Laws of Retaliation

Exodus 21:12-32

Monday the jury found Timothy McVeigh guilty in the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing that killed 168 two years ago. Now they are faced with the difficult decision of life in prison or the death penalty for McVeigh.

One famous defense attorney who has vigorously opposed capital punishment favors the death penalty in this case. Is the issue how heinous a crime an individual committed against another individual or society?

McVeigh’s defense attorney is appealing to the humane and the prosecuting attorney is attempting to show him to be abominable.

Should Timothy McVeigh receive the death penalty because his crime is outrageous? Does the fact that he took part in the killing of so many people make a difference? Shouldn’t his sentence be the same if only one person died in the bombing?

If you were sitting on the jury, would you vote for or against the death sentence? Why?

On June 29, 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Furman versus Georgia that the death penalty, as it had been imposed, was “cruel and unusual” punishment. This decision was hailed by many as a milestone in man’s advance toward a more civilized and humane society. The Furman decision had not suspended the death penalty entirely but merely invalidated current practices.

In 1976, a landmark decision by the High Court upheld the death penalty in the case of Gregg versus Georgia. Yet, the Supreme Court has made it virtually impossible for states to enforce with reasonable promptness their constitutionary valid capital punishment statutes.

History is a series of cycles that repeat with different participants. The present circumstance of the law and the state’s inability to carry it out is not new.

Among Jews, despite the provisions of the Mosaic Law, the Talmudic authorities seem to have been convinced that it was not within the province of human beings to punish other human beings by taking life; only God had that right. However, they could not override the Biblical command or set it aside completely by another kind of punishment. Instead they interpreted the Biblical law by making legal restrictions so numerous that it became virtually impossible to impose a death sentence.

Jews were torn between their respect for Biblical authority which commanded the death penalty, and their own conviction that they were not qualified to pass such judgment. This tension gave rise to many conflicting statements in the Talmud regarding capital punishment. Eventually, of course, the Jewish courts lost to the Roman government the right of deciding capital cases.

It is significant that Jesus recognized and submitted to Pilate’s authority and power to execute Him in John 19:10-11—

Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.

Jesus did not challenge Pilate’s authority to execute capital punishment, though this would have been the proper place to have done so, especially since Pilate would be misusing his power in a miscarriage of justice. The misuse of this power does not deny it exits rightfully!

The Apostle Paul recognized the state’s authority to execute capital punishment and its citizen to be in subjection to the governing authorities. Paul wrote in Romans 13:1-4—

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

Human government has been ordained of God for dispensing justice, because of the depravity of man. Due to man’s depravity, force must often be exercised. This is the power of the sword. Such force may contrast with the message of the Gospel, but it is necessary. No state is able to long to dispense with the sword.

Definitely, Jesus and Paul recognized the state’s power to execute a criminal under death sentence imposed by a governing authority. The failure of the state always to administer justice consistently is no cause for the abolition of capital punishment. Jesus, Paul, and the disciples, except John, were each executed by a miscarriage of justice. Yet, the NT does not abolish capital punishment. Instead, it lifts it up!

Today the question of capital punishment is usually debated on purely humanistic grounds. Such grounds involve the issues of whether the death penalty really deters murder, the fact that there is no possibility of rehabilitating the murderer, the question of society’s right to take life, and the belief that capital punishment is inhumane. Although these are important issues, other questions are either overlooked or regarded as irrevelant.

As we encounter Yahweh God on the pages of the OT, we discover that He habitually demands of mankind three things: righteousness, justice and fairness. Therefore, we need to ask is the death penalty RIGHT, JUST and FAIR?

Religious and theological considerations should enter into the very nature of the debate. But the Western concept of justice casts aside Biblical justice as medieval and barbaric. A number of protestant denominations along with the National Council of Churches have taken a public stand against the death penalty.

In fact, the question of JUSTICE has been set aside simply because such things are looked upon these days as purely relative; that is, society itself determines what is just or unjust, good or bad, right or wrong, fair or unfair.

What is right, just and fair are matters of Divine pronouncements, which are found in the Bible! This view is not popular, because it implies a Supreme Lawgiver to whom men are accountable. In the Book of the Covenant, we find many of God’s pronouncements on capital punishment.

