Bearing the Sword in Vain: Chapter 1

What the Old Testament Says About the Sword

The history of man is a history that is drenched in blood. War, genocide, and forced migrations fill the pages of man’s history books.

Therefore, it should not be surprising that the pages of the Old Testament are also filled with stories of man’s tendency toward violence and bloodshed. In fact, one of the first things that a new Bible student must come to terms with is that the Old Testament does indeed contain many stories of extreme violence, bloodshed and war that are uncomfortable for the modern-day reader. The most popular Bible teachers in America are often careful to avoid such unsanitized stories of violence so as to retain membership rolls, tithe levels, and the status quo.

This book, nor its author, has any such agenda. The aim of this book is not to assure the comfort of the reader, but to challenge him to reconsider the purpose of the sword under both the Old and New Covenants.

Unlike other written accounts of history, the Old Testament’s stories of man’s inhumanity to man come with a silver lining: The promise of redemption. (Gen 3:15) As Christians know, the primary subject of the Old Testament is Jesus Christ.

Indeed, pictures of Christ appear throughout the Old Testament, foreshadowing His divine intervention and sacrificial act of atonement for the sins of mankind. He is pictured in Genesis as the airtight Noah’s Ark protecting the righteous from God’s wrath and leading them to safety amid a global deluge. His radical love is foreshadowed in the obedience of Abraham’s firstborn son, Isaac, who laid himself on the altar ready to be sacrificed by his own father. Christ is pictured as the passover lamb, redeeming mankind through His atoning and sacrificial death. So too, Christ is anticipated in Israel’s various judges, kings, and prophets. While pictures of Christ fill the pages of the Old Testament, they all point to a future that was realized in His birth, life, death, and resurrection.

Throughout the Bible, it is clear that God’s actions toward humanity have occurred in dispensations. How God dealt with His people Israel is different than how he is now dealing with the world and even with the Church. Under the Old Covenant, the people of Israel lived and died based upon the Mosaic Law. But when Christ came, His obedient sacrificial death and resurrection made the way for a new age of grace.

As Christians, we live under a New Covenant of grace, not the Old Covenant based on law and judgment. Followers of Christ are not made righteous today through the keeping of all 613 commands under the Mosaic Law. Covered by God’s grace, Christians follow the commands of Christ as recorded in the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) of the New Testament and are known by their fruits of faith and love.

One of the most important distinctions between the Old Covenant, based on law, and our new Covenant, based on grace, is found in how justification is dispensed. Under the Old Covenant, the Israelites attempted to obtain justification through obedience to the letter of the law. (Deut. 6:25; Rom. 10:3) Under the New Covenant, however, justification comes through faith in Christ. (Rom. 1:17) Unlike the ancient Israelites, who were constantly frustrated in their efforts to please God in their flesh, followers of Christ rely not upon the flesh, but the Spirit, to please God. That is, the good works performed by Christians do not come as a result of strict obedience to laws in the flesh. Instead, in our age of grace, the Holy Spirit that indwells the faithful does the works within them as they surrender to God’s Will.

The testimony of the Old Testament is clear: Man, in himself, cannot keep even the spirit of God’s Law in his own strength, let alone each individual ordinance. While the law reveals man’s sin problem, it is powerless to resolve it. (Rom. 3:20) Christians understand that man is unable to please God in the flesh. After all, Christ lived a life that no fallen human could ever copy or attain to, apart from God, which means that no man can follow Jesus down the narrow road to eternal life in his own strength. Therefore, followers of Christ know that they are made righteous, not from their own obedience, but instead from Christ’s perfect obedience to God’s Law. Christian righteousness comes only to those who are “in Christ.” Through the presence and infilling of the Holy Spirit, Christians are empowered to keep the commands of Christ and thus, the spirit of the Law.  

This is a vital point to grasp before we continue in our study, as God’s expectations of man under the Old Covenant sharply contrast with God’s expectations of man under the New Covenant. With context and clear distinction in mind, let us turn first to what the Old Testament has to say about using the “sword.”


The Sword in the Old Testament

Long before our modern era of atomic warfare, laser-guided missiles, and drone strikes, justice was served in a more simplistic way, which often including the sword. The word used for sword in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word “chereb.” This word appears more than 400 times throughout the Old Testament.

