[Note: The following text is the prepared text for a sermon given to the United Church of God congregation in the Dalles, Oregon, on Sabbath, September 4, 2021.]
If you remember my previous message in this disorderly series on the boundaries of the ten commandments, I discussed how it was that lying and bearing false witness were not exactly the same thing, and I began with a discussion of the errors of a simplified set of the ten commandments that was sold during the early 1990’s in many congregations, including the one I attended as a child. Today, in talking about the sixth commandment, we have a similar problem. The over-simplified ten commandments, and many contemporaries who define the Bible based on their own sentiments, view the sixth commandment as saying, “You shall not kill.” What it actually says, if you look at either Exodus 20:13 or Deuteronomy 5:17, is, on the contrary, “You shall not murder.” While our task was straightforward enough in looking at the difference between lying and bearing false witness against one’s neighbor, the distinction between killing and murder is less straightforward. On the one hand, there are a great many cases where there is killing that the Bible does not consider to be murder, and so on the one hand the biblical commandment is more permissive than the misinterpreted form of it at present–more permissive of self-defense, capital punishment, and even revenge killings by duly appointed avengers of blood within the family. On the other hand, though, things are regarded as murder that our present age does not even consider to be killing, and so as is the case with some of the commandments we will explore in this series, looking at the prohibition on murder forces us to reflect on biblical conceptions and definitions and our own.
As was the case previously, this is a somewhat ambitious but by no means complete survey of the biblical boundaries of murder. Our main focus, and what we will spend most of the first part of today’s message doing, is to define what the Bible means by murder by looking at the way that the biblical law frames various categories of killing as being murder on the one hand or not murder on the other hand, and seeking to determine the biblical logic that governs these definitions. In the second part of the book we will then explore how sophisticated the biblical law is in investigating the line between murder and non-murderous killing, and the investigative practices and institutions that sprang up as a result of the need to properly define bloodguilt.
Let us begin, though, with a case of two murders. At the beginning of the Bible, two events are considered to be murders, and while one of them is obvious and straightforward to us, the other is not, and yet the Bible considers both of them to be murder, which requires us to think about the complexity of what the Bible means by the term murder as it is translated for us. Let us start with the more obvious case. In Genesis 4:1-15, we read the story of Cain’s murder of Abel, and while the murder is sudden and without precedent, it is something we can clearly recognize as murder. Genesis 4:1-15 reads as follows: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, “I have acquired a man from the Lord.” Then she bore again, this time his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the Lord respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. So the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.” Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth.” And Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Surely You have driven me out this day from the face of the ground; I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, and it will happen that anyone who finds me will kill me.” And the Lord said to him, “Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord set a mark on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him.”
I must admit that I am not very sympathetic towards Cain. His whining about the punishment of exile being more than he deserved for his act of premeditated murder, an act for which he deserved death, does not strike me as something I can view with any degree of sympathy. And yet although Cain accuses God of being far too harsh on him by punishing him with being a vagabond and exile on the face of the earth, to be cut off from the blessings of human community as a result of his sin against his brother, in reality we may say that in light of the lengthy and lamentable history of human violence, that God was far too generous in light of the precedent that Cain set in his murder, and this generosity was something that God would quickly repent of when dealing with the state of mankind during the time of Noah, only a few generations later. Yet we read this story and know that it is obviously an example of murder, and have little difficulty defining it as such.
Things are not as straightforward when we look at the second example. Let us turn to John 8:37-47. In John 8:37-47, in the midst of a long argument about various matters, including the authority and legitimacy of Jesus Christ and His message, we find a startling statement about Satan being a murderer from the beginning, and this statement forces us to ponder the expansiveness of murder in the Bible far beyond what we may originally assume. John 8:37-47 reads as follows: ““I know that you are Abraham’s descendants, but you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. I speak what I have seen with My Father, and you do what you have seen with your father.” They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham. But now you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did not do this. You do the deeds of your father.” Then they said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father—God.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and came from God; nor have I come of Myself, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me. Which of you convicts Me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me? He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God.””