When Cain killed Abel, God marked Cain so no one would take his life. There is no record that capital punishment occurred before Noah. The earliest record of the institution of capital punishment is Genesis 9:5-6—

And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.

Several factors in the context make clear that the Noahic Covenant and the mandate for capital punishment in it are enduring:

1. Seasons were instituted which continue as a part of the natural order.
2. The dread of man by animals continues as a basic relationship between man and the animal kingdom.
3. The eating of meat is still permitted.
4. No flood has again destroyed the earth, of which the rainbow serves as a continuing pledge.
5. The violation of the image of God continues to be a reason for exacting the extreme penalty.

These are factors that man takes for granted but which Scripture clearly identifies as provisions of the Noahic Covenant. They are obviously universal in scope, and no subsequent legislation by God or man would have affected them.

At the heart of the controversy over capital punishment is the philosophical debate over its purpose and function. In the Noahic Covenant, God says the purpose is retribution—BLOOD for BLOOD.

The capital punishment cases in THE BOOK OF THE COVENANT are based on this decree from God. LEX TALIONIS—the LAW OF RETRIBUTION—is RIGHT, JUST and FAIR!

RETRIBUTION should not be confused with PERSONAL RETALIATION. The Bible words translated AVENGE, VENGEANCE and AVENGER contain no thought of spiteful retaliation. Retribution is properly a satisfaction or, according to the ancient figure of justice and her scales, a restoration of a disturbed equilibrium. As such it is is a proper, legitimate, and moral concept.

The LORD demands, that is He requires retribution of the one who sheds the blood of man. This decree is the basis of government and protection of man.

REHABILITATION is not an issue in God’s law—justice is! Even God’s grace is based on justice. God forgives because the penalties of man’s crimes against His law have been paid by the death of Christ as the believer’s substitute. The Christian message concerns the grace of God but not to the neglect of the justice of God!

One frequently leveled charge is that capital punishment is no more than legalized murder. Certainly, God doesn’t think so in Genesis 9:5-6. And on the day Yahweh spoke the Sixth Commandment, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, He gave the law in Exodus 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.

Premeditated murder and involuntary homicide are covered in this law. It defines what is just, right and fair in God’s eyes.

PREMEDITATED MURDER is where a person schemes and kills another deliberately.

INVOLUNTARY HOMICIDE is where person kills another unintentionally or accidentally. God provided six Cities of Refuge—three on each side of the Jordan River—where taking hold of the horns of the altar provided immunity from punishment only if the fugitive had killed someone accidentally.

The Bible is clear that nothing happens outside the providence or permissive will of Yahweh—GOD LETS IT HAPPEN. We have no idea how many things God actually stops or controls through His powerful word and angels! But there are events where He justs LETS IT HAPPEN! Insurance companies call it AN ACT OF GOD—beyond human control!

Capital punishment in the Book of the Covenant runs deeper than LEX TALIONIS—RETRIBUTION Verses 15-17—

Anyone who attacks his father or his mother must be put to death. Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death. Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.

The death penalty for attacking or cursing one’s parents is an extension of the Fifth Commandment— HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER.

God’s law is much tougher than the Code of Hammurabi when it comes to abusing parents. It said “if a son has struck his father, they shall cut off his hand.” Yahweh says, “Execute him!” God’s law are intended to protect and preserve the family as well as parental authority.

CURSING in the ANE was widely practiced and a potent and effective means of releasing hostile, demonic forces upon an individual, not simply a parallel to modern profanity. Both blessing and the curse were understood as possessing objective reality with the inherent power necessary to bring about their own fulfillment. Any person who released evil forces upon his parents was to be executed because he violated the image of God in them.

KIDNAPPING is not a property offense since no property offense draws a capital punishment. It is the theft of a human being! Before the Civil War, the Supreme Court said the black slave was not a human being. And in 1977, they ruled in Everheart versus Georgia that rape and kidnapping do not warrant death, only murder and treason have been grounds for taking a life.