The first time this word appears it is to describe the “flaming sword which turned every way” to prevent Adam and Eve from re-entering the Garden of Eden after their expulsion. (Gen. 3:24) That is, the first appearance of the sword in the Old Testament comes as it is wielded by agents of God seeking to protect and preserve man from his own great folly.

The second occurence of this Hebrew word in the Old Testament comes right after Isaac’s son, Esau, concedes his birthright to his brother Jacob for a quick meal. This eventually results in Esau’s loss of the firstborn blessing. In absence of this blessing, Isaac prophesies over his son Esau, saying: “By your sword you shall live and your brother you shall serve.” (Gen. 27:40) (As we will see in the next chapter, this is an interesting phrase that Jesus Himself will refer to just before his death.)

These first two appearances of the sword in the Old Testament are followed by hundreds of more stories of men drawing the sword, killing with the sword in battle, trying to escape the judgment of the sword, and falling by the edge of the sword.

The sword was a weapon of war. The Israelite army girded themselves with the sword to advance through the Promised Land. (1 Sam. 25:13; 2 Sam. 20:8) Later, we read of a young boy named David who overcomes the sword of Israel’s enemy, Goliath, with an act of great faith. (1 Sam. 17) The first Israelite king, Saul, ends his life by falling on the sword. (1 Samuel. 31:4,5)

Eventually, wicked kings of Israel turn the sword upon Israel’s prophets. (1 Kings 19) The prophet Jeremiah, who laments the judgment of the sword brought against Israel by Babylon, connects it to even further judgments of famine and pestilence. (Jer. 21:7,9; 24:10, 27:8,13; 29:17,18; 32:24,36; 34:17; 38:2; 42:17,22;44:12,13,18; 44:27)

The sword was a weapon of vengeance. Men were judged by the sword when they provoked God’s wrath through their disobedience. (Ex. 22:24; Lev. 26, Deut. 32) Sometimes, this judgment was meted out by God’s human agents of vengeance and at other times it came by the sword wielded by God Himself, through the Angel of the Lord. (1 Chron. 21:14,15,27,30)  

The power of the sword is compared to the power of the human words. The Old Testament is clear that, while there is power in the sword (Job 5:20), this power is not limited to the physical judgment it can deliver. The Old Testament refers to the power of the sword metaphorically as the mouth (Job 5:15), the tongue (Psalm 57:4; 64:3; Prov. 12:18), the teeth (Prov. 30:14) and the lips (Psalm 59:7; Prov. 25:18).

The human sword is inferior to God’s Sword. Ultimately, the Psalmist makes it clear that there is a power far greater than the sword of men, namely the sword of God, for which no human sword can protect against. (Psalm 44:6; Isaiah 34:5,6; Jer. 12:12; 47:6)

Obviously, there are far too many single references to the sword throughout the Old Testament to detail each one of them. However, this brief overview is intended to introduce the reader to how the sword was viewed, and wielded, throughout the Old Testament. Aside from direct references to the sword, however, the purpose of this chapter is to examine how God’s vengeance was displayed in the Old Testament. As we turn to the Mosaic Law, God’s vengeance was not limited to the sword but also involved other methods of capital punishment, including public stoning.

Let’s continue our study of Old Testament vengeance by examining the Bible’s first recorded act of homicide.


Cain and Abel: The First Murder

The first act of homicide recorded in the Bible occurs in Genesis 4:8 with the story of Cain and Abel.

“And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.”

While it does not excuse the crime, it is notable that no codified law against killing existed (to our knowledge) prior to Cain’s murderous act. (The first written law mandating capital punishment for the crime of killing does not appear until thousands of years later in immediate post-flood era.) However, we find another important detail relating to the heinous act of willfully spilling human blood revealed in this story. Specifically, when God accuses Cain, He declares that “the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.” (Gen. 4:10) That Abel’s spilt blood continued to cry out for God’s vengeance even after Abel himself had perished foreshadows the enactment of capital punishment to protect and preserve God’s chosen people.

Indeed, the Mosaic Law explains that God’s prohibition of murder was not only to prevent injustice among men made in the image of God, but also to preserve the purity of the land given to the Israelites, made by the hands of God.