There is a lot going on in this passage, but it is worth pausing here in the midst of this harsh argument between Jesus Christ and the Jewish leadership. While the Jewish leadership accused Jesus Christ of being born of fornication, Jesus in turn accuses them of trying to kill him–which they would do at the end of the chapter when they tried to stone him, and later on in John when they demanded His crucifixion–and also of being the children of Satan the devil. and it is important for our purposes to ponder how and when it was that Satan is here condemned by Christ Jesus for having been both a liar and a murderer from the beginning. After all, at the beginning of Satan’s work, we do not tend to automatically think of Satan as a murderer. But according to the Bible’s definition of murder, Satan was indeed a murderer.
Let us turn to Genesis 3:1-5. Here we see Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Genesis 3:1-5 reads as follows: “Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ” Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.””
We know what happens next. First Eve and then Adam ate of the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they became subject to God’s judgment and eventually death as a result of their sin. Because of their refusal to eat of the tree of life but instead to choose of the one thing that God had prohibited of them in the garden, they and all other human beings since then have been subject to death. And Satan’s act in manipulating and deceiving mankind into sinning from the beginning is viewed as murder, even though Satan did not directly kill them (unlike Cain, for example), but instead maneuvered events so that Adam and Eve would bring themselves under condemnation and subject themselves to divine judgment. This is enough to be considered murder by the biblical definition.
Understanding this helps us make sense of some biblical laws and principles that on the face of it have nothing to do whatsoever with murder but do relate to bloodguilt, which is how the Bible views murder. Let us turn, for example, to Leviticus 19:17-18. This law is viewed as being one of the two greatest commandments, but at its heart is a discussion of what it means to be a murderer in this second, expanded sense, that we are mostly unfamiliar with. Leviticus 19:17-18 reads: “‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” It is hard for us to connect these things to murder–hating others in our heart, bearing grudges, and refusing to rebuke others, but indeed if we reflect on Satan as a murderer, these things make more sense.
There is more concrete evidence that connects a lack of rebuking to the bloodguilt of murder, and we find that in Ezekiel 33:1-11. Here we find a prophecy of a watchman that ought to give all of us considerable concern about the present state of our society and our own potential bloodguilt. Ezekiel 33:1-11 reads: “Again the word of the Lord came to me, saying, Son of man, speak to the children of your people, and say to them: ‘When I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from their territory and make him their watchman, when he sees the sword coming upon the land, if he blows the trumpet and warns the people, then whoever hears the sound of the trumpet and does not take warning, if the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be on his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet, but did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But he who takes warning will save his life. But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.’ “So you, son of man: I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore you shall hear a word from My mouth and warn them for Me. When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you shall surely die!’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. Nevertheless if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered your soul. “Therefore you, O son of man, say to the house of Israel: ‘Thus you say, “If our transgressions and our sins lie upon us, and we pine away in them, how can we then live?”’ Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’”
This is the sort of passage that ought to cause us to lose sleep at night and pray to God that we are not held to be murderers because of our reluctance to speak out against the judgment that is coming against our wicked and wayward people. If someone has been given the responsibility of being a watchman, and they refuse to warn the people of impending judgment, then even though sinners and evildoers will die in their sin, those who should have warned them and did not will be held accountable as murderers for not having given them proper warning that their course of behavior was leading to death and destruction. It is not merely that manipulating people into doing that which will lead to death is murder, but that not warning people who are proceeding headlong into behavior that is worthy of judgment are also held accountable as murderers for their hatred of others in their heart that leads them to refuse to rebuke those who are subject to divine wrath without being aware of the seriousness of what they are about. This is a far more expansive definition of murder than most of us are prepared to to deal with, and I speak of myself personally at least as much as of anyone else here.
It is with that context that we will turn to the body of biblical law that helps to define what murder is and what it is not. Again, as we will see, the key issue is whether a particular death or killing brings about bloodguilt or not. Since the life is in the blood, that which has no blood, legally and morally speaking, has no guilt, and therefore is not murder. And contrary to those who are hostile to capital punishment, for example, there is a great deal of killing that is not considered in the Bible to be murder, even if God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and neither should we.
