Updated: Dec 18, 2020
[Commentary on Deuteronomy 19:4-13] I don’t think skeptics really want to understand the God of the Bible. Here on Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, we see the rules God puts in place to protect human life. Those who take it are to be dealt with harshly. But vigilanteism is not allowed—only after a fair trial is capital punishment to be carried out. Really, God’s system was revolutionary in that day.
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Sanctity of Human Life Sunday
Lifeway is stepping out of order in order to use passages related to Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. I still recommend introducing Deuteronomy as usual; the interesting passages they chose still represent an important part of the book.
With that, I’ll let you decide for yourself what you want to say about the day. One recommendation would be to tell the story of Norma McCorvey, the woman who was the focus of Roe v. Wade. Rough childhood. Her father left the family when she was young, and her mother was an abusive drunk. She was the victim of multiple assaults, mostly by family members. During her third pregnancy, she sought an abortion, which was illegal at the time. She was referred to two lawyers, Coffee and Weddington, who were looking for pregnant women who wanted an abortion. It took three years for Norma’s case to reach the Supreme Court, during which she had given birth and given up for adoption. She never attended a trial, and she later admitted that some of her claims here fabrications. While working at an abortion clinic, she was suddenly struck with the fact that those being killed were human babies. She immediately repented of her involvement with the abortion movement, became a Christian, and joined the Roman Catholic Church working with a priest who headed a pro-life organization. She died in 2017.
What’s the Problem with “The Avengers” or other Vigilantes?
Part of the schtick of comic book superheroes is their tense relationship with law enforcement. Sometimes they act above the law, but then sometimes the people want them kept under the law. (This was basically the whole point of “The Avengers” story arc as well as “Batman v. Superman”.) For the most part, I think that people side with a lot of the superheroes (with the occasional “with great power comes great responsibility” speech). If they’re strong enough to take down the bad guys, let them! What’s the problem with that? Simple: it assumes they always make the right decision on the right thing to do. This is where the “responsibility” comes in—if you have the ability to take someone’s life (as easily as a superhero can), you really need to make sure you’re right before you do. But stop and think about that for a moment. How many times have you made a judgment about a person or situation only to discover (maybe a long time later) that you were wrong about the facts? Maybe some of your class members will even share a story of such a time! Now imagine yourself with super powers, like the ability to fire lasers out of your eye sockets. How’s that gonna go for you? When in doubt, we must err on the side of preserving life, and the Bible creates many safeguards to that end. The point would be to make sure our class members fear the power to take life and pray for those officials who have that power.
This Week's Big Idea: All About Deuteronomy
I think I’ve hinted pretty well at the purpose of Deuteronomy in the Bible. Here’s the nitty-gritty:
Israel has rebelled in the desert (including Moses)
God is not letting any rebels into the Promised Land
Moses needs to commission the new generation
And that’s the whole purpose of the book. It is Moses’ final speech to the Israelites who will fulfill the promise God made to Abraham so long ago. In it, Moses reminds the Israelites of everything that happened during their childhood (things they probably weren’t old enough to understand) including the ways God was faithful to them and the ways their parents rebelled against Him. Then, Moses recounts the Law as he received it on Sinai, and he gives the Israelites a choice: obey the law and live, or disobey and perish (as he will). Finally, Moses commissions the new leaders, giving them his symbolic blessings, and he dies. If you let yourself get sucked into the story, it’s very moving.
Traditional Controversies Surrounding Deuteronomy. According to 2 Kings 22, Josiah discovered this book in the Temple archives, and it became the basis for his wide-ranging reform. Well, according to skeptical scholars, Josiah “planted” this book in order to gain credibility for his program. Recent archeology, however, has discovered significant parallels between this book and a common form of treaty from Moses’ era, a “suzerainty treaty”. Such a treaty had six parts: (1) preamble identifying the parties, (2) historical prologue/situation, (3) stipulations/list of duties, (4) document deposit/location, (5) sanctions imposed, (6) witnesses. That’s basically the structure of Deuteronomy! The genius of the book, though, is it is not a treaty. It uses the structure of a treaty, stuffed with theological motivations and observations, to persuade the people of Israel to stay true to their God.