“So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.” (Numbers 35:33)  

Despite his willful murder of his own brother, Cain’s life is spared by God. Though Cain makes it clear that he knew, whether from oral law from his father or by the law written on his heart, that his heinous act deserved death when he said: “Every one that findeth me shall slay me.” (Gen. 4:14) Here, God’s lovingkindness and mercy intervenes, even in this first recorded murder:

“And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.” (Gen. 4:15)

But God’s alternative condemnation, requiring him to spend his life as a wandering fugitive under heaven’s vigilant protection, appears adequately severe as evidenced by Cain’s response to God: “My punishment is greater than I can bear.” (Gen. 4:12,13)

After being confronted by God for his act of violence, Cain, the Bible’s first murderer, flees God’s presence and His merciful offer of protection to become the Bible’s first recorded city builder. (Gen. 4:16,17) It is noteworthy that man’s first city was envisioned and built by a murderer who had just fled the presence of God.  

This first recorded murder in the Bible is soon overshadowed by colossal amounts of war, violence, and bloodshed.


A Watery Judgment

Just two short chapters later, in Genesis 6, we have evidence that the evil originally unleashed in Eden has spread to infect all men.

“And GOD saw that the wickedness of man [was] great in the earth, and [that] every imagination of the thoughts of his heart [was] only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5)

God’s response to this extreme lawlessness is swift and severe.

“And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.” (Genesis 6:7)

Before sending a flood to destroy mankind for its great wickedness, God calls the only living righteous man, Noah, to build a boat (ark) and thus, God redeems this one man along with his wife and six children.

It is only after the floodwaters recede, and that Noah and his family disembark back onto dry land, that God issues a new law to confront the act of unjustified killing, or murder.


Capital Punishment in Genesis

The first command issued by God in the Old Testament regarding capital punishment appears in Genesis 9.

“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” (Genesis 9:6)

The severity of this command itself demonstrates how seriously God considers the act of unjustified killing. In His great mercy, God reveals how justice can be achieved in the wake of murder. Namely, the murderer shall be put to death.

This command, to punish the murderer with death, is further refined and expanded upon through the commandments given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai.

‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’

In the book of Exodus, we read of an amazing encounter atop Mount Sinai between the prophet Moses and the God of the Old Testament. In this encounter, God speaks directly to Moses and reveals His laws for the Israelite people. These laws include what are known today as the Ten Commandments. For the purposes of this study, the sixth commandment is of vital importance. It states: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’

For centuries, this simple command has been misunderstood by some to mean that all acts of killing, even the capital punishment of murderers and other lawbreakers, are immoral. If that is the case, then much of the Old Testament makes little, if any, sense as it is filled with acts of killing, both by God Himself and by agents of His wrath and vengeance.

The solution to this dilemma is to understand that some acts of killing are justified while other acts of killing are unjustified. The 16th century reformer, John Calvin, rightly explains the essence of this command: “The sum of this [sixth] Commandment is that we should not unjustly do violence to anyone.”

Unjust killing, or murder, is in view in this sixth commandment. Just as killing could be justly committed by the governing authorities who “bear not the sword in vain” for the purpose of exacting vengeance against lawbreakers, so too killing is unjustly committed when the perpetrator bears “the sword in vain.”

To say it a different way, those who “bear not the sword in vain” engage in just killing. Those who bear “the sword in vain” engage in unjust killing. There are only three exceptions to this rule recorded in the Old Testament, which we will examine later.  

For now, let’s further explore these two different types of killing (justified vs unjustified), as understanding each of them is imperative to our study.

Killing vs Murder

The word “kill” (justified) and the word “murder” (unjustified) are two different Biblical words with two very different meanings.

One is justified killing, such as the punitive act of capital punishment as sanctioned by the state.There are a few different Hebrew words used in the Old Testament to convey the idea of justified killing. The most commonly used word is “harag”, which means to kill or slay whether in battle (by men) or in judgment (by God).

The other type of killing, which is always prohibited in the Bible, is the act of unjustified killing, also known as murder. The primary Hebrew word used throughout the Old Testament for murder is “ratsach.” This word can convey the ideas of premeditation, revenge, or assassination in the act of killing by an individual. In fact, it is this word “ratsach” that is used in the sixth commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” A more accurate way to translate this command, then, would be “Thou shalt not murder.”