It is worth noting that one chapter of the Bible contains a large amount of material that helps to define what is and what is not murder. Let us turn to this chapter, and I will read the passage and then comment on the trends and patterns we see from these laws that help us to define what is and what is not murder. We find these laws listed in Exodus 21:12-36. These laws are part of the laws of the covenant that help to expand and frame the ten commandments, and they should be a familiar place for us to look in order to understand how it was that the ten commandments were applied in Israelite law. Exodus 21:12-36 reads: ““He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. However, if he did not lie in wait, but God delivered him into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. “But if a man acts with premeditation against his neighbor, to kill him by treachery, you shall take him from My altar, that he may die. “And he who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. “He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death. “And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. “If men contend with each other, and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but is confined to his bed, if he rises again and walks about outside with his staff, then he who struck him shall be acquitted. He shall only pay for the loss of his time, and shall provide for him to be thoroughly healed. “And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property. “If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. “If a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant, and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free for the sake of his tooth. “If an ox gores a man or a woman to death, then the ox shall surely be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be acquitted. But if the ox tended to thrust with its horn in times past, and it has been made known to his owner, and he has not kept it confined, so that it has killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death. If there is imposed on him a sum of money, then he shall pay to redeem his life, whatever is imposed on him. Whether it has gored a son or gored a daughter, according to this judgment it shall be done to him. If the ox gores a male or female servant, he shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned. “And if a man opens a pit, or if a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls in it, the owner of the pit shall make it good; he shall give money to their owner, but the dead animal shall be his. “If one man’s ox hurts another’s, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the money from it; and the dead ox they shall also divide. Or if it was known that the ox tended to thrust in time past, and its owner has not kept it confined, he shall surely pay ox for ox, and the dead animal shall be his own.”
There is a lot going on here, so let us look at these laws one by one and then we will comment on some overall impressions that we can get from this series of laws that helps to define and explain what is and what is not murder in the Bible. First, there is law that states that killing is generally assumed to be murder, but that if it is an accidental killing, God will establish a place for someone to flee and save their life. We will have more to say about this later. But motive matters, as someone who lies in wait for someone else is to be denied refuge and is to be put to death. Kidnapping someone and selling them into slavery was, in the Bible, a capital offense, worthy of death. This is technically a question of theft, so we will consider this later on when we talk about the eighth commandment and how it is defined in the Bible. Similarly, the Bible condemns to death those who strike their parents or curse their parents, which more properly relates to the fifth commandment, about which we will have more to say in a future message. We have laws which provide for fines to be paid for the loss of time of people due to injury from violence, as well as laws that regulate violence against slaves–including freeing slaves who suffer violence at the hand of their master. We have a law that states that if violence is committed against a pregnant woman and any harm follows–presumably to either her or her unborn child–the person responsible shall be subject to retributive justice both based on the verdict of the husband as well as of the judge. There are also laws relating to the control of animals, and the fact that an owner of an animal that was known to be dangerous would also be subject to being put to death for murder if that known dangerous animal kills anyone.
Overall, then, we can see that these laws not only seek to define what is and what is not murder, but also to regulate the punishment for violence, and not only violence by people but also violence by animals who are owned by people. We can see from these laws that the punishment for violence applies based on that which is under someone’s authority, and that offenses are to be paid to those who are in authority over a given person or animal. And so it is that a husband is to assess the damages to his wife and unborn child, and that a landowner is to be paid for losses suffered by his animals, and that people are to be punished with the loss of a slave if they behave violently towards that slave. These laws, then, help us to understand the biblical interest not only in defining what is and what is not murder, but also to combat the human tendency to be violent towards others by pointing out the price of this violence–setting free an abused slave, paying for someone’s wages when they are injured, and paying, even with our lives, for our violence towards a pregnant woman, and even paying with our lives if we own dangerous animals who gore someone else to death. These laws, if properly enforced, strongly discourage violence and provide a sober reminder of the price of such behavior.
These laws do not exhaust the Bible’s efforts to define what is and what is not murder, though. If we turn the page over to Exodus 22:2-3, we see laws relating to a thief in the night. Thee laws are properly considered to be part of laws relating to theft and property, and so we will discuss them again when we look at the boundaries of the eighth commandment, but they are also relevant to our present discussion, so let us discuss them now. Exodus 22:2-3 reads: “If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed. If the sun has risen on him, there shall be guilt for his bloodshed. He should make full restitution; if he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. ” What is the difference that the sun makes to the fact that killing a thief has or does not have bloodguilt? Context matters a lot here. A thief in the night knows that he is attacking people who are at home and is using the darkness and presumably a high degree of violence to rob but also to threaten and terrorize others. A thief in the daytime, though, is assumed to be a petty thief only interested in stealing property for personal benefit, and so while such a person could be sold into slavery to repay his victims, is not assumed to be violent and hostile towards them, like the armed robber at night, attacking a household that he knows and expects to be at home.
