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Exodus 21:12-32; Capital Punishment – The Wages of Sin

10/16 Exodus 21:12-32 Capital Punishment; The Wages of Sin

How to Right the Wrong When You Fall Short

We are in Exodus 21, the Book of the Covenant, and today we come to a section of God’s laws where he addresses capital offenses. God has laid out his perfect standard in chapter 20, in his ten words spoken to his people. He said:

Exodus 20:12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

13 “You shall not murder.

15 “You shall not steal.

These are absolute statements. They are commands. The assumption is ‘this is how people in relationship with the living God live. There is no ‘what if’ or ‘what about….’ God has spoken authoritatively to what life should look like in his kingdom.

And remember the response of his people. They were terrified at the presence of God and asked that he speak no more to them directly or they would die. They felt their guilt and inadequacy before God. They knew they didn’t live up to his perfect standards. They requested a mediator, a go-between to keep them safe. God is now speaking to Moses, who will write God’s words and communicate them to the people.

In this section, God tells his people what to do when they violate his perfect standard. He addresses the distinction in consequences between manslaughter and premeditated homicide, consequences for kidnapping, consequences for disrespect of parents, consequences for injuries and disabilities short of death, consequences for harming an innocent bystander, and consequences for negligent homicide.

We Have Wronged God

So God lays down his perfect standard. Then he tells them how to right the wrong when they fall short of his perfect standard. He starts, at the end of chapter 20, by addressing how to right the wrong done to him for violating his rules, because all sin is first of all sin against God the perfect lawgiver. And there is no restitution that can be made. There is nothing we can do to make it right with God. The wages of sin is death. We have dishonored God by not living according to his instructions. But God, in his mercy has allows for substitution. A sacrificial animal can take our place an die. Its blood in place of ours to satisfy justice. God gives us the sacrifice of a substitute to demonstrate the depth of our guilt and the greatness of his honor, and to bring reconciliation when we have wronged him. Through the death of a substitute, we can be brought back into a proper worship relationship with our Creator. This all points forward to Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

God Values Human Life

Now God is addressing the secondary issue that when we violate God’s perfect standards, we not only wrong God, but we also wrong those around us. This section addresses how to right the wrongs we have done to our fellow man. God had told us all the way back in Genesis how much he values life. He told Noah:

Genesis 9:5 And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. 6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.

God values human life because human life uniquely carries his image. It’s as if you see someone’s reflection in a mirror, and you hate that person so much and want to do them harm that you throw a stone at the reflection of their face and shatter the mirror. God takes that personally, because it really is an attack on him. God made man to reflect his own character. To assault a human being is to assault the character of God. The dignity and worth of man as an image-bearer of God is so great that it requires the ultimate protection. To take the life of another is to forfeit your own. That is what he says in Exodus 12:12.

Exodus 21:12 “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.


Death is the consequence for violating the sixth command, ‘you shall not murder’. But he goes on to qualify that there are exceptions to the general rule.

13 But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee. 14 But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.

God cares about the intent of your heart. If you intended to kill, if it was a willful or cunning premeditated attack, you are to be granted no sanctuary. Even the most sacred place is no place of refuge for the murderer. This is not to say that all murderers go to hell. A murderer could trust in God’s provision of a substitute to deal with his guilt before God. He would not escape the immediate consequences of his sin against his fellow man, but in God’s mercy he would escape the eternal consequences of his sin against God. An example of this would be the thief – likely a murderer – on the cross, who acknowledged his own guilt and looked to the Lamb of God for mercy. He did not escape the immediate consequences of his sin, but Jesus promised him a place with him after death. King David, a murderer, said:

Psalm 32:1 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity…

The exception listed here is when a death occurs that was not premeditated, not willful, not by cunning. There was no intent to kill. We have a word for this that the bible does not use. We would call it an accident. Our word comes from the Latin meaning to fall – it simply fell out this way, it happened, a chance occurrence, the idea of fortune, fate, destiny, or luck. There are no accidents in God’s universe. Nothing just happens. The phrase the bible uses here is a bit startling: “God let him fall into his hand.” The example given in Deuteronomy 19:5 is neighbors cutting wood and an axe head slips from the handle and kills a man. This is not murder. And this is not senseless fate. God let him fall into his hand.

Proverbs 16:33 The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.

God says:

Isaiah 46:9 …I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, 10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’

This is a recognition of the sovereign providence of God, who orders all things. There is protection for the one who killed without malicious intent. We see in Numbers 35 the establishment of cities of refuge where the manslayer can flee and find protection for his life.


In verse 16 we see that kidnapping is a capital offense.

16 “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.

Anyone taking away the freedom of another person is in effect taking away their life, and for that offense, they forfeit their own life.