Ultimately, the Mosaic Law is crystal clear that an individual who strikes another individual to death is guilty of murder and must pay for his action with his own life.

“He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.” (Exodus 21:12)

Considering how much violence and death occurs in the Old Testament, it can be easy to assume that God’s laws regarding killing were flexible, resembling an ancient “Wild West” where men often took the law into their own hands. In reality, the Mosaic Law was far more comprehensive in its laws against murder than modern man may imagine. It is important to understand that God does not murder and never commands his human agents to murder. Murder (“ratsach”) is a heinous and unjust act that God considers inexcusable. While murder is never justified, there are certain instances where the act of killing is not equated with the act of murder and is therefore considered to be justified.


Four Acts of ‘Justified Killing’ in the Mosaic Law

Since no one would contest that the act of unjustified killing, or murder, is immoral, let’s now consider four specific acts of killing that were not defined as murder (or unjustified killing) in the Mosaic Law.

These include:

1) Killing by agents of the state, who “do not bear the sword in vain”

2) Striking a thief on your property (only in the middle of the night)

3) Striking one’s slave (if he does not immediately die from his wounds)

4) Accidental or unintentional killing (assuming the accused immediately flees to a designated city of refuge and meets certain guidelines)

Let’s consider each of these exceptions one-by-one, beginning with an examination of the justified killing committed by agents of the state in the Old Testament.


#1 – The Governing Authorities Do Not Bear The Sword in Vain

The first exception involves killing conducted by duly appointed agents of the state. Just as all governments today rightfully wield the sword of vengeance against lawbreakers through their own justice systems, so too, did the ancient Hebrews. Numerous times throughout the Old Testament, God instructed representatives of the Jewish state to kill, either in battle or to exact God’s vengeance against lawbreakers and evildoers.

In addition to obediently ensuring that God’s civil laws of vengeance were kept within the Israelite camps (through ordained acts of capital punishment against lawbreakers), agents of the ancient Jewish state rightly wielded their swords against their regional enemies in the name of God.

In the wake of Moses’ death, the new Hebrew leader Joshua led the Israelite army on a brutal conquest against the inhabitants of the promised land and often left “none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded.” (See Joshua chapters 6, 8, and 10 for just a few examples)

Through the prophet Samuel, God instructs King Saul to “go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” (1 Samuel 15:3)

In Numbers 21:3, we read that the Lord “gave the Canaanites over” to the Israelites who “completely destroyed them and their towns.” Later in that same book, God commanded Moses to target another group of people, known as the Midianites. In Numbers 31:17-18, God commands Moses to kill all of the male Midianite children.

While there are many more examples we could consider in the Old Testament, the point for our study is to notice to whom these commands to kill are being delivered. Even a cursory reading of the Old Testament will reveal that when God commanded the act of killing, he delivered these commands not to individuals, but to agents, or representatives, of the state. In other words, the God of the Old Testament never instructs an individual (non-state actor) to kill another individual. (There is one notable exception in God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Of course, God prevented the actual slaying using it only as a test of Abraham’s faith. See Genesis 22:1-19)

In essence, all of God’s commands to kill throughout the Old Testament are issued and directed to agents of the theocratic state. This includes acts of war, capital punishment, and even occasional acts of killing by the prophets, who also served as representatives of the state. Once again, this affirms the concept that governments do not bear the sword in vain, though individuals do.

In the Old Testament, God directed his representatives to conquer through the mode of a national government. In the New Testament, this mode shifts from building and stewarding an earthly political kingdom to promoting and heralding God’s eternal kingdom, which is not of this world. With the arrival of Christ, God’s covenant people, now identified as the Church, are empowered to promote God’s law, not through the power of the human sword, but through the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ reveals God’s New Covenant under which God’s people will neither attempt to conquer the world through the vehicle of a nation-state, nor by any other method employed by the world.

While the pages of the Old Testament are filled with the violence caused by the sword, hints of a future without the sword slowly begin to emerge in the prophetic words of godly men like Isaiah.