We find laws relating to the definition of murder in unusual and unexpected situations. Deuteronomy 18:20-22, for example, is part of a law that deals with prophecy, which we have discussed before relating to the two tests of prophets. Yet this law also has something to say about what is and what is not murder. Deuteronomy 18:20-22 reads: “But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.” Here we see that false prophecy is one of the many crimes in the Bible that are worthy of the death penalty. It is popular in contemporary times for people to view the death penalty as being an illegitimate form of killing, but the Bible regularly and frequently views the death penalty as being an essential element of deterring the evil that is inside of mankind. The knowledge that one’s life is on the line is supposed to limit our behavior, and curb our violent instincts.
Indeed, capital punishment is so ingrained in the biblical system of law that anyone who is remotely familiar with biblical law and its operation cannot be excused for considering it to be an improper form of punishment. It is not as if capital punishment and the biblical concern with violence, even intimidation, is only an Old Testament matter. Let us look at some passages in the New Testament and comment on some of the ways in which murder and violence and their boundaries appear there as well. In Luke 3:14, for example, we find John the Baptist giving advice to Roman soldiers who had come to him seeking the baptism of repentance. And John’s advice strikes at a great deal of the concern for violence within contemporary Roman society, and our own contemporary society as well. Luke 3:14 says: “Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?” So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”” This would be good advice for a contemporary police officer or soldier in our own age, and would address many of the concerns that people have about such institutions in many lands, including our own.
Similarly, Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount discusses the real point of the prohibition of murder when he talks about the relationships that should exist between people in Matthew 5:21-24. Not only is Jesus Christ concerned with murder, or even violence, but with the emotions and expressions that are at the bottom of murder and violence. Matthew 5:21-24 reads: ““You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” This verse gets to the heart of the real threat of murder, going all the way back to Cain and Abel at least. We cannot be right with God without being right with other people, and we cannot be right with other people if our hearts are filled with hatred, bitterness, and contempt towards them, from which spring violence, hostility, and eventually murder.
In addition, not only does the New Testament conform to the general biblical tendency to view murder as a larger issue than we might believe, but it also specifically includes capital punishment as acceptable as a means of curbing the tendency towards evil that we find in humanity. We find this point rather pointedly discussed, for example, in Romans 13:3-5. This passage is often viewed as problematical with regards to the relationship of believers to physical authority, but it also includes a specific discussion of God’s approval of the death penalty, as we have seen repeatedly expressed also in the first five books of the Bible so far. Romans 13:3-5 reads: “ For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.” What this verse says about the death penalty is pointed and profound. One of the purposes of the state, one of the reasons why it is legitimate, is because it has the power of the sword to execute judgment on evildoers. In fact, it can even be said that the unwillingness of many contemporary states to execute wrath on evildoers is one of the ways in which our age and the wicked and corrupt rulers of our age are rebellious against God in the most profound way, by refusing to take God’s standards seriously, including standards of punishment.
It is worth reflecting, though, on the fact that Paul’s statement of the purpose of civil government in executing wrath against evildoers is itself an affirmation of one of the earliest statements about civil government that we have in the Bible. Let us turn to Genesis 9:3-7. Here, in the midst of making a covenant with Noah, his family, humanity as a whole, and even animals, that He would never destroy the earth again with water, God makes the following statements about the need for capital punishment to restrain the tendency of people towards violence. Genesis 9:3-7 reads: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man. And as for you, be fruitful and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth and multiply in it.”” It goes without saying that one of the most obvious ways to encourage mankind to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth is to reduce the amount of violence that people suffer from the hands of others. It is also worth noting that not only is capital punishment in the Bible not murder, but it is a requirement established by God on civil governments in order to respect the fact that mankind is created in the image of God, and those who do violence to those created in God’s image attack the image of God Himself, and should be punished accordingly. This is an important point to remember, because it will come up repeatedly in the future when we look at why God prohibits some things because of the way that human sin can bring dishonor upon God Himself.
