He that smites a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.…
It is characteristic of the law of Moses that its first care, in the practical ordering of the Hebrew theocracy, is for the rights of the slave. These are dealt with in the opening paragraphs. The next laws relate to murder, to man-stealing, and to smiting and cursing of parents.
I. MURDER (vers. 12-15). The same spirit of justice which attaches severe penalties to proved crimes, leads to the drawing of a sound line of distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions. Only for actions of the former class is the individual held responsible. Homicide which is purely accidental is not treated as a crime (ver. 13). Not only is the man who kills his neighbour inadvertently not punished with death, but the law interposes to protect him from the fury of such as might unjustly seek his life, by appointing for him a place of refuge. (Cf. Numbers 35.; Deuteronomy 19.) The deliberate murderer, on the other hand, was to be taken even from God''s altar, and put to death (ver. 14). Deliberate murder implies "malice aforethought" - "intent to kill" - but it was sufficient to expose a man to the penalty attaching to this crime, that he had been guilty of an act of violence, resulting in another''s death (ver. 12; cf. vers. 19, 23). Note on this law -
1. The recognition of Divine Providence in the so-called accidents of life (ver. 13).
2. The sacredness attached to the human person. The religious ground of the enactment is given in Genesis 9:6 - "Whoso sheddeth man''s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man." "The true Shechinah is man" (Chrysostom).
3. The ethical character of the Hebrew religion. The altar is to afford no sanctuary to the murderer. The Bible knows nothing of a religion which is in divorce from morality. This law condemns by implication all connivance at, or sheltering of, immorality, under religious sanctions (Romish huckstering of pardons, etc.).
II. MAN-STEALING (ver. 16). The statute is perfectly general. There is no evidence that it applied only to Hebrews, though these are specially mentioned in Deuteronomy 24:7. The stealing and selling of a Hebrew was a direct offence against Jehovah. (Cf. Leviticus 25:42.) "For they are my servants, which I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: they shall not be sold as bondsmen." The passage is a direct condemnation of the modern slave trade.
III. SMITING AND CURSING OF PARENTS (vers. 15-17). These offences also were to be punished with death. The fact that they are bracketed in the law with murder and manstealing, gives a peculiar impression of their enormity. As if the statute book had said, after laying down the law for murder - "And for the purposes of this law, the smiting or cursing of a father or a mother shall be regarded as equivalent to the taking of a life." And this view of the matter is, in a moral respect, hardly too strong. It would be difficult to say what crime a man is not capable of, who could deliberately smite or curse father or mother. As special reasons for the severity of the law, observe -
1. Hebrew society rested largely on a patriarchal basis, and the due maintenance of parental authority was a necessity of its existence. Just as it is found still that, whatever the form of social order, the spread of a spirit of insubordination to parents is the invariable prelude to a universal loosening of ties and obligations.
2. Parents are regarded as standing to their children in the relation of visible representatives of Jehovah (see fifth commandment). This, in the Hebrew theocracy, gave to the crime of cursing or smiting a parent the character of a treasonable act. It was an offence against the majesty of Jehovah, and as such, required to be promptly avenged. On the same ground it was forbidden to revile magistrates, or curse the ruler of the people (Exodus 22:28). The law is a standing testimony to the heinousness attaching in the sight of God to the sin of filial disobedience. - J.O.
Parallel VersesKJV: He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.