“And he [God] shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4 KJV)

We all long for the day when the human sword is no longer required to exact God’s vengeance on the earth. But that time was neither in ancient Israel, nor does it exist today. For now, all human governments, in a similar way to ancient Israel, operate as “God’s ministers” to execute God’s wrath upon lawbreakers. (Rom. 13:3,4)

For this reason, it is understandable why God endues governments with the authority to execute His wrath against those who commit injustices. If human governments were not deputized by God in our day to bear the sword against evildoers, the world would indeed be a place of endless chaos with every man forced to play the role of avenger.

This leads us to the second type of justified killing as described in the Old Testament.

#2 – How To Handle A Home Intruder, Old Testament-Style

Another instance of justified killing is recorded in the book of Exodus 22, which details a number of property laws extending to the Israelites under the Mosaic Law.

According to Exodus 22:2,3:

“If the thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account. [But] if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If what he stole is actually found alive in his possession, whether an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double.”

This is an extraordinary passage as it is one of only three instances described in the Old Testament where an individual Israelite (non-state actor) may legally kill another individual and not be found bloodguilty. The purpose of this law is clear: An Israelite, awoken by an intruding thief onto his property in the middle of the night, would naturally seek to defend himself, his family, and his property. If the break-in occurred in the dark of night, the Israelite’s reaction would obviously have been accidental and/or purely in self-defense. However, this provision that permits the shedding of the thief’s blood only applies if the intruding thief is found in the middle of the night. If he is found in the light of day, the Israelite may not take the thief’s life, or else he is liable for murder and must be stoned to death.

Some modern-day Christians often point to this passage to condone acts of self-defense against a home intruder. But does this verse extend to condone acts of self-defense by the Christian living under the New Covenant?

While this law clearly permits an Israelite to use force in protecting his home and family, there are several important points to notice in this passage.

First, it is important to understand that this law is provisional and not an absolute command. This law provides grace to the Israelite to act in self-defense but does not command him to kill a thief who breaks in to his home in the middle of the night. Instead, this law makes a provision for the Israelite if he kills the intruder but does not require that the intruder be killed. God had a specific punishment for property thieves that required restitution, not the shedding of their blood. (See Exodus 22:1-4) It is clear that God did not desire that a thief should be killed for his theft. However, a provision covering an act of accidental killing, or in self-defense, was made for the Israelite who was caught unaware by a thief in the middle of the night.

Modern-day Christians who use this passage to excuse killing a home intruder in an act of self-defense should remember that they have no such command. God never commands men to kill in self-defense in the Old Testament. Instead, God carved out a legal provision in the event that a thief was killed by a fellow Israelite under a strict set of circumstances. Neither individual Israelites, nor individual Christians, are ever commanded to kill anyone, even in self-defense, in the Old or New Testament. The Israelite living in ancient Israel who killed a home intruder was not keeping God’s command. However, a provision in the law prevented him from being held bloodguilty for his act. Put simply, a provision is not a command. To confuse them is dangerous.

Second, this law only provides an exception to the Israelite if the thief intrudes at night. If the break-in occurs during the light of day, the Israelite has no provision to kill the intruder. If the Israelite does kill the intruder in the light of day he will be guilty of murder and will, accordingly, be put to death.

This ancient provision found in the Mosaic Law radically differs from America’s modern “stand your ground” laws which permit an American individual to kill a home intruder, even if that intruder is found breaking and entering in broad daylight. As is clear from this passage, the Israelites had no such legal ground to kill, even a home intruder, in the light of day.

Therefore, the Christian who relies upon this provision in the Mosaic Law to condone his own killing of an intruding thief can only rightly do so at night, for if he slays the intruder by day, he is guilty of murder in God’s eyes and worthy of immediate death, according to the Mosaic Law.

Third, those who seek to use the Old Testament laws to condone an act of killing mustn’t stop at this one single law. If a Christian is seeking to align his act of killing with the Old Testament laws, why should he limit himself to just one single provision, to the exclusion of the remaining entirety of the Mosaic Law? Would it not be more logical to promote all of the laws which relate to killing, including those which call for the execution of individuals who openly violate God’s Laws? After all, someone who values the Mosaic Law enough to use it in support of his own conduct would appear to be insincere if he only considered one single provision of the Mosaic Law. Furthermore, the Mosaic Law describes many offenses that warrant the death penalty. The long list of those worthy of death includes: Sabbath breakers, rebellious children, kidnappers, adulterers, just to name a few. While the Israelite was not instructed to kill the robber breaking into a home in the middle of the night, he was expected to report his disobedient child or the sabbath breaker for public execution by stoning.