Having provided a discussion of the boundaries of murder in the Bible and why it is so offensive to God and how it is both more narrow and more broad than people often understand it to be in our contemporary age, let us explore one additional aspect about the boundaries of murder in the Bible that we do not often think about. I would like to close today’s message by exploring how it is that the Bible’s view of murder ended up shaping the boundaries of Israel’s own state and how Israel’s government behaved. In order to do this I would like to look at two laws which are profoundly shaped by the question of murder, and to understand that the efforts to regulate, punish, and diminish violence within Israel’s own borders strongly shaped and encouraged the development of local and even national government institutions in ways that are highly relevant to our own understanding of the political worldview of the Bible, and for our own understanding of how the Bible applies to contemporary concerns about violence within society.
Let us first turn to Deuteronomy 21:1-9, to look at the rituals involved in a law concerning unsolved murders. Deuteronomy 21:1-9 tells us the following about what a city was to do when it found the body of someone who was a murder victim in what was obviously a cold case: “If anyone is found slain, lying in the field in the land which the Lord your God is giving you to possess, and it is not known who killed him, then your elders and your judges shall go out and measure the distance from the slain man to the surrounding cities. And it shall be that the elders of the city nearest to the slain man will take a heifer which has not been worked and which has not pulled with a yoke. The elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with flowing water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and they shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley. Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come near, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to Him and to bless in the name of the Lord; by their word every controversy and every assault shall be settled. And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley. Then they shall answer and say, ‘Our hands have not shed this blood, nor have our eyes seen it. Provide atonement, O Lord, for Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, and do not lay innocent blood to the charge of Your people Israel.’ And atonement shall be provided on their behalf for the blood. So you shall put away the guilt of innocent blood from among you when you do what is right in the sight of the Lord.”
Let us note a few things about this passage. For one, let us note how broad the bloodguilt of murder extended. We have seen previously that the bloodguilt for murder attached itself to the murderer as well as to those people who knew that someone was on a path that would lead in judgment or death without giving them warning about it. Here we see, though, that bloodguilt could extend all the way to a community that encouraged or even tolerated violence. If a dead body was found near a town and no one knew or was willing to provide a witness about the death, the town itself bore bloodguilt for being a place where such violence could take place. And in order to rid the town of bloodguilt, a ritual had to be done that affirmed the value of human life created in the image of God and pointed to the loss that came with murder of one of God’s potential children from life.
The ritual, though, indicates something about the way that the efforts of biblical law to counter the violent tendencies of people spurred the development of institutions of government in biblical Israel in both church and state. On the side of the state, the elders of the town had an important role in the ritual that affirmed an Israelite town as a peaceful place where murder was unacceptable. On the other hand, though, priests and Levites were affirmed as being the people who were responsible for adjudicating cases of violence and bloodshed and determining degrees of guilt and investigating such matters. And both the religious institutions and civil institutions had a role in letting the larger Israelite society know that murder brought bloodguilt upon not only murderers but upon communities that were complicit in violence through their silence about what was going on inside. And that is something we would do well to remember in our own times where evildoers attempt to view those who speak out against the evil they witness as snitches and subject to retaliatory violence themselves.
The second law of interest is one of the most extended laws that we find in all of scripture, and that is the law concerning the cities of refuge that is first found in Numbers 35. Let us look at this entire chapter, breaking it up into several sections that we might discuss some of its elements at a time before giving our thoughts on the implications of the chapter as a whole. Let us begin with the establishment of the cities of refuge within the cities of the Levites in Numbers 35:1-15. Numbers 35:1-15 reads: “And the Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho, saying: “Command the children of Israel that they give the Levites cities to dwell in from the inheritance of their possession, and you shall also give the Levites common-land around the cities. They shall have the cities to dwell in; and their common-land shall be for their cattle, for their herds, and for all their animals. The common-land of the cities which you will give the Levites shall extend from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits all around. And you shall measure outside the city on the east side two thousand cubits, on the south side two thousand cubits, on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits. The city shall be in the middle. This shall belong to them as common-land for the cities. “Now among the cities which you will give to the Levites you shall appoint six cities of refuge, to which a manslayer may flee. And to these you shall add forty-two cities. So all the cities you will give to the Levites shall be forty-eight; these you shall give with their common-land. And the cities which you will give shall be from the possession of the children of Israel; from the larger tribe you shall give many, from the smaller you shall give few. Each shall give some of its cities to the Levites, in proportion to the inheritance that each receives.” Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall appoint cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person accidentally may flee there. They shall be cities of refuge for you from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation in judgment. And of the cities which you give, you shall have six cities of refuge. You shall appoint three cities on this side of the Jordan, and three cities you shall appoint in the land of Canaan, which will be cities of refuge. These six cities shall be for refuge for the children of Israel, for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills a person accidentally may flee there.”
