|Series Theme: Meditations in Lessons from the Law of Moses|
Meditation No. 17
Meditation Title: Capital Crimes
Ex 21:12-14 Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate. But if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately, take him away from my altar and put him to death.
The Law now moves on to cover murder and manslaughter. The Ten Commandments stated “You shall not murder.” This law spells out what should happen when that basic law has been broken. Note that we have said previously that the purpose of law is to restrain sin and act as a deterrent, but also to provide directions when it has not acted as a deterrent and people have disobeyed it and done the forbidden thing. How to handle that situation is what is at the heart of this law. Because it also goes against a norm that Western societies have taken on board, we also make note of the whole issue of capital punishment which arises here.
Behind our three verses today is the heart of criminal law: premeditated killing is murder; accidental killing is manslaughter. The basic law is that “Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death.” That is the starting point: it is wrong to kill someone – seriously wrong! But then comes a looking at the motivation for the act: “if he does not do it intentionally.” If it is unintentional that is different from “ if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately.” The secondary reason for assessing motivation, is because of what is going to follow. If it was manslaughter, then the perpetrator could flee to one of the cities of refuge: “When you cross the Jordan into Canaan , select some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that a person accused of murder may not die before he stands trial before the assembly. These six towns you give will be your cities of refuge.” (Num 35:10-13) There is within this additional law a realism and an awareness of human behaviour that is admirable. There is the awareness that even though it may have been manslaughter it may take time to prove that and in the meantime the close family of the person killed may be so incensed by the killing that they may want to go out and take revenge on the killer. That would not be justice. No, the cities of refuge were a device to thwart human anger.
But then we come to the penalty for murder – death! In Western societies, in our human wisdom, we have abolished the death penalty. Some of the reasons for it appear good reasons: the police may be corrupt or lazy and so evidence may have been tampered with or simply missed. Those are legitimate concerns especially in an age when DNA testing now questions a number of past ‘guilty' decisions. But in so doing this we appear almost casual sometimes about human life, for there are times when it is blatantly obvious that the person murdered another and there is no question about it. When a man carries a gun to carry out a robbery and then guns down a policeman in his escape and is immediately apprehended in full view of the on looking public, we demean the policeman, the killer and ourselves when we put the killer in prison for a number of years. Life suddenly means little. For God, life is the crucial ingredient of the world and it is not to be taken casually. Indeed when it is taken, there is to be a serious accounting.
Another reason for the abolishing of the death penalty is the claim that it is not a deterrent. As we said in an earlier meditation, it may not be for a few, but it will be for many. The horror of the death penalty is to be one of the things to acts as a deterrent. The law went on to demand that witnesses come forward and it is the witnesses and neighbours who are to be the executioners by stoning, a most gruesome form of execution – but that is the point. If you have taken part in or even witnessed such an execution, then you will do all in your power to avoid either that happening to you, or it having to happen to someone else. Oh yes, this was a deterrent and we have removed any such deterrent from modern society and we are witnessing the results!
In the following verses we see variants of the Law: “Anyone who attacks his father or his mother must be put to death.” (v.15) You will see in your Bible a footnote to the effect that the word ‘attacks' could mean ‘kills' This focuses the violence of death or attempted death on the sanctity of the family, which was the primary building block in that society that God was creating. Whether it is murder or attempted murder, when it applies to parents, then death is to follow. The consequences of the breakdown of society were too great; this must act as a deterrent.
Then comes, “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death.” (v.16) The taking away of life by kidnapping (not literal death) is considered just a heinous. We then come to a strange one (in modern eyes at least): “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” (v.17) A curse, here, is not a casual slanderous comment; it is a purposeful bringing of an occult curse that will have effect and as such, is put into the same category as the previous laws, for it has the same potential. Again it is linked with the sanctity of the family, the primary building block of society. That is why it is so serious and that is why it will seem so strange to us who live in a society where we are so casual about the family building block that we have made it easy for it to be broken up, and we do so little to support and strengthen it, allowing abuses of many kinds to continue almost unchecked.
If some of these laws seem strange or even abhorrent to us today, perhaps we should ask who has lost perspective – God or us? There is much to reflect upon in the light of the failures of our modern societies and the more we reflect the more, I suspect, we will change our thinking.