For those Christians who are eager to be in compliance with this limited provision within the Mosaic Law regarding a home intruder, they would also do well to remember a few more explicit laws about those who God deems to be worthy of death.

For example, if you believe that this limited provision in the Mosaic Law regarding home intruders as described in Ex. 22:2,3 remains God’s intention for Christians, you are, by logical conclusion, required to assume that it is still God’s intention for us to kill children who attack, or even curse their parents, for it is found within the same passage of laws given to Moses by God.

“He who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” (Ex. 21:15)

“He who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” (Ex. 21:17)

Notice that this is not a provisional law, but a firm command given to be carried out, without exceptions. Unlike the home intruder, God gives parents no choice for handling their rebellious children. They “shall surely be put to death.” No exceptions.

Those eager to keep this limited provision regarding home intruders must also explain why they fail to seek anything less than the death penalty for those who are found guilty of kidnapping, even if the kidnapper does not kill his victim.

“He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” (Ex. 21:16)

In addition, those who seek to keep the Old Testament laws on killing must also believe that anyone who claims to be a sorceress must be put to death.

“You shall not allow a sorceress to live.” (Ex. 22:18)

They must also support the death penalty for those who work on the Sabbath, as God’s standing rule on dealing with Sabbath-breakers.

“Work may be done for six days, but on the seventh day there must be a Sabbath of complete rest, dedicated to the LORD. Anyone who does work on the Sabbath day must be put to death.” (Ex. 31:15)

QUESTION: Is it logical, let alone Biblical, to pick and choose just a handful of laws and provisions from the Mosaic Law that we want to keep, while simultaneously ignoring all of the others laws and provisions that we find unnecessary or inconvenient?

For those living under the New Covenant, why would it be acceptable to only keep a single and limited provision used under the Old Covenant regarding killing home intruders while failing to support virtually every other explicit law mandated by God through the Mosaic Law?

These are serious questions.

Why should only home intruders be targeted? Out of all of the capital punishments required to be carried out by the Mosaic Law, the home intruder is not listed among them. And yet today, does not the gun-owning Christian who appeals to this passage to defend his decision to kill a home intruder blithely ignore all of the other Old Testament commands in order to select this single narrow provision? This doesn’t seem to be a consistent position. This seems to be conveniently cherry-picking Old Testament laws to fit modern demands.

If you think that these Old Testament laws are too harsh, then perhaps we are now on the same page. Indeed, the idea of calling for the death penalty for disrespectful children, non-violent kidnappers, and those who work on the Sabbath seems overly cruel. So too, however, does the idea of killing a non-violent thief who breaks into your home.

Fourth, just because a limited provision in the Mosaic Law justified the killing of an intruder in the dark of night, it does not mean that God ultimately desired the thief to be killed. After all, the act of divorce was also a provision in the Mosaic Law that was allowed — but not commanded. Just as divorce was not God’s intention (Gen. 2:24) or His hope for his people, neither was His desire for man to kill a thief. However, because of the hardness of their hearts, God allowed these things. (Matthew 19:8)

This brings us to the final two examples of justified killing in the Mosaic Law. While these last two exceptions are interesting and important, they are less relevant to our study and therefore, will be treated with brevity.


#3 – Striking Your Slave Was Justified — If He Did Not Immediately Die

Another extraordinary provision regarding “justified” killing found in the Mosaic Law relates to the relationship between a slave and his master.  

“And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.” (Ex. 21:20,21)

While this verse was often appealed to by previous generations of Americans who lived during a time when chattel slavery was legal, it is not likely that a modern-day Christian would turn to this verse to condone an act of killing. Nevertheless, it is one of only three such limited provisions found in the Mosaic Law whereby a man who strikes another man to death may not be automatically found bloodguilty and “surely be put to death.”

