speaks of someone who did not lie in wait for the other person, but God let him fall into his hand. In Num. 35:22-24 a couple of examples are given:

But if he pushed him suddenly without enmity, or threw something at him without lying in wait, or with any deadly object of stone, and without seeing it dropped on him so that he died, while he was not his enemy nor seeking his injury, then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the blood avenger according to these ordinances.

In such cases the person is cleared of a murder-charge. He may stay in a city of refuge. Manslaughter is, however, here defined in terms of no intent to harm and not no intent to kill. This is clear from the preceding verses defining murder:

And if he pushed him of hatred, or threw something at him lying in wait and as a result he died, or if he struck him down with his hand in enmity, and as a result he died, the one who struck him shall surely be put to death, he is a murderer; the blood avenger shall put the murderer to death when he meets him.

Murder is the killing of a person as a result of premeditated intent to harm. It may not have been one's intent to actually kill the person, but if he dies, then one must pay the penalty, an irrevocable death sentence. This means that if you accidentally kill a person, then the only thing the prosecution needs to prove is intent to harm. If you demonstrably hated the person, you could end up in a tight spot.

It is against this background that the Lord Jesus states that feelings of hate towards one's neighbour are in God's eyes tantamount to murder.

You have heard that the ancients were told, 'you shall not commit murder' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, 'Raca,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. (Matt. 5:21-22).

If it was clear that you had killed someone, then evidence that you called him names in hatred may have been enough to convict you of murder in certain circumstances. Jesus states that this in itself is sufficient to warrant God's punishment for God is interested in the state of the human heart. Here in God's law, murder is defined in terms of the tragic results of feelings of enmity.

If enmity or intent to harm cannot be proven, then the person who caused the death could flee to a city of refuge. The idea of such areas of asylum is strange to the modern Western mind. And yet we ought to realise that such places of asylum existed in Europe right up until the time of the Reformation, when they were generally abolished.

The biblical system of cities of refuge is worked out in more detail in Num. 35:9-34; Deut. 4:41-43; 19:1-13 and Josh. 20:1-9. It is only hinted at here in Exod. 21 and the suggestion is made that at least God's sanctuary may function as such a place of asylum. (The law suggests that this was probably already current practice). The system of cities of refuge was to work as follows: If you had accidentally killed someone, or even if you had committed a murder and yet because of the circumstances wanted a judicial trial, you were to flee to a city of refuge. Six such cities were to be provided in the various regions of Israel. These were Levitical cities and thus places where there was no question of land being bound to any particular family. This was important, because if the judges found that the death was indeed caused by accident, then you would be given a place to live in the city. Here you would have to remain until the death of the high priest. In a Levitical city, a house could be given away without the complications of property rights which would revert in the year of Jubilee (cf. Lev. 25:10).

If, however, you fled to such a city for refuge, the elders of that city had to first ascertain that your application was genuine (Josh. 20:4). They would be concerned to avoid having to supply lodging to anyone who happened by. After you were admitted to the city, you would have to await the outcome of a judicial inquiry. In Deut. 19 we learn that it was the task of elders in the region where the killing occurred to investigate the matter. If murder was proved (on the basis of at least two witnesses), you would be removed from the city of refuge and given over to the blood-avenger whose task it was to apply the death penalty.

This system which the Lord appointed was, as mentioned above, quite different from that common in the ancient world. Firstly, outside of Israel no one was given lodging if he fled to a recognised place of refuge/asylum. You would have to find your own place to stay. Secondly, if you reached a place of asylum in the ancient world you were guaranteed safety for as long as you remained there. No judicial process could extract you from that place - even if it was proven that you were guilty of the most horrendous crimes. Anyone could flee to such a place of asylum, no matter what crime he had committed. This will have meant that such cities (outside of Israel) in the ancient world could easily become societies of criminals. Anyone scared of the consequences of his crimes could flee there and be safe. During the Roman Imperium the evils of this system were generally known and often discussed in the Senate at Rome. But they could do little to change the situation. What we don't often realise is the fact that the great city of Ephesus, where Paul worked for two years at preaching the Gospel, was such a place of asylum - a refuge for all manner of criminals!

