Explore the Bible

with W. Wayne VanHorn

Sunday, January 19


Deuteronomy 5:17; 19:4-13

January 19 is Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. In churches all across America, people will be reminded that God values human life and expects His people to value it as well.

Prohibition (Deut. 5:17). The Hebrews had multiple words meaning, “to kill.” The word used in Deuteronomy 5:17 and in Exodus 20:13 is tirzach, referring specifically to premeditated murder. The prohibition consists of this verb preceded by the negative particle, lo’, the strongest negating word in Hebrew. To get the full impact of this prohibition, we could translate lo’ tirzach as “Don’t even begin to think about killing someone!”

Premeditated murder was considered sin because it costs other human beings their lives. Premeditated murder was viewed as attacking the image of God in creation (Gen. 9:6). Only humans are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27). The sin was so serious and the crime so heinous that it called for the death penalty (Exod. 21:12,14). Simply stated, God forbids premeditated murder.

Grace (Deut. 19:4-10). What if the death was not premeditated? Would the death sentence still be appropriate? Does lo’ tirzach pertain to involuntary manslaughter? In Deut. 19:4, the word “manslayer” (NASB), renders the active participial form of the same verb found in Deut. 5:17. However, the context provides added information to direct the reader away from seeing this as a case of premeditated murder.

Instead, involuntary manslaughter is in view. First, the man killed his friend “unintentionally, not hating him previously” (Deut. 19:4). Second, a clarifying example is given of two men going into the forest to cut wood. While there, his axe head slips off the handle, hitting and killing his friend (Deut. 19:5). Third, the man is said to be “not deserving of death, since he had not hated him previously” (Deut.19:6). Finally, the man is referred to as “innocent blood” should he be killed in retaliation (Deut. 19:10).

In cases of unintentional human death, God provided cities of refuge (Deut. 19:2-4). These cities, three on each side of the Jordan river, were placed so that there was one no more than 30 miles from any given point in the promised land. Those involved in unintentional manslaughter could flee to a city of refuge to escape retaliation from the deceased man’s family.

The phrase, “avenger of blood,” renders the Hebrew term, go’el. The go’el was authorized to avenge a relative’s blood by killing his killer. Certain property rights were involved in the go’el’s responsibilities also as revealed in the story of Ruth. The cities of refuge were designed to provide protection to the manslayer lest he be killed by the go’el in the height of emotions over the death of his relative.

Justice (Deut. 19:11-13). Having clarified that involuntary manslaughter was not considered a capital crime, Moses returned to the issue of premeditated murder. In Deut. 19:11, he identified the murderer as one “who hates his neighbor” (NASB). Guided by hate, he “lies in wait for him and rises up against him and strikes him.” The clause, “so he dies,” seems to be understated for such an egregious act. Moses contemplated the eventuality that such a murderer would seek to avail himself of the city of refuge by fleeing to “one of these cities.”

Moses prescribed the due process of law by directing the elders of the city to take the murderer from the city of refuge and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, the go’el (Deut. 19:12). The last clause of this verse, “that he may die,” utilizes the same verbal form used in the previous verse to indicate the death of the victim of this murder.

Thus, capital punishment was prescribed for capital murder. The final verse of our focal passage goes even further. Those worthy of capital punishment were not to be pitied, because the punishment was deemed necessary to “purge the blood of the innocent from Israel.” Additionally, the purging was deemed necessary “that it may go well” with the people.

VanHorn is dean of Christian Studies at Mississippi College, Clinton.