If you walk your dog in the park, and he runs away and bites someone, what is your obligation? If your dog kills a child, what should happen? How should the law treat those who kidnap or lure young girls and boys to become sex slaves? If a drunk driver strikes a vehicle carrying a pregnant mother, and she and her unborn child dies, how many persons have died and what should happen to the drunk driver? If a child wanders into a fenceless back yard with a swimming pool, falls in and drowns, what should happen to the owner of the property? These are not theoretical questions, for the news is filled with these kinds of tragedies. The laws God gave to Moses deal with these exact issues, but our justice is increasingly determined by political allegiances and what is called social justice, which is usually mob vengeance and covetousness masquerading as true justice. In the church, we should know better, for God has given us his word to guide us. He is concerned about our life in this world. Our founding Christian fathers understood this, and many of their original colonial charters incorporated the provisions found in these very lies. Why did they do what today is viewed as blundering prejudice and religious bigotry?
It was not because they thought that the church should rule society (ecclesiocracy) or that there was no separation between church and state. They read the Bible comprehensively. Church and state have separate and distinct missions, governments, and sanctions, but each is to see itself as being under God’s authority. Thus, they understood that God gave these social and case laws to Moses as a guide for all nations (Deut. 4:6-9). Our wisdom is to learn humbly in his school of justice. It is not that our laws must conform in every detail to what he gave Israel, but the principles of justice, the meting out of punishment, belongs to him. He is the only Governor of the nations (Ps. 22:27), and he expects “the powers that be” to function as his servants, or they rob him of his honor and assume to themselves an authority he has never given to them. We are not free to make up our own version of justice. The earth is his; all the nations belong to him. Jesus Christ is now the King of every king, and the Lord of every Lord (1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 1:5). Earth will never be heaven, but he is the Righteous King and will establish his righteous peace and justice on the earth (Jer. 23:5). The church in the West once believed this, but we have abandoned the wisdom of our fathers. And justice is fled far away because truth is fallen down in the streets (Isa. 59:14). Let us pray the Lord will have mercy and revive us again.
God’s Principle for Justice
The Principle Stated (vv.24-25)
When it comes to crime and punishment in life and property issues, the justice God requires of us is stated in vv. 24-25: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. This is sometimes called the lex talionis, which means the “law of the same,” and by extension, the “law of retribution.” Some say “retaliation,” but the intent is not personal vengeance, as if justice is exercising restraint when God says “punish like this.” This principle is often dismissed as barbarism, but it was very advanced for its time, when minor offenses and theft was punishable by debt. It remains very advanced today! Until not too long ago, theft of a sheep was punished with death, and this was truly barbaric, even in merry old England. God is much wiser. He says in effect, the punishment must fit the crime. Penalties should not go past the crime, for then you are retaliating, and justice becomes personal or political vengeance, as we see today. Thus, it is unjust for a jury to award vast sums of money to a plaintiff for injuries he receives from misusing lawn equipment or making personal lifestyle decisions in the use of products that he knew might harm him. When justice is aimed at making the rich pay, whether rich men or rich corporations, Lady Justice does not have her eyes covered and her sword pointing down to the Bible. Instead, she has a smirk on her face and dollar signs in her eyes. This is not God’s justice but the tendency of man’s, especially where there has been some gospel light that was abandoned in favor of deadly Enlightenment theories of man, society, and justice.