Let us first note that the cities of refuge themselves made up 1/8 of the total cities that the tribes of Israel were commanded to give to the Levites. While we tend to think of the Levites as town dwellers and urban people, the Levites also were provided enough land to support their flocks in the areas right outside of the cities, giving them a source of support and labor that would provide income apart from their urban activities. It is also notable that both the disposition of these cities of refuge, among which are some of the most famous cities of the Bible, as well as of the Levitical cities in general, required a fair amount of cooperation and understanding so that the bigger tribes gave more cities to the Levites and the smaller tribes fewer of their cities, so that the burden of giving land to the Levites was spread justly around the tribes as a whole.
Though this passage does not include in detail the specific cities that were set aside as cities of refuge, such details, as well as the logistics of how someone was to behave when they entered a city of refuge, are included in Joshua 20:1-9. Hold your place in Numbers 35, because we will be returning here shortly, but let us look at the details of which cities were assigned as cities of refuge among the Levitical cities as well as the logistics of how new arriving manslayers seeking to avoid being put to death by vengeful kinsmen redeemer of the people they accidently slayed were to behave upon entering these cities in Joshua 20:1-9, which reads: “The Lord also spoke to Joshua, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Appoint for yourselves cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, that the slayer who kills a person accidentally or unintentionally may flee there; and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood. And when he flees to one of those cities, and stands at the entrance of the gate of the city, and declares his case in the hearing of the elders of that city, they shall take him into the city as one of them, and give him a place, that he may dwell among them. Then if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not deliver the slayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unintentionally, but did not hate him beforehand. And he shall dwell in that city until he stands before the congregation for judgment, and until the death of the one who is high priest in those days. Then the slayer may return and come to his own city and his own house, to the city from which he fled.’ ” So they appointed Kedesh in Galilee, in the mountains of Naphtali, Shechem in the mountains of Ephraim, and Kirjath Arba (which is Hebron) in the mountains of Judah. And on the other side of the Jordan, by Jericho eastward, they assigned Bezer in the wilderness on the plain, from the tribe of Reuben, Ramoth in Gilead, from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan, from the tribe of Manasseh. These were the cities appointed for all the children of Israel and for the stranger who dwelt among them, that whoever killed a person accidentally might flee there, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood until he stood before the congregation.”
Let us first comment on the cities that were chosen, as they were among the most notable cities in Israel and some of them remain very important places to this day. On the east side of the Jordan River each of the two and a half tribes gave one city to be a city of refuge–Bezer, Ramoth Gilead, a city continually under dispute between the kings of Syria and Israel for generations during the 9th century BC, and Golan in Bashan, a city that is still contested territory between the nation of Israel and Syria to this day since it was taken in the Six Days’ War in 1967. The cities on the west side of the Jordan River are no less notable in history, including Kadesh in Galilee, Shechem in Ephraim, and Hebron in Judah, two of these being important places where the kings of Israel and Judah were established in the times of Jeroboam and David, respectively. Hebron to this day remains a place of contention between Jews, Christians, and Muslims over holy sites and access.