Primary Themes. (1) There is one God, and He has called one people to be His. That’s the basis of the letter, with an implication being that the people should be united. (2) God has a Name, which means He is a personal God with an identity. In other words, you can have a relationship with this God. We think of our relationship with God being acted out in worship, which is why worship plays such a big role in the book (pointing to a future day when the Tabernacle will be replaced with a permanent Temple). (3) The holy war for the conquest of Canaan. See the back page for more about this. (4) The Ten Commandments would be the fundamental moral center for the people of Israel, and they reflected God’s own character. (5) The need to make a personal decision. Moses continuously puts it on the people to choose for themselves how they will respond to God’s offer. (6) A future, eternal hope. Moses is quite aware that the people will fail to live up to their end of the deal, and yet he has hope in God’s grace and provision.
The total story is quite simple: If you listen to God, love God, and love one another, then you will receive all of the blessings God has promised. [This is a great parallel for the entire human condition. If we could just love God and love one another perfectly, we would all receive His blessings. But we can’t. And so we see that this was pointing to a future fulfillment: God Himself would live up to the stipulations of this covenant. Our new obligation is (1) to acknowledge that we have failed to live up to the covenant and (2) to submit ourselves to His mercy in Christ Jesus. Thus, it is now in Jesus that we receive all of the blessings God has promised.]
The Larger Context of Deuteronomy
You really have to throw context out for this lesson. They are jumping in to a few verses that relate to Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. Just give the overview of the entire book. I love the Torah video for Deuteronomy:
Part 1: Prohibition (Deuteronomy 5:17)
You shall not murder.
The entire Ten Commandments is the basis for all of the laws in the Bible—you can’t isolate one and have it make as much sense. (Note: the Bible itself doesn’t call these “laws”; they are always called “words”, as in, “these are the words of God”. They represent God’s character, and therefore they are intimately connected with one another.) If You have time, read the entire Ten Commandments in this chapter. (Of course, if you do everything that I suggest you do in this lesson, you’ll probably need about two hours.) This one is highlighted because of its connection with Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. The word “murder” refers both to the intentional killing of someone and the unintentional killing of someone through negligence or carelessness. (That’s why Numbers 35:11, which clearly is talking about an accident, still uses the verb for “murder”.) This word is not used for judicial execution or killing in war. Your class probably has American legal ideas about murder, so it would be helpful to review those:
First-degree murder: intentional murder that is willful and premeditated with “malice aforethought”.
Second-degree murder: intentional murder with malice aforethought, but is not premeditated or planned in advance.
Voluntary manslaughter: intentional killing that involves no prior intent to kill (“crime of passion”).
Involuntary manslaughter: intentional or negligent act leading to death (but death not the intent of the act).
These are distinct crimes according to American law with distinct punishments. However, all of them are considered “murder” by the biblical definition of the word (folks forget the old Judeo-Christian foundation of American law). We are not to do any of these.
Why? Because God created all people in His image and He loves all people uniquely and intimately. Consequently, He alone has the authority to determine when someone’s life should end. The Bible describes two scenarios in which God has given humans such authority: (1) a few very unique holy wars in the Old Testament (see the back page); (2) capital punishment by governments (God has allowed human governments to exist with the understanding that they will create and enforce laws they think necessary to protect and defend their society).
Make sure your class understands that they are not let off the hook. People, like the rich young ruler, quickly say “I haven’t committed murder!” But Jesus made it clear that God’s standards are far beyond that: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matt 5:21-22) Fundamentally, murder is about minimizing the value of a human life. But we can come short of committing the act of murder while still committing the underlying sin which would otherwise lead to murder: hate, anger, neglect, and manipulation. All of those sins represent the same disdain for the value of human life, and we are equally to abhor them.
Aside: The Connection Between King Saul and Euthanasia
I’m doing a Wednesday night series on modern ethics. One of the modern challenges to the traditional Christian pro-life stance is the idea of “euthanasia”, or “mercy killing”. Proponents will point to the example of Saul in 2 Samuel 1, namely that he asked for death as a mercy and was granted it by a nearby Amalekite. The problem with that appeal is David’s response, namely that the person who “mercy killed” Saul was guilty of murder, and David immediately had him executed for such. Explanations include that the real crime was that Saul was king and so euthanasia was more like assassination or rebellion. The problem with those is that nowhere was the king given unique status as a human. The crime David accused the Amalekite of was murder, not rebellion or assassination. My conclusion to this is that God did not accept the argument that Saul’s “mercy killing” was anything other than murder.
But here’s the question: if the Amalekite, instead of running straight to David, had instead gone to a city of refuge, would he have been spared? I love that question, and I don’t know the answer. The problem is that the Amalekite clearly intended to kill Saul, and cities of refuge were for accidental killings. Did they have the “crime of passion” defense in that day? I would think that the Amalekite could argue that he was persuaded to do something in a split-second without being given the opportunity to really think about the consequences. American law allows for a similar defense resulting in a lesser punishment. I really don’t think the Hebrews would have given the same allowance; again, their focus was intent. The Amalekite intended to kill Saul. That’s not gonna fly.