The Principle Maligned (Matthew 5:38-45)
Some in the church bring forward our Savior’s word to denounce the lex talionis as a relic of more primitive times, but this betrays great misunderstanding of the times in which he lived and the intent of his words. The Pharisees utilized Exodus 21:24-25 as justification for personal vengeance. You could love your friends, but hate your enemies – for they hate you. Their rule was, “Do unto others as they do unto you, and try to do it before they do it to you!” If someone accuses you of a sin, you should defend yourself by hurling counter-accusations at them – as we see in many marriages and church courts today! Thus, his “you have heard that it was said” no more renounces the authority of God’s law in this case as when he used the same language to preface his teaching about the 6th or 7th commandments. How could he whose delight was God’s law (Ps. 40:6-8) and who had a few minutes earlier upheld its authority until the end of the world (Matt. 5:17-20)), almost with his next breath do away with it? He did not. He recovered God’s precious word. The lex talionis is not justification for personal vengeance. Its sphere is public justice, the upholding of God’s authority over life and property. In our personal relationships, we are to forgive one another and cover sins with love, extending mercy as we have been shown mercy. Our enemies may hate us, but we are to love them. If they treat us meanly and unjustly, we are to do them good and extend every courtesy to them, like our Father treats his enemies, that we may be his children. In matters affecting public justice, God’s principle for justice remains clear. The punishment must fit the crime; true justice keeps its eye upon his holiness and authority over us, and it is not to be the puppet of the political issues of the day or respect persons based upon social standing, power, or wealth.
Crime and Punishment (vv. 12-27)
Murder and Manslaughter (vv. 12-14)
God makes a distinction between willful murder and unintentional killing, or manslaughter. A life has been taken in both cases, and justice must be meted out, but the penalty is different. Willful murder must be punished by death. That we have added all kinds of other steps before murder becomes capital murder is a perversion of justice. A murder must be put to death. God owns life. All murder is a direct attack against him as the Lord of life and an attack against his image in man. Allowing a murderer to rot away in prison is not justice but man yielding to other concerns rather than fearing and obeying God. Nothing can deliver the willful murderer from being put to death – not even holding on the horns of the altar, as Adonijah did when he tried to save himself from Solomon (1 Kings 1:50-51). The murderer might be forgiven for his crime, but God’s mercy upon his soul does not deliver him on earth from criminal liability for his actions. If the murderer seeks refuge at God’s very altar, he must be dragged away and put to death. The land is defiled by the shedding of blood. All the earth belongs to God and his Christ, and therefore this remains God’s will.
If a man kills another man accidentally, the land is still defiled, which is the reason he must flee to the nearest city of refuge (Num. 35; Josh. 20:2-6). There his case will be heard and the avenger of blood, likely a close family member, must not kill him as long as he is there. If it turns out that the killing was indeed willful murder, the elders of the city must give up the man to the avenger. If he is not guilty of willful murder, he must remain in the city of refuge until the high priest dies – likely a symbol of the death of the great High Priest, our Lord Jesus Christ, whose blood alone cleanses men of their sins. Thus, all taking of human life, willful murder or manslaughter, is serious. If a man was innocent of willful murder, his life was nonetheless fundamentally altered. In our day, perhaps one application of the manslaughter provision is that if the killing is proven to be truly accidental, there should be weeping and prostration in the community, public confessions of faith in Jesus Christ, and appropriation of his blood through community leadership-led prayer for the forgiveness of the community.
Parricides, Kidnappers, and Parent Haters (vv.15,17; Matt. 15:4)
Objection is often given to studying these laws, that we now live in a secular world and that the church has more pressing concerns. Even one sermon on such topics is a wasted hour. What? Do we not wish at least to know how what course and standard our Savior’s justice in the earth will follow? Will there be any other standard for him whose delight is his Father’s law than that which he gave once to Moses (Deut. 4:6-9)? Admittedly, only a thankful people made righteous by God’s grace in Christ and wanting to please him in their social arrangements will take this part of God’s word seriously, and let us pray that day is not too far off. Perhaps the Romans were not that barbaric after all, for whom the prescribed punishment for killing a parent was to sew up the killer in a leather bag, together with a cock, a dog, and a viper, and then throw the bag in the nearest river. Parent-killing is God-killing. If his authority is not respected in the home, it will be respected nowhere else. God prescribes death for the parricide. The same penalty is assigned to the one who curses his father or mother – not a curse uttered in a moment of frustration but a long-standing despising of parental authority, harsh outbursts against parents, and refusal to listen to their commands and entreaties. This punishment is aimed at older, adult children, as later legislation will make clear (Deut. 21:18-21). God will have parents honored. Our Savior affirmed this very penalty against the Pharisees, who thought nothing of dishonoring parents (Matt.15:4). The apostles said the same (Rom. 1:30; 2 Tim. 3:2). Bitter is the alternative to God’s family structure – parenting by pleading and compromise, pacifying through entertainment, and controlling through medication.