Let us also note that there was a procedure that was required in order to be allowed into a city of refuge. It was not that you killed someone and ran to the city, but if you were fleeing from the avenger of blood you had to go on trial to demonstrate that you had killed someone accidentally and were not a murderer. As we will see later when we look at the rest of Numbers 35 as well as Deuteronomy 19, this was by no means an easy or straightforward task, as murder had a much broader meaning than we assume it to be the case nowadays, as we might guess from what we have seen so far in our examination of the subject. It is also of note that being allowed into a city of refuge meant that one was given a place in the city, presumably in some sort of apartment for accidental manslayers with other people seeking to preserve their lives from vengeful relatives until the death of the high priest, when they could return in peace to their hometowns after a spell in what amounted to a sort of house arrest. This law required a pretty extensive infrastructure of legal resources as well as housing and coordination among civil authorities within a town, so it makes sense that these cities of refuge ended up becoming so important within the history of Israel and Judah as nations.
Let us now return to Numbers 35:16-28 and look at the principles by which the priests and Levites were to differentiate between murder, which was to be punished by the death penalty, and manslaughter, which was to be treated with a sort of imprisonment within the city of refuge for however long the current high priest lived. Numbers 35:16-28 reads: “But if he strikes him with an iron implement, so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. And if he strikes him with a stone in the hand, by which one could die, and he does die, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. Or if he strikes him with a wooden hand weapon, by which one could die, and he does die, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. The avenger of blood himself shall put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death. If he pushes him out of hatred or, while lying in wait, hurls something at him so that he dies, or in enmity he strikes him with his hand so that he dies, the one who struck him shall surely be put to death. He is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when he meets him. However, if he pushes him suddenly without enmity, or throws anything at him without lying in wait, or uses a stone, by which a man could die, throwing it at him without seeing him, so that he dies, while he was not his enemy or seeking his harm, then the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood according to these judgments. So the congregation shall deliver the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall return him to the city of refuge where he had fled, and he shall remain there until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. But if the manslayer at any time goes outside the limits of the city of refuge where he fled, and the avenger of blood finds him outside the limits of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the manslayer, he shall not be guilty of blood, because he should have remained in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest. But after the death of the high priest the manslayer may return to the land of his possession.”
It was by no means an easy thing to assess the issue of blood guilt. If someone killed someone with a weapon or implement that was known to be deadly in an altercation, it was capital murder and the murderer was to be put to death–this included iron implements, stones, and wooden implements, to say nothing of knives, guns, or other weapons or tools like vehicles, all of which are known to be deadly in the hands of the angry. In addition, if someone was killed by someone who had known hostility to them, even things like pushing someone would be viewed as murder rather than an accident, even if the death occurs after a fistfight. It is only if someone pushed or hit someone else suddenly, without a history of hostility between the two people, and without an expectation that such a thing could end up being deadly, that allowed the manslayer to be judged as not a murderer and therefore allowed to live. And even then, the passage explicitly says that if the manslayer who has been given asylum leaves the city and the avenger of blood catches him outside the city and kills him, the avenger of blood shall himself be without bloodguilt in so doing. It therefore was in the best interests of a manslayer, even one who had only killed someone accidently or negligently, to do nothing to forfeit their security by leaving the city of refuge, even if that could be a very long period if the high priest was young and healthy at the time of the death.
Let us now continue with Numbers 35 and finish the chapter in verses 29 through 34. Numbers 35:29-34 reads: “ ‘And these things shall be a statute of judgment to you throughout your generations in all your dwellings. Whoever kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the testimony of witnesses; but one witness is not sufficient testimony against a person for the death penalty. 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. And you shall take no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the priest. 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.’”
Here we see some additional notes about the establishment of the justice system of ancient Israel and the principles it would operate by which remain relevant for our own contemporary justice system and concerns of justice and equity about how it is enforced. From this passage we notice that there is a concern about the sufficiency of the evidence that is required to put someone to death, to preserve the safety of people from frivolous prosecution that could end up in death by insufficient and possibly false witnesses. Similarly, once someone had been convicted of either murder or manslaughter, there was to be no acceptance of a ransom to deliver them from the consequences of their actions. The wealthy could not buy their survival from the death penalty nor buy their freedom from being limited to the boundaries of the city of refuge. Similarly, we note here that murder and violence are one of the things that defile a land. Remember this thought, because we will return to it, God willing, when we talk about how sexual sins also defile and pollute a land and lead to divine judgment as part of our discussion about the boundaries of the seventh commandment.
