The Layperson’s Bible: Crime and Punishment Part III – Murder

In Biblical times, much like today, murder was an offense punishable by death. But also much like today, there were certain exceptions. In the Old Testament, the Lord directs the designation of cities of refuge for those who have committed justifiable or unintentional homicides. Qualifying offenders who are not legally subject to the death penalty may flee to these cities in order to escape the blood-vengeance of their victim’s families (Numbers 35:15).

Take, for example, the case of accidental homicide or manslaughter:

“And this is the case of the slayer, which shall flee thither, that he may live: Whoso killeth his neighbor ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past;
As when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbor to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbor, that he die; he shall flee unto one of those cities, and live:
Lest the avenger of the blood pursue the slayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and slay him; whereas he was not worth of death, inasmuch as he hated him not in time past.” (Deuteronomy 19:4-6)

The presence of malice aforethought is therefore key in determining the defendant’s guilt. Accidents may happen, and one whose temper flares suddenly and without warning is not held to the same level of culpability as one who plans a murder:

“But if he thrust him suddenly without enmity, or have cast upon him any thing without laying of wait,
Or with any stone, wherewith a man may die, seeing him not, and cast it upon him, that he die, and was not his enemy, neither sought his harm:
Then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the revenger of blood, and . . . restore him to the city of his refuge.” (Numbers 35:22-25)

Interestingly, the Old Testament also provides for extradition from the cities of refuge in the case of murder in the first degree:

“But if any man hate his neighbor, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally that he die, and fleeth into one of these cities:
Then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die.” (Deuteronomy 19:10-12)

The Bible also advises caution when judging capital offenses, requiring the confirmation of multiple witnesses before a defendant may be condemned to death:

“One witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die.” (Numbers 35:30)

“At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.” (Deuteronomy 17:6)

As we know, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is the Ninth Commandment, which I believe has its roots in the politics of its time. According to Claudius, in ancient Rome, persons accused of certain offenses could have their property confiscated by the state. Less honorable and more extravagant Emperors (Caligula, for example) were suspected of hiring witnesses to make false accusations against more prosperous citizens, thus boosting their coffers at the expense of the heirs. Of considerably less relevance today, this historical practice is likely the reason why that particular commandment was included among the original ten.

In the case of merely attempted manslaughter, the guilty party must recompense the other for his lost wages and medical bills:

“And if men strive together, and one smite another with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keepeth his bed:
If he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only shall he pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed.” (Exodus 21:18-19)

However, in accordance with popular legend, you are permitted to kill someone caught breaking and entering:

“If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him.” (Exodus 22:2)

In other words, even in Holy Writ, not all murders or murderers are alike. It’s not purely eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life; extenuating circumstances can and must be taken into account. Thus even the simplest system of justice must expand beyond mere right and wrong, sin and good; even an omnipotent God requires a myriad of rules to govern adequately the countless subtle nuances of human behavior. 

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