God’s opinion is that man-stealing is no less a crime than murder, being a sin against the dignity of man, and a violation of the image of God. Personal freedom is life itself. Patrick Henry cried, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”

Verses 18-32 are cases involving blows and wounds that for the most part do not end up as capital offenses. Succeeding jurists doubtless faced numerous specific decisions not found in this section, but through the concise examples cited here they were able to arrive a just decision in keeping with the spirit of God’s law.

Verses 18-19 deal with rightful compensation for injuries inflicted that results in loss of work—

If men quarrel and one hits the other with a stone or with his fist and he does not die but is confined to bed, the one who struck the blow will not be held responsible if the other gets up and walks around outside with his staff; however, he must pay the injured man for the loss of his time and see that he is completely healed.

Again, we see that the LORD is concerned with what is right, just and fair.

God’s law in verses 20-21 is unprecedented in the ANE where a master could treat his slave as he pleased—

If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.

The master had the right to discipline or chasten a slave with a stick. This right was involved in the paternal authority of the master over the servants in his possession. But the master could not abuse this authority. If he killed the slave, he would pay with his life.

Verses 22-25 describes men who are fighting, and one of them somehow unintentionally strikes a pregnant woman—

If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are 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.

The SERIOUS INJURY pertains to both the mother and child, and the life for life of verse 23 is an exception to the unintentional homicide of verse 13 due to the gravity of the crime. This law makes abortion a capital offense.

LIFE FOR LIFE, EYE FOR EYE, TOOTH FOR TOOTH, HAND FOR HAND, FOOT FOR FOOT, BURN FOR BURN, WOUND FOR WOUND, BRUISE FOR BRUISE—has prompted unfortunate popular understandings, giving it a barbaric sense. ANE parallels, however, have shown that its purpose is to provide equality before the law. The rich could not get by with fines in cases of physical violence. To be applied by the courts, not individuals, this law of retaliation marks an important advance in the
history of law.

The Law of Retaliation applied to free persons, but not to servants if death did not occur. Verses 26-27 protect the rights of servants to right, just and fair treatment by their masters—

If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth.

This law along with the one in verses 20-21 acted to control brutality against slaves at the point where it hurt the master and his pocketbook—he lost his investment. The economic sanctions against the owner were designed so the owner would be given plenty of reason to resist any abusive tactics for the sake of his financial investment even if he totally disregarded the slave’s dignity and worth as a human being.

The aim of this law was not to place the slave at the master’s mercy but to restrict the master’s power over him.

The divine intent of the law was to limit the punishment to fit the crime, not to provide opportunity for revenge. When Jesus invoked the law of love, He corrected any possible misunderstanding of the LAW OF RETALIATION with Matthew 5:38-42—

You have heard that it was 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 asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Verses 28-32—

If a bull gores a man or a woman to death, the bull must be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull must be stoned and the owner also must be put to death. However, if payment is demanded of him, he may redeem his life by paying whatever is demanded. This law also applies if the bull gores a son or a daughter. If the bull gores a male or female slave, the owner must pay thirty shekels of silver to the master of the slave, and the bull must be stoned.

Injuries caused by the goring of a bull was such a serious problem in the ANE that most of the major nonbiblical law codes contained sections dealing with it. God’s laws on goring are based on Genesis 9:5—

And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal.

A bull that killed someone became accountable for that person’s life. In the past month, a circus tiger and elephant each killed its trainer. Under God’s law, the tiger and elephant would be executed.

The owner of a habitually goring bull that killed someone was also subject to the death penalty, but he could redeem his own life by making whatever payment was demanded. Again, God’s law is right, just and fair, elevating the female—giving them equal rights with males.

If a slave was gored, the bull’s owner had to pay to the master of the slave thirty shekels of sliver. Apparently, this was the standard price for a slave. Thirty pieces of silver was the amount Judas was willing to accept for betraying Jesus—God’s Servant.

Law and Order are basic to human society. Because human nature is sinful, laws to regulate human relationships are essential. Only when laws are violated does it become necessary for governmental officials to intervene—not for reward, but to punish. Is that why so many people tend to fear or even despise law, whether civil or spiritual?

God’s law is holy. The Ten Commandments along with the laws of the Book of the Covenant are not a negative set of statutes to make God’s people miserable. They are a gracious gift from the LORD to insure the kind of community and nation that treats its people rightly, justly and fairly.

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