As for kidnappers, death is the penalty. This would apply to the slave trade of the 18-19th centuries, which brought such death and destruction to our society. Perhaps many died from 1861-1865 because God inflicted us with a national death penalty, North and South, for our perpetuation of this abominable practice. And if we want to end sex-trafficking, we should heed God’s wisdom – public executions. O, but we have become too enlightened for that. The death penalty is barbaric. It does not deter. God is not as interested in deterrence, although it will deter, as in upholding his authority over men and nations, as well as protecting the most vulnerable, usually children, from the clutches of evil men. True barbarism is when men prefer their versions of justice to that of the Lord of heaven and earth. The lives even of those who do not know him belong to him. Human life is not cheap but dear to him, but our lives become cheapened and precarious when we do not yield ourselves to be governed by him.
Cases of Personal Injury (vv. 18-21)
Men sometimes fight and inflict bodily injury upon one another. If a fight results in death, then death is the penalty for the murderer. If a non-lethal injury results, then the attacker must pay his victim for the loss of his time, i.e., the wages that he would otherwise have earned. Punitive damages are unjust and vengeful. Servants are also protected from violent masters. It is assumed that the master has a right to corporally correct his servant, but if he kills his servant, he must be put to death. If the servant does not die immediately but later, then the loss of the servant’s life is a pecuniary loss to the master, and he must bear it as his punishment. This may seem unjust, for even if the servant dies later, it would seem that a murder has been committed. God respects the property rights of the master, and it is assumed not that a slave’s life is worth less than other lives, for this would go again v. 20. It is assumed that there may be circumstances in the death of the slave – already existing health conditions, poor care for his wounds, as well as the fact that few masters would intentionally kill their servants – that make the loss of his servant sufficient punishment for his cruelty. And since in Israel the master-servant relationship was voluntary, what man would engage himself to be the servant of a master reputed for violent dealings. Thus, the master’s entire livelihood would be ruined. By this law, violent masters were given a warning, for if they directly killed a servant, they would be put to death. And if they chose to correct corporally, they must do so with moderation – much like a father must not provoke his children to anger or frustrate them by his harsh ways (Eph. 6:4). Masters, like fathers, were to exercise tender regard to their servants – a far cry from Greek and Roman and Caribbean slavery, and, sadly, a far cry from today’s impersonal corporatism that treats employees like cattle.
Mothers and Unborn Children (vv. 22-23)
This law also exposes the unfeeling barbarism that many in our day have toward unborn children. God, however, considers unborn life to be life. If two men fight and a pregnant woman is stuck so that her child is born prematurely, the wife’s husband may lay upon the assailant a monetary penalty as determined by the judges. If her unborn child dies, assumedly either in the womb or after birth as a result of the blow, then the assailant shall be put to death – life for life. The implications of this law are profound for our permissive abortion practices. First, the unborn child is a human life and comes under legal protection. No trimester is delineated, which is a but a clever way for Satan to murder by deceiving men into thinking they are wiser than God in knowing when life begins. Second, by application, an abortion doctor would be subject to the death penalty in a godly society, as would the woman who intentionally kills her unborn child. That so many think this is unjust and ludicrous only exposes that Satan has deceived so many millions, who in their thinking upon this point have more in common with the eugenics murderers in the early 20th century, population control devils, and the evils of Stalin and Hitler. When men embrace evolutionary views of man, in denying God, they kiss the devil. His dance is death. Professing themselves to be wise, they become fools – murdering fools (Rom. 1:22).