Like other similar provisions, this provision may appear overly harsh, especially regarding the apparent trampling upon the dignity of the slave as a human being, who like all other men has been made in the image of God. Does the Mosaic Law suggest that the death of an enslaved human is any less meaningful and deserving of vengeance than a freeman?

First, it should be noted that the life of the the slave is just as valuable as the life of the freeman. If the slave owner struck his slave so that he died, the slave owner was to be punished. According to the Talmud, the punishment was death. Therefore, the prescribed punitive action was often no different from that of killing a freeman.

In addition, if the slave was permanently wounded by his master in a physical altercation, he was immediately set free as a form of recompense.  

“And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake. And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake.” (Ex. 21:26,27)

Some may notice that the strict “eye for eye, tooth for tooth…” command is missing here. Instead, if a slave loses an “eye” or a “tooth”, the recompense is the freedom of the slave. The remedy is purely economic in nature and the “eye for an eye” command is preempted in this extraordinary case. The loss comes to the slave owner in the form of lost property and lost work completed. The slave, in return, regains his freedom, which serves to protect him from further abuse from his intemperate master.

Second, ancient slavery is largely misunderstood by modern democratic man. Slavery has been a fact of life for as long as human history has been recorded. Unlike the extreme chattel slavery witnessed in recent centuries under the Transatlantic slave trade, ancient forms of slavery served to protect those from little means of providing for themselves so that they could maintain access to life’s necessities of food, clothing, and shelter. In ancient times, it was common for poor and indebted, but otherwise able-bodied, individuals to sell themselves into slavery. Slavery in ancient Israel, at least for Hebrew slaves, was similar to indentured servitude. Throughout much of the ancient world, slavery was a fundamental aspect of every major economy. This is not to say that ancient forms of slavery could not be brutal. Indeed, many ancient cultures afforded little to no protections for slaves. However, the Mosaic Law contains numerous provisions to protect the life and dignity of a Hebrew slave.

The Israelites were commanded to give their Hebrew slaves the option of freedom after six years of service (Ex. 21:2). This was an unusual custom in ancient times that served to remind the Israelite community that they too were once enslaved “in the land of Egypt” and that “the LORD God redeemed thee.” (Deut. 15:15) So too, the Israelite master who liberated his Hebrew slave after six years was not to send his departing slave away empty-handed. (Deut. 15:13) Instead, he was commanded to “furnish him [his former slave] liberally out of thy flock, out of thy [threshing] floor, and out of thy winepress: [of that] wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give to him.” (Deut. 15:14)

Strict laws forbade any man from kidnapping another person in order to sell them into slavery. Those caught violating this law “shall surely be put to death.” (Ex. 21:16) Ancient Hebrew slaves also enjoyed broad protections against physical abuse by the masters, unlike most of the other surrounding cultures. (Ex. 21:20,26,27)

In addition, Hebrew slaves were to be considered part of the household and participated in virtually all of Israel’s religious customs including resting on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10), circumcision (Gen. 17:13), and keeping the holy feast days. (Deut. 16:11)

Also, unlike all other ancient peoples, the Mosaic Law commanded the Israelites to provide loving refuge for runaway slaves and to not return them to their former masters once they had escaped.

“Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: He shall dwell with thee, [even] among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.” (Deut. 23:15)

It is clear from the thorough reading of the Mosaic Law that God intended His people to value the life and dignity of Hebrew slaves in a way that transcended the similar treatment of slaves in surrounding cultures.  [Maybe add one conclusion or leading statement here.]

Third, it is once again important not to confuse a command with a provision within the Mosaic Law. Note that God does not command the master to kill his slave. To the contrary, God carves out an exception, for extreme cases, in which the slave dies a few days after a physical altercation with his master. Because the slave played an integral part in the economy of the ancient household, there was little to no incentive for an Israelite master to strike his slave with a deathblow. This was especially true considering the immediate penalty of death for those masters who did kill their slaves. Even if a master struck his slave in a way that did not kill but only caused permanent injury, he would still be forced to free his slave. It is hard to imagine what incentive a master would have to inflict serious harm upon his slave, as the slave was “his money.” We should not, therefore, think that God desired a master to use this provision any more than we should think that God desired for men to use the Mosaic Law’s provision for killing an intruding thief (Ex. 22:2,3), divorcing a spouse (Debt.24:1-4),  or for marrying more than one wife. (Ex. 21:10) These provisions were not commandments that God ordered his people to solemnly keep, but instead served as extreme allowances to His Divine Will due to the “hardness of their hearts.” (Matt. 19:8, Mark 10:5)


