What are your thoughts concerning punishment? Our society doesn’t seem to like the word. There is this thought out there that if you punish a person, you will only succeed in making them sneakier. In other words, they will continue to perform the negative behavior, but they will do so in a way that avoids detection. Maybe. But if there is no punishment, they will continue the behavior openly. Awhile back, my wife was struck by a student while she was working in a school. This young man faced no punishment. He didn’t have to sneak. He knew that nothing would be done; that there would be no enforced consequence. So, good job everyone! We have avoided creating sneaky children. Now, they hit adults, throw computers, hurl F bombs, throw tantrums all out there in the open. And in our society, they are then given a reward.
Exodus 21:12-27 continues God’s guiding judgments. How do you live in community? If a person strikes another person and kills him, how does community respond? Do we spend all our resources trying to help the poor murderer find himself? Now, here’s the thing, I am all for rehabilitation; for showing compassion to all people – including murderers. I am not at all sure what I think about capital punishment in today’s world, under the new covenant. But I do know that if there is zero forced consequence, evil will strut down main street and community will be torn to pieces. God’s community guiding principles was if a person kills, that person is to be executed. And God also provided some caveats. If the man didn’t plot it out and ambush the other person, well, then God would provide a place of refuge. From verse 14 this fleeing place seems to be the altar. But if it is discovered that the person was arrogant and cunning in his murderous deeds, they are allowed to drag him away from the altar and execute him. In 1 Kings 1:49-53 there is a story of Adonijah seeking refuge by grabbing onto the horns of the altar.
If a person strikes or curses their parents they are to experience the enforced consequence of death. Both of these would be a breaking of the fifth command to honor parents. The word “curse” can mean anything from “treat lightly” to “treat with contempt.” It is most likely the latter that is being derailed here. This is more than curbing rebellious children. This is about not allowing contemptuous people to tear at the fabric of community by spewing blows and curses at those who deserve honor. Another “death penalty” offense is stealing people in order to sell them as slaves. If a person has sold or is holding a person to be sold, the offending person is to be executed. Under Yahweh’s guiding principles for his community there were crimes that warranted the enforced consequence of death.
Let’s say that two people are brawling in the field and one snatches up a rock, or maybe he just has rock hard fists, and he strikes the other person but doesn’t kill him. What will best serves the community here? The one who did the striking is responsible to pay for all lost wages and medical expenses. Sounds fair. If a man strikes a male or female slave with a rod and kills them, he will face the enforced consequence of suffering vengeance. This most likely means execution. But what if two men are brawling and a pregnant woman gets hit in the process? Let’s say there is no resulting death, but a premature birth. The husband and some judges get together and decide what the fine should be. But whatever injury is caused, that same injury is to become an enforced consequence. Life for life; an eye for an eye, etc. Most sources will point out that the nature of this command is to keep the punishment from escalating. You are not allowed to force the consequence of cutting off an arm if the initial offense was a bruise. That sort of thing. But what if a master hits a slave and pokes out an eye or knocks out a tooth? The slave is to be set free. Mistreat your slaves and the enforced consequence is that you lose them. Most cultures did not have laws to protect slaves.
When we look at Old Testament commands we will get into all manner of trouble if we try to impose those commandments on our culture. I cannot use this passage to argue for or against the death penalty. I am not bound by the Old Law. But there is an important principle here. If community is to thrive or even survive, crime cannot be winked at. Negative behavior cannot be rewarded. There must be guiding principles that keep the community healthy. If there are no enforced consequences, our children will rise up and strike adults without feeling a twinge of guilt or even uneasiness. Dishonoring parents will boil over to a complete lack of respect for anyone or anything. A community without respect is a scary thing. Peace.