Servants Protected from Violence (vv. 26-27)
A servant’s life belongs to God, not to his earthly master, who has but a claim upon his work, not upon his life. The additional laws protecting the servant’s life and his ability to provide for himself show God’s tender regard for the most vulnerable in society. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, apply not only to the life of the unborn child, over whose life God proclaims himself a vigilant protector and avenger, but also to the servant. If a man strikes the eye of his maid or manservant, and the eye is lost, the servant goes free. The same penalty ensures for knocking out his tooth. Are eyes and teeth equivalent? No, but the master’s violence is equally restrained and punished. The tendency of this law put all masters on alert – treat your servants leniently and carefully. It is difficult enough that they are servants, but make their burdens easier to bear – for love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom. 13:10). From this we learn that those who have authority and legal right in the labor of others must nevertheless treat their servants or employees with dignity and kindness. Servitude is not degrading if masters treat their servants with gentleness, and servants obey their master unto the Lord, as the gospel teaches us to do (1 Tim. 6:1-2; Tit. 2:9).
God’s Protection of Man’s Life (vv.28-36)
When Your Animal Injures or Kills Another (vv. 28-32)
When men turn from God’s law, their society becomes truly dystopian. Thus, a man who kills a rodent or a dog is treated with contempt and sometimes punished with fines or imprisonment for cruelty. Behold, the logical conclusion of evolution – step on an ant, go to jail. But if a dog wounds or kills a child or bystander, the owner pleads for his animal to be isolated for a time and then released, and treats his animals as if it were a human being. Surely, a “merciful man kindly regards the life of his animal “(Prov. 12:10), so that cruelty to animals, while not criminal, is certainly evidence of a corrupted nature. But if a man’s ox (or his dog) kills a man, the animal must be put to death. The owner is not punished (v. 28). But if it is known that the ox was prone to gore, and if the owner was told but did not restrain him, then that owner must be put to death; he is accessory to murder (v. 29). He might save his life by paying an agreed upon price, which must have been very high (v. 30). If the victim was a family member, the same penalty was required (v. 31). If a servant was gored by the animal, the animal must be killed, although the owner could be recompensed for the life of his animal – assuming that the provisions of v. 29 were not in play. The purpose of this law is to teach us that we are responsible for the lives of those around us, and we are responsible for the injuries caused by our animals: life for life, tooth for tooth, eye for eye. One unpopular application of this law would pertain to dog breeds known for violence. If someone must own one of these dogs, then he must keep it carefully penned. If the dog breaks free and bites, the owner must pay. If his particular dog is known for escaping and attacking, and he is warned but does not restrain the animals, and it does further damage, he may be liable with his life.
Preventive Measures (vv. 33-36)
In Egypt, the life of an Israelite was cheap. Throw the baby boys in the river! Beat the slaves! The Lord taught his people a very different lesson, and one that should have encouraged their hearts, that he holds precious the life even of a slave. And this lesson extends to our immovable property. If you dig a pit, cover it up (v. 33). If you do not, and an animal falls into it, the owner has to pay damages (v. 34). If a man’s ox caused injury to his neighbor, the animal must be sold and the proceeds split between the owner and the injured (v. 35). If the ox was known to gore, and the owner does not pen it carefully, if it kills another man’s ox, then he must cover his neighbor’s loss. Most of us no longer own large livestock, but some of us do not repair our rickety steps, or do not properly fence or secure animals or power equipment, or do not lock up our firearms. We must love one another more fervently, and a large part of our love is removing potential dangers to others. This does not justify government bureaucracies creating a host of laws to prevent potential dangers, and then penalizing those who do not comply. God’s law is more personal than this, even in its social functions. Each one of us has the duty to regard life as his gift, to preserve it as far as we can from injury or death, and to take personal responsibility for any consequences that might occur as a result of our negligence.
Profiting from God’s Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. How do these laws reveal the need for a clear, objective standard for civil justice?
2. What is the lex talionis? What does it teach about God’s principle for civil justice?
3. How did Jesus correct the Pharisees’ abuse of the lex talionis? What did he not do with the principle?
4. What is God’s prescribed punishment for murder? For what reasons?
5. How would society change/improve by obeying Exodus 21:15,17, and Matthew 15:4? Why is this so shocking for us to consider?
6. What happened to a master that kills his servant? Implications????
7. How does God’s law view an unborn baby?
8. How does God’s law protect servants? Warn and restrain masters?
9. What are the implications of the ox-goring laws for pet ownership, i.e., dog bites, mauling, etc.?