Dishonoring Parents

In verses 15 and 17 we see that breaking the 5th command was also a capital crime

15 “Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death. … 17 “Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.

In the 5th command, God told us to “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long…” And here we see just how short your days would be if you didn’t take this command seriously! The role of parent is to be held with such high honor and respect that hitting father or mother would be unthinkable. This drills down to the heart attitude when even cursing is included – to say something like ‘I hate you and I wish you were dead’; this kind of disrespect warrants the death penalty, because it disregards the most basic representation of God’s authority on this earth.

Disability Benefits

Next, God addresses how to make it right on issues that fall short of the death penalty, but where there is injury.

18 “When men quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist and the man does not die but takes to his bed, 19 then if the man rises again and walks outdoors with his staff, he who struck him shall be clear; only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall have him thoroughly healed. 20 “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.

The weapons listed would be those available spontaneously in the heat of the moment. A stone or fist demonstrate a different level of premeditation from a knife or a sword. If the fist does cause death, this would fall under the previous category of a willful attack. Here he addresses the issue of a disabling injury caused by another person. The person who inflicted the injury is responsible to pay for the loss of time and any medical needs. This would be the equivalent of disability and health care coverage. ‘He shall be clear’ means that the death penalty is not to be applied when death does not result. The death penalty is to be inflicted if a master beats his slave to death. As we saw last time, biblical slavery is a very different thing from the slavery we are familiar with. Here, the human rights of the slave are protected just as the free man. This does affirm that a master has the right to inflict discipline to correct an unruly slave. But if he causes his servant to temporarily miss work, the loss of work is a loss to him, so he doesn’t have to compensate himself.

Innocent Bystander and the Life of the Unborn

The next section addresses the wrong done to the ultimate innocent bystander, a woman and her unborn child.

22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Again we see God’s concern and care for the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. Even when there is no harm, a fine is to be imposed on the careless individual. There is some debate among bible scholars if the harm includes only the woman or also the child, but common sense would make it clear that the miscarriage of a baby to an expecting couple would certainly be considered harm. If there is no harm would indicate that both premature baby and mother are uninjured. If there is harm to mother or child, the one who caused the injury will pay, even the death penalty if he caused death.

Injury to Slaves

The next verses protect slaves from abusive masters.

26 “When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. 27 If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.

A master had the right to discipline his servant, but not to abuse. Any abuse – evidenced by a permanent injury – allowed the slave to go free and cost the master his investment.

Dangerous Animals

The final section addresses justice in the situation of dangerous animals

28 “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. 29 But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. 30 If a ransom is imposed on him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is imposed on him. 31 If it gores a man’s son or daughter, he shall be dealt with according to this same rule. 32 If the ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.

This in today’s world would be considered negligent homicide. If your brakes unexpectedly go out and you run someone over, you are not considered a murderer, but your car gets impounded. But if you knew your brakes didn’t work and you drove anyway, you have knowingly endangered human life and are held responsible. And here we see the concept of redemption. In differing circumstances, the judges could impose penalties that seemed fair, up to the death penalty. A ransom could be imposed, not a fine, but a ransom to redeem your life. In this case, you acknowledged that you are guilty and deserve to die, but you redeem or purchase your life back.


What can we learn from all of this? First, we learn that sin is serious. All sin is first against God and also wrongs other people. The wages of sin is death. God takes sin seriously. Jesus taught:

Matthew 18:8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

God never lets sin slide, but he has provided a way for us to be reconciled to him through the death of a substitute. The author of Hebrews tells us that the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin; this all pointed forward to the God-man Jesus Christ, who became sin for us.

We also learn that God values human life. The life of every human being, whether slave or free, rich or poor, male or female, young, old, or unborn, all are precious to him.

Lex Talionis

God values justice and equity. The lex talionis (or law retaliation) found in this passage is restrictive; it prevents the human inclination to escalate the consequences due to others that have wronged us. If you knock out my tooth, I’d feel justified in knocking you into kingdom come. Here’s what Jesus has to say about this:

Matthew 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven….

Jesus is not negating the strict justice of ‘lex talionis’. God loves justice. The punishment is to fit the crime. You are not allowed to demand greater punishment than what has been done to you. But if you have been wronged you are not required to extract punishment. You can forgive. Jesus calls us to a higher standard – a standard of love. Love your enemies. Be image-bearers; be imitators of God, who is just and righteous, merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.

Romans 5:6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person––though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die–– 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

Christ Jesus demonstrated the ultimate love for his enemies; he laid down his life for us to redeem us and make us his friends

Pastor Rodney Zedicher ~ Ephraim Church of the Bible ~

October 16, 2011 - Posted by | Exodus, podcast | , , , , , , , ,

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