21:12 ¶ He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death. 13 And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee. 14 But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die. 15 And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death. 16 And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death. 17 And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death. 18 And if men strive together, and one smite another with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keepeth his bed: 19 If he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed. 20 And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished. 21 Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.
This passage begins with laws regarding murder, slavers, those who curse their parents, mutual combat and compensation for injuries resulting, and striking a servant. These are God’s commands for civil law for the Hebrews. This gives you a rough idea of the nature of civil protections at that time, certainly shocking by our standards today. God modified existing standards so you can see what must have been accepted practice.
Remember in Genesis how Abraham and Isaac were afraid of being murdered so some ruler could steal their wives, so they lied? That showed us the likely conditions of the time with regard to a powerful man simply taking a less powerful man’s wife for his own sexual purposes. In the same way these Laws given to Moses for the children of Israel must reveal the conditions of the time.
According to some sources the death penalty in Egypt was unevenly applied to those who killed another person and there was no distinction between premeditated murder and unpremeditated manslaughter. God created consistency with His edicts as the standard rather than an official who could be bribed as a matter of accepted practice.
In Egypt, the Pharaoh, as a living god, was the source of justice bound by tradition and convention but with himself and his ministers being able to apply justice as their position and power allowed rather than based on an absolute standard. God is laying down a standard.
The much older so-called Code of Hammurabi, which most certainly was not a body of laws but more a commentary on law or a philosophy of law as there is no evidence it was ever put into practice, had the death penalty for over 30 offenses. For instance, giving refuge to a runaway slave was to require the death penalty. But, it was uneven in that the punishment for a crime depended on the social status of the victim and the perpetrator. Bible skeptics make much out of the “eye for an eye” standard but that only applied between people of equal rank. God is creating an equal standard for everyone as, at this point, there is no aristocracy outside of the leader of a tribe and Moses and his assistants in enforcing God’s Law. They were held to the same standard.
Verse 12 gives us the meaning of the commandment Thou shalt not kill as Jesus defines it in Matthew 19:18 as do no murder.
Matthew 19:18 He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,
Verse 13 suggests the cities of refuge ordered in Numbers, chapter 35, where an unintentional killer could run to in order to keep from having family vengeance enacted on him. It also shows again God’s hand in events as the accidental victim was delivered into the hand of the killer by God.
Verse 14 shows that committing murder and running to God’s altar for protection will not save you someone from punishment.
1Kings 2:29 And it was told king Solomon that Joab was fled unto the tabernacle of the LORD; and, behold, he is by the altar. Then Solomon sent Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, saying, Go, fall upon him. 30 And Benaiah came to the tabernacle of the LORD, and said unto him, Thus saith the king, Come forth. And he said, Nay; but I will die here. And Benaiah brought the king word again, saying, Thus said Joab, and thus he answered me. 31 And the king said unto him, Do as he hath said, and fall upon him, and bury him; that thou mayest take away the innocent blood, which Joab shed, from me, and from the house of my father. 32 And the LORD shall return his blood upon his own head, who fell upon two men more righteous and better than he, and slew them with the sword, my father David not knowing thereof, to wit, Abner the son of Ner, captain of the host of Israel, and Amasa the son of Jether, captain of the host of Judah. 33 Their blood shall therefore return upon the head of Joab, and upon the head of his seed for ever: but upon David, and upon his seed, and upon his house, and upon his throne, shall there be peace for ever from the LORD. 34 So Benaiah the son of Jehoiada went up, and fell upon him, and slew him: and he was buried in his own house in the wilderness.
Verse 15 requires death for someone who strikes one of his parents. Also note verse 17. Other interesting verses on this subject include the following;
Proverbs 20:20 ¶ Whoso curseth his father or his mother, his lamp shall be put out in obscure darkness.
Proverbs 30:17 The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it.
1Timothy 1:9 Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,
Rules against disobedient and disrespectful children include;
Leviticus 20:9 For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death: he hath cursed his father or his mother; his blood shall be upon him.
Deuteronomy 21:18 ¶ If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: 19 Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; 20 And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. 21 And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.
With regard to verse 16 and more modern times it is interesting the kind of man who would have engaged in the slave trade, at least the part involving kidnapping innocent people in Africa and stealing them to sell into North or South America, was doing great evil. One can only imagine a depraved beast of a human being engaging in such wicked trade, particularly if he regarding himself as a Christian.
Verses 20 and 21 modify existing customs on treatment of slaves and servants. There were various customs, laws, and traditions in the Ancient Near East regarding slaves and servants but it was a fact, God’s modifying the institution’s customs and standardizing the treatment of slaves, notwithstanding.
Do not make the mistake of Christians who unified state and church into a monster of oppression into believing that God modifying a cultural practice means that He approves of it or ordains it. In addition, the Hebrews were being given not only their religious law but their civil law, as well.
Christians aren’t given that structure. We are not 12-15th century BC Hebrews. We’re not even justified by the Law but only by faith in Christ. We cannot hide behind the Law given to Moses or use it as an excuse for our own selfish wickedness. Some fundamentalists act like they would enjoy nothing better than bringing back stoning and slavery.