A Life for a Life, an Eye for an Eye,
Wound for Wound and Bruise for Bruise

21: 12-32

    DIG: What affirmation of life and justice is conveyed by these death penalties (21:12-17)? How does God vigorously affirm the victims? Their families? Their property? How do these commandments expand the Ten Commandments? What is the purpose of these commandments? How would a quick-tempered person receive these commandments? How would a person with no convictions receive it?

    REFLECT: Would you vote for the death sentence if you were among jurors finding someone guilty of murder, as defined in 21:14? What do these laws say to the one who believes, “Don’t get mad, get even?” How easy is it for you to live up to the standard set forth here? What would be toughest for you to follow?

    The Bible is very clear on the matter of intentional murder. In no way was such a person to be pardoned or freed. Life, in essence, is the property of God; the possession of it is leased to human beings for a number of years. This lease can be extended if it is the LORD’s will. When a man took the life of another, by intentional murder, he violated one of the essential commandments of ADONAI and therefore forfeited his own right to life.412

    Anyone who was guilty of premeditated murder and struck a man and killed him was put to death (21:12). However, if he didn’t do it intentionally, but God allowed it to happen, he was to flee to a place God designated (21:13). This person could escape to one of the six cities of refuge after Israel was in the Land (Numbers 35:6-34; Deuteronomy 19:1-13; Joshua 20:1-9, 21:13, 21, 27, 32, 38). These were set up in convenient locations so that one charged with manslaughter could be protected from vengeance until the matter in which he was involved could be settled.413 The rabbis taught that even in the wilderness there was a place of refuge for accidental homicides, and it was situated in the encampment of the Levites. Once there, he was not to be punished. But, on the other hand, if a man schemed and killed another deliberately, God said that he should be taken away from His altar and be put to death (21:14).

    Because of the importance of the sanctity of the family and the home, anyone who attacked his father or his mother was put to death (21:15). The family was and is the basis of society. It must be protected or the entire society would disintegrate. This was emphasized in the Fifth Commandment.

    The crime of kidnapping also deserved the death penalty. Anyone who kidnapped another, and either sold him or still possessed him when he was caught, was also put to death (21:16). This reflected the biblical teaching of the value, worth, and dignity of men and women created in the image of God. Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death (21:17). The fifth commandment stated that children were to honor your father and your mother (20:12). The Hebrew word honor is kabed, and literally means to be heavy. This verse uses the antonym, curse, which literally means the opposite of honoring someone; it means to treat someone with contempt and humiliation.414 The Bible takes the honoring of parents rather seriously.

    In a physical quarrel the injured party, whether or not the injury was premeditated, was to be given compensation for his loss of work and medical expenses.415 If men quarrel and one hit the other with a stone or with his fist and he did not die but was confined to bed, the one who struck the blow was not held responsible if the other got up and walked around outside with his staff; however, the offender needed to pay the injured man for the loss of his time and see to it that he was completely healed (21:18-19).

    Slaves were not to be treated harshly by their masters, even though they were considered property. If a man beat his male or female slave with a rod and the slave died as a direct result, the master was punished. But he is not to be punished if the slave got up after a day or two, since the slave was his property (21:20-21). The master was given the benefit of the doubt when maltreatment of his slaves resulted in their death but no premeditation was proved.

    Unborn babies were protected. If men who were fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gave birth prematurely but there was no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. The unborn fetus was viewed in this passage as just as much a human being as its mother; the abortion of a fetus was considered murder.416 But if there was serious injury the punishment needed to fit the crime, they were to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise (21:22-25). A person’s physical loss by injury was to be punished by the law of retaliation (Leviticus 24:19-20; Deuteronomy 19:21). The intent of the Torah was to limit the punishment to fit the crime (what a concept), not to provide opportunity for vengeance.

    However, the law of retaliation did not apply to a master who injured his slave. If a man hit a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroyed it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the loss of the eye. And if he knocked out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the loss of the tooth (21:26-27). Any permanent injury to a slave would set him or her free.

    ADONAI also gave regulations concerning injuries inflicted by animals. The goring bull that caused death or injury was such a serious problem in ancient times that most of the major non-biblical law codes also contained regulations dealing with it. If a bull gored a man or a woman to death, the bull was stoned to death. Its meat was not eaten even by a Gentile, neither was it given as food for dogs. The owner was not to derive any benefit from the condemned animal. But the owner of the bull was not held responsible (21:28). If, however, the bull had the habit of goring, and the owner was warned but did not kept it penned up and it subsequently killed another man or woman, the bull was stoned and the owner was also put to death (21:29).

    However, the death penalty could be avoided if he came up with financial compensation demanded of him by the dead person’s family. This law also applied if the bull gored a son or daughter. If the bull gored a male or female slave, the owner of the bull had to pay thirty shekels of silver to the master of the slave, and the bull was also stoned (30-32). Apparently thirty pieces of silver was the standard price for a slave. It was the amount Judas was willing to accept for betraying Yeshua (Matthew 26:14-15; also see Zechariah 11:12-13).417

    In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made the following statement: You have heard it said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who ask you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you (Matthew 5:38-42). Many of the Jewish leaders in the time of the Christ were insisting upon the retaliation so much that there was no room for mercy. In other words, the principle had become very legalistic. They had become eager to punish and slow to show mercy. When Jesus gave commandments about love, He corrected any possible misunderstanding about retaliation.418


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