Part 2: Grace (Deuteronomy 19:4-10)
This is the rule concerning anyone who kills a person and flees there for safety—anyone who kills a neighbor unintentionally, without malice aforethought. For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life. Otherwise, the avenger of blood might pursue him in a rage, overtake him if the distance is too great, and kill him even though he is not deserving of death, since he did it to his neighbor without malice aforethought. This is why I command you to set aside for yourselves three cities. If the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as he promised on oath to your ancestors, and gives you the whole land he promised them, because you carefully follow all these laws I command you today—to love the Lord your God and to walk always in obedience to him—then you are to set aside three more cities. Do this so that innocent blood will not be shed in your land, which the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance, and so that you will not be guilty of bloodshed.
Here’s that phrase “malice aforethought”, which is why I recommended explaining the American legal definitions of murder. This is a very, very important section in the Bible. It sets Israel apart from other nations. Whereas skeptics try to accuse the God of the Old Testament as being one of hate and cruelty, a closer investigation reveals that God then and now has always been a God of grace. And yet that grace always has boundaries—God never intends for His grace to be abused. As far as I can tell, the cities of refuge exist for what we would call “involuntary manslaughter”. The other degrees of murder involve intent or malice aforethought. Grace was not extended to them!
Note that “crime of passion” might be an “it depends”. Most of the scenarios I can find in the Old Testament that seem like a crime of passion were also met with a “no mercy should be extended” (although sometimes mercy was extended because the judicial system was not working well in Israel). However, I have to think that there were scenarios that may have technically fallen under “voluntary manslaughter” that would have been accepted into a city of refuge. I just don’t know enough about law to say.
This brings up the idea of an “avenger of blood”. This was a thing in that day and region, not just for the Hebrews. If someone was killed or taken into slavery, a member of the family (usually a blood relative) had the responsibility to take the life of the killer (in less dramatic situations, this person also received restitution, bought back property, redeemed the slave, or married the widow). Even unintentional murder demanded a penalty—the family may never be able to truly recover from the loss—which is where the idea of “eye for eye” comes from. In a lack of a police force or advanced judicial system, personal retribution was the only way to deter crime. That’s why Israel and other nations allowed it. (Does that make sense?) But the difference for Israel is that strict limits were placed on this avenger. Only certain types of killings could be avenged (but note that it was still a race to a city of refuge, and if the refugee was foolish enough to leave the city, they were at risk). And if the avenger violated these limits, he would be punished for the crime of murder (see the next section).
Cities of refuge were a big deal, and they were meant to be taken very seriously in Israel. Only Levitical cities were chosen as cities of refuge (and only 6 of the 48 Levitical cities at that). Israel’s history is spotty at best with respect to these cities, although later rabbis still tried to enforce their validity to the Jews (even when Greek and Roman law sometimes interfered with the process). Joshua 20 describes the additional three cities to the east of the Jordan. Their purpose was restraint. God wanted to keep His people from the guilt of punishing an innocent person. Justice is very important to God—and only God can determine true justice (because He alone knows the heart). So, until as many of the facts as possible are known, God spoke to keep His people from vengeance. Note that this did not remove capital punishment from the table! People who were found guilty of murder were to be executed. This was how God impressed the idea of “due process” on His people, a way to prevent what Americans would call “mob lynching”. A court of law (cities of refuge were Levitical cities) is how God’s people were to impose God’s laws on their nation. (BUT NOTE: Christians are no longer a nation! We are spread through all nations, bound to the laws of the nations we inhabit, called to be salt and light in them however possible. In other words, Christians do not have access to capital punishment for our own use.)
Aside: About Cities of Refuge
A couple of cool things you may want to point out to your class. First, their distribution—they were spread out so far across Israelite territory that any Jew should have been able to reach one. (Our passage implies that more could have been added as needed.) Second, their access—your class might be wondering how someone would determine if the city should accept the refugee (after all, we have lawyers today who work long hours convincing people of their client’s status). Well, leaders of a city often gathered at the city gate for the purpose of public declarations. A refugee would go to the gate, make their defense to the leaders (i.e. a hearing), and then await their verdict. If accepted, arrangements would be made for a trial in the home city, and safe passage would be guaranteed to the refugee until the outcome of the trial. If found innocent of murder, the refugee would have asylum in the city of refuge until it was safe to return to his own city. Third, their population—all cities of refuge were Levitical cities, meaning that all of the leaders would have been extremely well-versed in the law.