At this point, though, we are still not done with the law concerning the establishment of cities of refuge or the institutions of government that were affected by the efforts to combat violence within ancient Israel. We have one more passage to look at today, so let us turn now to Deuteronomy 19:1-13. Here we are reminded of what was at stake in the determination of the boundaries of murder as well as its punishment. Deuteronomy 19:1-13 reads: “When the Lord your God has cut off the nations whose land the Lord your God is giving you, and you dispossess them and dwell in their cities and in their houses, you shall separate three cities for yourself in the midst of your land which the Lord your God is giving you to possess. You shall prepare roads for yourself, and divide into three parts the territory of your land which the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, that any manslayer may flee there. “And this is the case of the manslayer who flees there, that he may live: Whoever kills his neighbor unintentionally, not having hated him in time past— as when a man goes to the woods with his neighbor to cut timber, and his hand swings a stroke with the ax to cut down the tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies—he shall flee to one of these cities and live; lest the avenger of blood, while his anger is hot, pursue the manslayer and overtake him, because the way is long, and kill him, though he was not deserving of death, since he had not hated the victim in time past. Therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall separate three cities for yourself.’ “Now if the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as He swore to your fathers, and gives you the land which He promised to give to your fathers, and if you keep all these commandments and do them, which I command you today, to love the Lord your God and to walk always in His ways, then you shall add three more cities for yourself besides these three, lest innocent blood be shed in the midst of your land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and thus guilt of bloodshed be upon you. “But if anyone hates his neighbor, lies in wait for him, rises against him and strikes him mortally, so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and bring him from there, and deliver him over to the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with you.”
Here we see what it is that made murder murder, the guilt of innocent blood. This guilt ran multiple ways, as we may well understand. Someone could be a murderer multiple ways. Killing someone who was innocent of a sin worthy of death was bloodguilt. Killing an armed robber in the night, or avenging the death of an innocent relative, or putting to death a false prophet, or executing capital punishment according to the standards of biblical law, none of these involved the spilling of innocent blood, and so none of them counted as murder. But as we saw when looking at Ezekiel 33, refusing to warn someone of judgment also brought bloodguilt because even the wayward and disobedient deserve the opportunity to repent and avoid divine judgment, and that opportunity can only come from those who know and are willing to express the standards of God for righteousness. As we saw in the case of Satan as well as the laws relating to the city of refuge, to hate someone and to have a history of hostility with them was enough to make someone a murderer in case someone was killed by an accident or led to act in such a way that led to their death as happened to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
The Bible is very clear about what resulted from this bloodguilt. The guilt of blood polluted the land. This could lead to divine judgment on individuals guilty of bloodshed, on communities that fostered and tolerated violence within their gates, and on nations that refused to enforce God’s standard of justice against those guilty of murdering human beings created in the image and likeness of God. Numbers 35:33 reminds us that bloodshed pollutes the land, and the only atonement that is accepted for murder is the death of the murderer. Indeed, as we saw in Deuteronomy 20, the pollution of violence was serious enough that rituals and investigations were required to deliver towns from the bloodguilt of unknown victims found in their vicinity.
Let us also note, in closing, that the efforts of God’s law in combating and limiting violence and hatred and murder led to the establishment of a great deal of Israel’s governments. The establishment of capital punishment as a responsibility of the state against evildoers came about because of the tendency of violence within early humanity, affirmed in both Genesis and Romans. Efforts to define and distinguish the boundaries of murder from either accidental death or legitimate punishment forced the development of the legal system in ancient Israel, where witnesses were inquired, the histories of the deceased and the killer were examined for evidence of enmity between them, and where the physical infrastructure of Israel was increased in order to provide for cities for accidental killers to live in safety for prolonged periods of time up to decades in length, and roads for such people to escape the violence of the avenger of blood. When we examine the subject of murder and its boundaries in the Bible, we find that it is far more relevant to us than we may initially believe. Few of us may be violent to pick up a weapon and put someone to death in anger or resentment. But how many of us harbor hatred or resentment in our hearts, or might not be willing to warn someone that their course of action will end in disaster because secretly we wish that they might come to harm? When we look into what the Bible has to say about murder, how many of us find active hatred or a lack of outgoing love and concern for others in our hearts?