It’s one of the worst I’ve ever seen.  I will spare you the details but a man’s murder of his wife and children in Colorado was just terrible.  Even the judge was shell shocked.  But the surviving family asked the judge to put the man in jail for life, but not the death penalty.  That was a great act of mercy considering his actions.

Unintentional Deaths and the City of Refuge

The LORD told Moses when they were preparing to take the land that when they did, they were to designate six cities to serve as Cities of Refuge.  A City of Refuge was a place that if someone accidentally killed another, they could run to and find refuge.  No one was allowed to harm anyone in the city of refuge.

The man or woman stayed in the City of Refuge until their trial.  If at the trial it was deemed that the killing was unintentional, the person would live in the City of Refuge for as long as the high priest was alive.  Once the high priest passed away, they would be released and their crime absolved.  Any harm to them would be treated as any other crime.

If the person ever left the City of Refuge, the family of the deceased could harm and even kill them.  And the family would not be held responsible as the person had left the protection of the City of Refuge.

Murders out of Anger

If someone was angry with another and they struck them with an object of wood or stone or something else, and that person died, then the man or woman who struck the other was considered guilty.  The law required that they be put to death by the “avenger” or family of the deceased.

But if the person accidentally or unknowingly struck someone with an object and a person died, if there was no malicious intent as determined by a court, then the person could return to the City of Refuge.  He was to stay there until the passing of the high priest.

Murders Out of Malice

In all other murders that were intentional and done out of anger, the murderer was to be put to death.  It’s important to note that they could not receive the death penalty on the basis of one witness (v. 30).  There had to be multiple witnesses to the murder.

Furthermore no one was to accept a ransom to let the man free.  If he killed someone and was found to be the murderer by multiple witnesses, then that person was to die.

Why the Death Penalty?

First of all it’s important to note that there was a difference between governing bodies determining that the death penalty was to be enacted as opposed to the private citizen.  The private citizen was under no means allowed to execute the death penalty.  The death penalty had to be determined by a court that brought in witnesses and represented the governing authorities.  Big difference.

Secondly the death penalty was not just an issue of justice for the murdered, but because that murder defiled the land, “and there can be no atonement for the land because of the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of the person who shed it” (33:33).

Sin defiles the land.  And murder makes the land unclean.  The only atonement to restore the land was the death of the murderer whose murder was validated by witnesses and by the judicial authorities.

The Death Penalty Today?

This is a very sensitive issue for many.  In some countries just to mention the death penalty raises an angry ire from the common person.  In other countries the death penalty for violent criminals is an appropriate form of punishment.

On one side some will argue that this was Old Testament, that Jesus taught forgiveness of enemies and not to kill, and if this is accepted then we have to follow the other places where it says to enact the death penalty (rebelllious children, those engaging in sexual relationships with those of the same gender, etc…).  Furthermore this pertained mainly to the land of Israel because the LORD residing among the Israelites (v. 32)

On the other side some say that what Jesus taught was dedicated toward the private citizen and not towards the government.  The government has the right to “bear the sword” (Rom 13:4) in judicial matters when the circumstances are appropriate and the eye-witnesses present.  Additionally murder defiles the land and God has given governing authorities the right to bring justice.

Let’s look at what we see that is clear from this text:

  • Sin defiles the land. Murder makes the land unclean (v. 32)
  • If someone is to get the death penalty, there has to be more than one witness, presumably eyewitnesses (v. 30)
  • There must be protection for those who have killed unintentionally (v 25)
  • The person’s intent, accidental or out of anger, had to be taken into consideration (16-25)
  • There must be justice for those who have killed intentionally (v. 26-34
  • We have the teaching again that only blood (v. 33) is the way of atonement (therefore…Jesus)

Murder was not small.  It destroyed the image bearer of God.  Even more than that, it defiles the land and forever stops the ability for any would-be progeny.

God was a God of justice and expected justice to be enacted.  But there had to be a fair trial, eyewitnesses and intent determined.  But make no mistake, God took murder seriously.