Part 3: Justice (Deuteronomy 19:11-13)
But if out of hate someone lies in wait, assaults and kills a neighbor, and then flees to one of these cities, the killer shall be sent for by the town elders, be brought back from the city, and be handed over to the avenger of blood to die. Show no pity. You must purge from Israel the guilt of shedding innocent blood, so that it may go well with you.
The section offers a helpful balance: the city of refuge cannot save a person guilty of murder. Israel would not serve herself by letting murders off the hook. Note how this section explains the role of the “avenger of blood”—that person did not act as a vigilante but with the authority of leadership. Imagine a scenario in which someone observed a potentially accidental killing, told a family member, and that person immediately sought out the killer as an avenger of blood. Well, think about it—that is premeditation, malice aforethought, and intent. In other words, murder. (Even if it happens quickly, like a crime of passion.) In other words, the avenger of blood was not a vigilante. It was the family member with the responsibility of carrying out just punishment for murder. (Realize that Israel did not have “executioners”! Someone bore the burden of this task.) A person who committed retributive murder was just as dangerous to society as someone who committed premeditated murder.
So, if you have anyone in your class who sees this system as barbaric and not helping the case of defending God as a God of mercy, just try to help them understand that the ancient world did not have a judicial or law enforcement system like we have today. They also did not have a prison system like we have today. This is how God protected His people from taking innocent life without allowing people guilty of murder to remain as a threat to people and a stain on morality. America is supposed to be very different from ancient Israel. But the biggest difference is that with Jesus, God’s plan shifted from a “nation” to a “people”, and that shift cannot be overstated. God’s laws kept His people intact until the time came for Jesus to be born. Now, those civil laws are fulfilled and we are no longer to use them. What we take away from this are some key lessons: God believes in fair and impartial law, God believes in a person’s right to make a case for innocence, and God believes in extended mercy where possible. That should apply to all people all over the world at all times. Sanctity of Human Life Sunday points to the plight of several groups who have not been given the right or ability to defend themselves, namely victims of abortion and euthanasia. But it also points to those places around the world where capital punishment is used wantonly or with bias and where people are denied due process. That is the focus on our passage, and it fits well with the purpose of the day.
But what about today? What if someone has committed murder? Should they immediately be put to death? We don’t live under these laws. If our government does not punish a murderer with death, then that is the end of it. As Christians, we are to accept the judgments of the land (and work to change the process when it is flawed). If a murderer is released into society, guess what we should do? (Make your class think about this.) Share the gospel with him! Work toward and pray for his repentance and conversion! There is no unforgivable sin when it comes to salvation. God is the One who will deal out eternal judgment; we are to offer the hope of forgiveness and salvation in Jesus. This doesn’t necessarily mean putting yourself or your family at risk, but it does mean that we are to take the gospel to all people, knowing that no one is beyond grace.
Is God Pro-Life or Not?
As Christians, we stand quite unabashedly on the side of life. We are against the ending of life by abortion, euthanasia, genetic screening, or whatever other reason people have come up with to end life. But people will say that, in the Old Testament, God was quite liberal with the death penalty and the use of holy war. What justification do we have to say that God is pro-life? Because He is! Hopefully I have established that civilization with a police presence (which really didn’t start in Israel until the coming of the Greek Empire) is different. God gave the Jews laws necessary to maintain peace and order, and they were the ones who had to enforce it. We are no longer in those conditions. Rather, we see that in these laws, God is demonstrating how valuable life is to Him. By exacting the most severe punishment on those who through their actions or negligence put human lives at risk, God is saying that He desires to protect life, particularly those who are unable to defend themselves. You will note that God gave provision for mercy (as in our passage). God also restricted the enforcement of these laws to the territory of Israel (He did not tell the Jews to expand their influence by force). Plus, with close reading, we see that God was actually being quite restrictive in capital punishment, not liberal as other peoples were in that region.
I have heard scholars say that Israel misunderstood God’s commands related to capital punishment or holy war. Or, that God allowed this to happen out of necessity to protect His people. Or, that this was rhetoric and the people were not to actually follow these rules. None of those concessions are necessary. God was just as harsh with His people as with pagans. All abominable acts received the same judgment. And all of this clearly pointed to our need for a Savior (ultimate Life).