God's law regulated matters differently in Israel. Firstly, cities of refuge were only to provide refuge for those who had committed manslaughter (without intent to harm). Secondly, if the court of elders found that the accused was guilty of murder, he had to be removed to receive his punishment.

The system of cities of refuge remained in the civilised world, even after the Christianization of the Roman Empire. God's law also spoke of such cities. At that time the six Levitical cities had all disappeared. In Christian lands, churches were declared to be places of refuge. Most churches in these times owned considerable tracts of land where applicants for refuge could be put to work. But in the course of time this system began to be seriously misused. It was not propagated according to the rules of God's law, but according to what had been the practice in the former Roman Empire. Known criminals were protected by the church from any legal proceedings against them. It was because of this misuse that the principle of using churches as places of refuge was abandoned in the time of the Protestant Reformation. We may ask whether it may not have been better to keep the principle of places of refuge, but to cleanse it of the unbiblical way in which it was maintained.

One question remains: Why was it necessary to live in a city of refuge if you had killed someone by accident? Is this not a serious breech of one's personal freedom? To understand this, we need to pay some attention to the institution of the blood-avenger.

We ought to realise at the outset that the biblical institution of the blood-avenger had nothing to do with vigilante justice. In the first place, the word itself is not very accurately translated for the biblical expression literally means “redeemer of blood”. Spilt blood has to be atoned for, and that is the concern of God's law. We read in Num. 35:33 ...

So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.

God's law is not concerned about the personal vengeance of a particular family, but about the setting right of a violent crime which desecrates the land - a land wherein God Himself has chosen to live. That spilt blood cries out to the Lord was already clear as far back as Gen. 4:10 where God said to Cain, “The voice of your brother's blood is crying to Me from the ground.” God put it to Noah in these terms:

Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man. (Gen. 9:6)

Spilt blood cries out to be atoned, and this is the task of the blood-redeemer. He must mete out the appropriate penalty for this crime and thus render justice. He must concern himself with God's justice, not private retribution for his family. God appoints as the blood-redeemer, the closest adult male in the family of the deceased. This man must carry out the death sentence in the case of murder, or, in the case of accidental manslaughter, ensure that the guilty party remains in the city of refuge. Even in the case of manslaughter, blood has been shed. The person who has done this is not always completely free of guilt, even if it was just carelessness. He does not have to pay with his life if he moves to a city of refuge. There, he may await the death of the high priest, whose own death will work the necessary atonement to enable him to return to his own land.

We ought to note that the blood-redeemer was not free to choose to let a murderer off the hook. He received a task from the Lord to avenge the spilling of blood. Only by executing the death penalty - after a judicial process - could the anger of God be mollified. The blood-redeemer was not to go hunting after a murderer on his own. He had to await the outcome of the judicial inquiry conducted by the elders of the region where the murder had occurred (Deut. 19). They would hand over the guilty party for execution. He may, of course, organise a search for someone suspected of the crime in order to put him on trial as the accused. But he was not to single-handedly try or execute anyone.

Finally, we ought not to think that the idea that murder desecrates the land is purely an Old Testament concept. In Rev. 6 we read of those who had been martyred for the faith. Their souls cry out to the Lord in prayer from under the heavenly altar ...

How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?

The blood of murder still cries to the Lord for (judicial) vengeance. This is something that we may - and even must - pray to God for. In modern Western society with its countless abortions, the church ought regularly to implore God to avenge the spilt blood in the land. We ought not to be afraid to sing prayers in the psalms crying out to the “God of vengeance” (e.g., Ps. 94).

(Dr Dean Anderson is a minister of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated), and a former member of the Silvertsream congregation. )

Examples of legal killings are warfare, striking a thief caught in the act (Exod. 22:2), or rightful execution of one's duty as a blood-avenger (see below).

The problem had become particularly acute in the reign of Emperor Tiberius (AD 14-37) when such cities with asylum status in the Empire had became havens to all kinds of criminals. Even criminal slaves were safe there.

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