Snapshots: Day 131

Snapshots: Day 131

The Snapshot: “Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge.” (Josh 20:2) This is civilization in the making, the people of God in the making. This is the recognition of the Lord God of Israel that mankind struggles with sin in its various forms. The ‘cities of refuge’ were first a recognition that upsets happen and in the midst of upset things get said and then done that shouldn’t, even death, then regret. But that is only one side of the story. The other side is the onlookers, the family whose loved one has been killed. An eye of an eye, a life for a life!!!! Not when it was an accident. Killer, flee to a safe place to give them time to cool down! This is the God who seeks to cool tempers, bring peace, prevent further conflict, then and now.

Further Consideration: I am always amazed that the Law of God is not only full of practical care but also the grace and mercy of the Lord. It reveals to us a God who not only understands us but recognizes and provides for our failures. On Day 110 we considered Deut 21:1 “If someone is found slain…. and it is not known who the killer was…” which again was a recognition of sin in the people and yet which also provided a way for that to be recognised, acknowledged and dealt with appropriately.

The cities of refuge were a similar provision recognizing that in this fallen world, men act badly towards each other and if that wasn’t bad enough they might accidentally end up killing each other – but it was an accident, it was not intentional. But this provision cares for those on both sides of this. On the one side the family of the dead person are likely to be very upset, so much so that they seek revenge, they seek to take the law into their own hands, i.e. they seek the kill the other antagonist. But it was an accident and the Lord wants to both protect him and keep the other side from doing something that drags them down and become guilty of what would then be murder. Thus there were these cities of refuge.

When the fleeing man reached the city, he was to explain to the city elders what had happened and if they accept his story they are to give him protection (20:4) but then there is to be a trial in the city where the case is properly examined (20:6) and if found innocent he can stay on there. Thus both sides are saved from worse ongoing conflict and feud.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” (Mt 5:9) and that simple beatitude undergirds so much of the intent of God for His people. How many times in the epistles do we find in the opening, “Grace and peace to you”? Peace and harmony are to be foundation stones for our lives that flow from the grace and truth that Jesus brought (Jn 1:14) and which also go to make up that foundation. When we blow it and disharmony occurs, how can we heal the breach?

17. Capital Crimes

Lessons from the Law: No.17 : Capital Crimes

Ex 21:12-14 Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate. But if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately, take him away from my altar and put him to death.

The Law now moves on to cover murder and manslaughter. The Ten Commandments stated “You shall not murder.” This law spells out what should happen when that basic law has been broken. Note that we have said previously that the purpose of law is to restrain sin and act as a deterrent, but also to provide directions when it has not acted as a deterrent and people have disobeyed it and done the forbidden thing. How to handle that situation is what is at the heart of this law. Because it also goes against a norm that Western societies have taken on board, we also make note of the whole issue of capital punishment which arises here.

Behind our three verses today is the heart of criminal law: premeditated killing is murder; accidental killing is manslaughter. The basic law is that Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death.” That is the starting point: it is wrong to kill someone – seriously wrong! But then comes a looking at the motivation for the act: “if he does not do it intentionally.” If it is unintentional that is different from if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately.” The secondary reason for assessing motivation, is because of what is going to follow. If it was manslaughter, then the perpetrator could flee to one of the cities of refuge: “When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, select some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that a person accused of murder may not die before he stands trial before the assembly. These six towns you give will be your cities of refuge.” (Num 35:10-13) There is within this additional law a realism and an awareness of human behaviour that is admirable. There is the awareness that even though it may have been manslaughter it may take time to prove that and in the meantime the close family of the person killed may be so incensed by the killing that they may want to go out and take revenge on the killer. That would not be justice. No, the cities of refuge were a device to thwart human anger.

But then we come to the penalty for murder – death! In Western societies, in our human wisdom, we have abolished the death penalty. Some of the reasons for it appear good reasons: the police may be corrupt or lazy and so evidence may have been tampered with or simply missed. Those are legitimate concerns especially in an age when DNA testing now questions a number of past ‘guilty’ decisions.  But in so doing this we appear almost casual sometimes about human life, for there are times when it is blatantly obvious that the person murdered another and there is no question about it. When a man carries a gun to carry out a robbery and then guns down a policeman in his escape and is immediately apprehended in full view of the on looking public, we demean the policeman, the killer and ourselves when we put the killer in prison for a number of years. Life suddenly means little. For God, life is the crucial ingredient of the world and it is not to be taken casually. Indeed when it is taken, there is to be a serious accounting.

