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Exodus 21:12-17 - Homilies By D. Young

Capital offences.

As we look through the penalties specified for wrong-doing in chaps, 21; 22; we notice that they are divisible into two great classes. Some offences are punished by death, and others by some sort of compensation for the injury done. The graduated terms of imprisonment with which we are familiar, were not of course possible to the Israelites, and if possible, perhaps would not have seemed desirable. We notice that in this chapter five capital offences are specified; there were doubtless many besides; but these are enough to show the principles on which Jehovah acted in taking away the life of the offender.

I. THE MURDERER PROPER . In Exodus 20:1-26 . we find the general command not to kill; and here is the instruction for the Israelites what to do with the man who deliberately and maliciously took away the life of a fellow-man. This, it is plain, was done under special authority and for special reasons. It was Jehovah' s regulation for his people in their then circumstances; but we must not quote it as applicable to the punishment of the murderer generally. If on the authority of this passage we are bound to punish the murderer by death, obviously we are bound to punish him who reviles his parents, in the same way. There were reasons then for putting the murderer to death which do not now apply. The principle underlying the enactment seems to be that murder is cue of the crimes which must be followed by the severest penalty man is disposed to inflict . So long as the infliction of a death penalty at all harmonises with the general consciousness of men, it is plain that any lesser penalty for murder is inadequate. But if once we get to the position—and it is to be hoped we are ever getting nearer to it—that only the sternest necessity justifies taking human life away, we shall then substitute perpetual imprisonment as the extreme penalty. We shall all feel then that murder is assuredly a crime which should condemn the perpetrator to life-long seclusion from the society of his fellow-men.

II. THE SMITER OF FATHER OR MOTHER . Here we see how different are the principles underlying Divine law from those underlying human law. In a modern English court of justice the smiting of a parent might perhaps receive the highest penalty incurred for the commission of an assault; but it would never be exalted into a special offence. But God in his government of Israel makes an offence against a parent to be one of the first magnitude. The severe penalty specified here corresponds with the position occupied in the Decalogue by the commandment to honour parents. God we see is ever saying and doing things to set great honour on the family, and indicate great expectations from it. It has been a boldly proclaimed principle in all ages, never more proclaimed than now, and often with great arrogance and intolerance, that individuals and families exist for the State. But here in the state that is under God' s special governance provision is made that, in its punishments, that state shall honour parental authority and dignity. And of course when once smiting a parent was made into such a serious offence, it was but carrying the principle out to a logical and necessary conclusion to make the curse as great an offence. Generally, indeed, the rebellious reviling word of the lips would do more injury, inflict more pain, and be more promotive of insubordination than the blow of the hand. In the light of this enactment we see how much God expects from the parental relation. One, who in the Divine order of things, stood so high that smiting or cursing him was made a capital offence, must have been a man to whom Jehovah looked for great services, great contributions to the Divine glory, and to the prosperity of Israel.

III. THE MAN - STEALER . Within the compass of the same chapter we find provision made for recognised and openly practised customs of servitude, and also for a kind of slavery which by the penalty attached to the procuring of it is indicated as one of the worst of crimes. There was slavery and slavery. There was the buying of men in such sort as is indicated in Exodus 20:2 ; there was also such stealing and selling as we find an actual instance of in Genesis 37:28 . Such crimes were evidently only too possible, and once committed, it might be very hard to discover the criminal or restore the captive to liberty. There was perhaps many a Joseph—and when we consider his sufferings, and the sufferings of his father, we shall not wonder at the penalty attached to the crime. Then suppose an Israelite were to sell a brother Israelite to some band of Midian merchantmen, who would take him into a far country, what would the upshot be? Not only would he be lost to loving kindred, and shut out from the sight, of his dear native land, but excluded from religious privileges. God had brought out Israel from, the house of bondage , that in freedom, necessary freedom , they might find him their God, and become, in many privileges, his people. What a monstrous thing then for an Israelite, through cupidity or revenge, to sell away his brother from peculiar, from unique possibilities! He would not find in any other land the things which God intended him to have at home.

IV. THE KNOWING OWNER OF A DANGEROUS BEAST . ( Genesis 37:29 .) Here is the sound principle—a principle which goes deep in its application—that a man is responsible for all foreseen consequences of an act which it is in his power to prevent. Examine the illustrative instances mentioned. A man is the owner of a pushing ox, well known to be a brute of vicious and uncertain temper. The owner indeed has been made specially acquainted with the fact. He can then take one of the two courses, either put sufficient watch over the beast, as not knowing when it may be dangerous to human life and limb, or else in sheer recklessness determine to take the chance of all keeping right. How plain it is that a man of such a heedless spirit is not fit to have free course among his fellow-men! A human life, be it that of the veriest stranger, a mere waif and stray, or say that of an old man on the very verge of the grave, is of much more account than the life of an ox, though it be in the very prime of its strength and usefulness. The property even of a millionaire must perish sooner than the life of the poorest be imperilled. The owner of the ox is looked to here, just because the brute itself cannot be looked to. The master would not be held responsible for the action of a human servant as for that of a brute beast. And is it not plain that the announcement of this penalty here has a very stringent application to all self indulgence? When a man is told that his course of action, however profitable, however pleasant to himself, has been actually injurious to some and is likely to be injurious to others, what is he to do? If he would do as Christ wishes him—the Christ who came to fulfil the law and the prophets—he would straightway refrain from that course of action. Commercial profits and temporal pleasures will be dearly purchased by us, if one day we have to stand before the throne of him who judges righteous judgment, to answer for selfish, reckless trifling with the best interests of our neighbours The owner of the ox may say, "Let people keep out of my animal' s way and guard themselves." God, we see, did not admit that principle with regard to the pushing ox; nor will he with regard to our pushing business habits or our pushing pleasures—our reckless resolution to get all we can for ourselves, at whatever risk of loss to those who may come in our way.

V. From the instances given, we may easily infer WHAT OTHER OFFENCES OF THE SAME KIND WOULD BE PUNISHED IN THE SAME WAY . Wherever there was anything peculiarly presumptuous or daring, there the occasion for death seems to have been found. That which most deeply affects the constitution of society is to be treated with the greatest severity. One man might kill another; but because it was misadventure, he would escape with temporary inconvenience. Another man, for no more than the utterance of the tongue, has to die the death. Thus, even in a scheme of government which had so much to do with outward acts as had God' s government of Israel, we have regulations which got their severity almost entirely from the evidenced state of heart on the part of the transgressor. In purely human laws the magnitude of the actual offence is always taken into account; there must be some tangible injury to person or property. But it is the very glory of these illustrative penalties here, that cursing father or mother is punished with as much severity as the actual taking away of life. How true it is from these five instances that God' s thoughts are not as our thoughts, nor his ways as our ways!— Y .

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