#4 – Refuge For The Unintentional Killer

Let us now turn to the final extraordinary provision contained within the Mosaic Law that does not require “an eye for an eye” in the event of an individual killing another individual. This final provision specifically provides temporary safety and shelter in a city of refuge for individual Israelites who accidentally (or unintentionally) killed another person.

“And this is the case of the slayer, which shall flee thither, that he may live: Whoso killeth his neighbour ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past; As when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbour 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 neighbour, 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 worthy of death, inasmuch as he hated him not in time past.” (Deut. 19:4-6)

God commanded that six cities of refuge be established through ancient Israel for the purpose of temporarily protecting those Israelites who inadvertently killed a fellow human while their cases were decided by a panel of impartial judges. To be found “not guilty” under this provision required that the killing be purely accidental (“ignorantly”) with no malice or intention to harm ever present within the accused. The example provided in the above passage reveals an acceptable exemption. Namely, a man who accidentally kills his neighbor when his axehead slips off of his axe while cutting down trees. This example makes perfectly clear that the homicide was unintentional and not rooted in premeditation. Nevertheless, the accused was not free to continue about his business but was forced to immediately flee for his life to one of the six cities of refuge. But who was he fleeing from? The above passage provides the answer: “The avenger of blood.”

But who is this “avenger of blood?” In ancient Israel, the death penalty was to be carried out by the victim’s next of kin. Often this was a brother, an uncle, or a cousin, but it could include any blood relative. (Lev. 25:49) In the absence of a fully organized criminal justice system, it was understandably left to individual families to ensure that justice was meted out to the bloodguilty. Of course, someone might mistakenly interpret this system as some form of vigilante justice. However, this is far from being the case. Several layers of protection stood in between the avenger of blood and his right to faithfully execute justice for his family against the manslayer.

First, it must be clear that the killing was intentional and not accidental.

Second, the accused manslayer was free to flee to a city of refuge to await a fair trial concerning his actions. The avenger of blood was not allowed to pursue the accused into the city of refuge but was allowed to kill him, even if the manslayer was found not guilty, if the accused ventured outside of the city of refuge before the death of the high priest. (Num. 35:25)

Third, once the accused was tried by a panel of impartial judges, his fate was sealed. However, no man could be found guilty based on the testimony of only one witness. (Num. 35:30) Instead, the corroboration of two or three witnesses was required to find an individual guilty of a crime. 

Therefore, it is clear that, just as the Mosaic Law placed enormous value on the life of the individual, it also levied restraints against the passions of the avenger of blood so as to protect innocent men from inappropriate or unjust punishments. The concept of “eye for an eye” vengeance, as unveiled throughout the Old Testament, stressed the value of human life and dignity. However, this form of vengeance will be re-considered, and even challenged, as we turn to the words and deeds of Jesus Christ and His disciples, as recorded in the New Testament. As we will see in future chapters in this study, early Christians, following in the steps in Christ, appeared to comprehend a higher view of God’s vengeance that will expand upon the teachings of this chapter.

Fourth, it should be noted that the avenger of blood was a state-sanctioned role. This re-confirms what has already been said, that all who functioned as public executioners in the Old Testament did so under the authority of God’s commands and, therefore, did not act as vigilantes. This is a vital distinction.


In conclusion, while it is undeniable that the Old Testament was filled with killing and bloodshed, it is also abundantly clear that those who killed according to the letter of the law did so legally and morally. Aside from those who were deputized to exact vengeance in accordance with the Mosaic Law or under God’s specific command in battle, there were only three extremely limited exceptions that did not lead to an immediate penalty of death: 1) Killing a thief on your property in the middle of the night 2) striking your slave, if they survived for more than a day or two, and 3) an act of accidental, or unintentional, homicide.

All others could rightfully be said to “bear the sword in vain.”

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