Another reason for the abolishing of the death penalty is the claim that it is not a deterrent. As we said in an earlier meditation, it may not be for a few, but it will be for many. The horror of the death penalty is to be one of the things to acts as a deterrent. The law went on to demand that witnesses come forward and it is the witnesses and neighbours who are to be the executioners by stoning, a most gruesome form of execution – but that is the point. If you have taken part in or even witnessed such an execution, then you will do all in your power to avoid either that happening to you, or it having to happen to someone else. Oh yes, this was a deterrent and we have removed any such deterrent from modern society and we are witnessing the results!

In the following verses we see variants of the Law: “Anyone who attacks his father or his mother must be put to death.” (v.15) You will see in your Bible a footnote to the effect that the word ‘attacks’ could mean ‘kills’ This focuses the violence of death or attempted death on the sanctity of the family, which was the primary building block in that society that God was creating. Whether it is murder or attempted murder, when it applies to parents, then death is to follow. The consequences of the breakdown of society were too great; this must act as a deterrent.

Then comes, “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death.” (v.16) The taking away of life by kidnapping (not literal death) is considered just a heinous. We then come to a strange one (in modern eyes at least): “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” (v.17) A curse, here, is not a casual slanderous comment; it is a purposeful bringing of an occult curse that will have effect and as such, is put into the same category as the previous laws, for it has the same potential. Again it is linked with the sanctity of the family, the primary building block of society. That is why it is so serious and that is why it will seem so strange to us who live in a society.  Here we are so casual about the family building block that we have made it easy for it to be broken up, and we do so little to support and strengthen it, allowing abuses of many kinds to continue almost unchecked.

If some of these laws seem strange or even abhorrent to us today, perhaps we should ask who has lost perspective – God or us? There is much to reflect upon in the light of the failures of our modern societies and the more we reflect the more, I suspect, we will change our thinking.

God of Refuge

God in the Psalms No.11

Psa 7:1 O LORD my God, I take refuge in you; save and deliver me from all who pursue me

We have seen previously (Meditation 3) God as a shield, the one who stands between us and our enemy and provides protection, but the idea of God being a refuge takes us on beyond that to a fuller and more intimate picture of God with us.

Yes, there is the same idea of God being a protector and He does it by being a deliverer (as we saw in Meditation 4), to save David from those who pursued him and sought to kill him (v.2).   So what’s the difference between a shield and a refuge?   A shield is something you hold out in front of you to protect you from the enemy, while a refuge is a place you retreat into to receive that same protection.   A shield is before you and a refuge is all around you.   A shield you have to hold up strongly, but a refuge is something you retreat into when you are weak and unable to defend yourself.  The refuge provides the strength and you need do nothing except get into it.

In mountain areas, there is sometimes a refuge in high places which is either a hut or simply a wall in a square shape with a single opening. In both cases the climber or walker simply gets into the refuge to escape the weather. When wives have been beaten by husbands who are bullies, we now have ‘refuges’ where they can go where the husband cannot. All they need do is flee into the refuge and they are safe.

Thus, similarly, we can have a sense of the Lord’s presence surrounding us and when that happens, the noise of the winds of adversity are cut off and we have peace.  God is our refuge.  There are times when the enemy seems to rage against us and affliction comes in a variety of ways, and we cry out to the Lord and then, suddenly all is still, the struggle seems to be terminated.  God is our refuge.  It is simply His presence being manifested and whenever He comes into our circumstances, He takes control and peace comes. The picture of Jesus asleep in the boat with the disciples, in the storm (Mt 8:24 -), although an historical event, is also a good analogy of this.  A storm blew up that threatened the boat. They woke Jesus and he returned to their conscious world and rebuked the wind and the waves.  Suddenly there was peace. Thus was God manifest.   God was their refuge.

In Num 35:9 onwards we find God giving Moses the law for the cities of refuge. These were simply places where someone who had committed manslaughter could go to get protection against the avenger. We have an accuser, Satan, for that is what his name means.  When we fail and sin, we confess it and when he accuses us we have to flee to the refuge that is Jesus and all he’s done of us on the Cross.  That was why John wrote in 1 Jn 2:1,2 about how, should we sin, we have one who speaks in our defence, the one who died for us, Jesus. When we are accused we are to flee to God, our refuge, for He alone has provided safety and protection for us against the demands of Satan and the Law, so that we might live and not die. He is our refuge because of who He is and what He’s done.  Psa 126:1 says, Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge.” This is what a refuge does, it keeps us safe; it makes us feel secure.   That is far more than the work of a shield.  As we said, the refuge surrounds us and it is His strength, not ours, that prevails against the enemy. We just have to cry to Him and then let Him be Himself for us, for His very presence acts as a refuge from all the enemy can bring against us. Hallelujah!