Biblical Principle #248: God’s Instructions to Israel for Homicide

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Under the Law of Moses, God gave Israel instructions for dealing with various situations involving homicide.


As we have previously established, the Law of Moses governed all facets of life during GOD’s first covenant with Israel. Because people are imperfect, living in a sin-cursed world, GOD knew provisions needed to be made for the eventuality that Israelites would be killed by one another.

Different events require different consequences for there to be justice.

Murder was forbidden from the beginning of the covenant at Sinai when GOD gave Israel the Ten Commandments. Generally, the consequence for murder was death.

Premeditated Murder

12 “He who so strikes a man that he dies shall surely be put to death. 13 However, if he did not willfully lie in wait, but God delivered him into his hands, I will appoint for you a place where the slayer may flee. 14 But if a man acts with premeditation against his neighbor to kill him by treachery, you shall take him from My altar that he may die.

Exodus 21:12-14 OSB

Intentional Murder

20 Or if anyone should shove someone because of enmity, or should throw any tool at him from an ambush, and that one dies, 21 or if anyone should strike someone in anger with his hand, and that one dies, let the one who killed him be put to death. He is a murderer. So let the murderer be put to death. The avenger of blood shall kill the murderer when he meets him.

Numbers 35:20-21 OSB

Murder Using an Object

16 But if anyone should strike someone with an iron tool, and that one dies, he is a murderer; so let the murderer be put to death. 17 Also if anyone should strike someone with a stone from his hand by which that one could die, and that one does die, he is a murderer; so let the murderer be put to death. 18 Or if anyone should strike someone with a wooden tool by which that one could die, and that one does die, he is a murderer; so let the murderer be put to death. 19 The avenger of blood himself shall kill the murderer; and whenever he meets him, he shall kill him.

Numbers 35:16-19 OSB

Multiple Witnesses Required to Convict for Murder

We previously established that a single witness was insufficient to convict for a crime under the Law of Moses. GOD reiterated this instruction specifically for murders:

30 ‘Whoever takes a life, the murderer shall be put to death on the testimony of witnesses; but a single witness is not sufficient testimony for the death penalty.

Numbers 35:30 OSB

Provision for the Prevention of a Crime

GOD allowed a homicide in defense of one’s property as long as it was at night.

1 “If a thief is found breaking in at night and is killed, there shall be no guilt for his blood. 2 But if the sun rises on the thief, there shall be guilt if his blood is shed. However, he should make full restitution; but if he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.

Exodus 22:1-2 OSB


There were, of course, situations where an Israelite killed another unintentionally. GOD demonstrated His merciful nature here by protecting the guilty shedder of blood because they did so accidentally or without malice.

22 ‘However, if anyone should shove someone unexpectedly, but not because of enmity, or throw any tool at him, but not from an ambush, 23 or is working with any stone by which that one could die, and he threw it at him unknowingly, and that one dies, but he was not his enemy, nor was he seeking to harm him, 24 then the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood based on these judgments. 25 So the congregation shall deliver the manslayer from the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall return him to the city of refuge where he fled; and he shall live there until the high priest whom they anointed with the holy oil should die.

Numbers 35:22-25 OSB

Innocent Homicide

The Israelite who committed manslaughter could flee to designated Cities of Refuge and find legal and physical protection from being killed in revenge.

4 Now this shall be the ordinance of the manslayer who flees there, that he may live: Whoever strikes his neighbor involuntarily, not having hated him hitherto up until now— 5 as when a man goes to the woods with his neighbor to cut timber, and his hand swings a stroke with the ax to cut down the tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor, that he dies—he shall flee to one of these cities and live; 6 lest the avenger of blood, while his anger is hot, pursue the manslayer and overtake him, because the way is long, and strikes this soul, and he dies, though there was no judgment rendered that he should die, because he had not hated the victim hitherto up until now.

Deuteronomy 19:4-6 OSB

Cities of Refuge

Here’s what GOD said about these cities:

9 Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, ‘You shall cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 and you shall separate cities for yourselves to be cities of refuge, for any manslayer who kills someone involuntarily to flee there. 12 These shall be cities of refuge for you from the avenger of blood, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment. 13 So the cities you give shall be six cities of refuge for you. 14 You shall designate three cities beyond the Jordan and three cities in the land of Canaan. 15 These cities shall be places of refuge for the children of Israel, and for the resident alien and the sojourner among you, that anyone who kills someone involuntarily may flee there as a place of refuge.

Numbers 35:9-15 OSB

Initially, there were three Cities:

1 “Now if the Lord your God removes the nations whose land the Lord your God is giving you, and you inherit them and dwell in their cities and in their houses, 2 you shall separate three cities for yourself in the midst of the land the Lord your God gives you. 3 You shall prepare roads for yourself, and divide into three parts the boundaries of your land the Lord your God divides into sections for you, that any manslayer may flee there.

Deuteronomy 19:1-3 OSB

After conquest of Canaan, Israel was to add three additional Cities, giving them six:

8 “But if the Lord your God enlarges your territory in the manner He swore to your fathers, and the Lord gives you the land He promised to give to your fathers, 9 and if you hear and do all these commandments I command you today, to love the Lord your God and walk in all His ways all your days, then you shall add three more cities for yourself besides these three, 10 lest innocent blood be shed in the midst of your land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and thus the guilt of bloodshed be upon you.

Deuteronomy 19:8-10 OSB

If the manslayer ventured outside one of these Cities of Refuge, they put their life at risk:

26 But if the manslayer should go outside the boundaries of the city where he fled, 27 and the avenger of blood should find him outside the boundaries of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the manslayer, he is not liable. 28 So let him live in his city of refuge until the high priest should die; then after the death of the high priest the manslayer shall return to the land of his possession.

Numbers 35:26-28 OSB

These Cities of Refuge were never to protect murderers, however:

11 But if there should be a man that hates his neighbor, and lies in wait for him, and rises against him, and strikes this soul, and he dies, and then this man flees to one of these cities, 12 then the elders of his city shall send and bring him from there, and deliver him over to the hands of the avenger of blood, that he may die. 13 Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall cleanse the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may be well with you.

Deuteronomy 19:11-13 OSB

No Ransom Payment for Manslayers

GOD forbid accepting ransom payment for extraditing manslayers from a City of Refuge so that they could be killed by the avenger of blood.

32 Also you shall accept no ransom from one who fled to one of the cities of refuge, that he may again return to dwell in the land before the death of the high priest.

Numbers 35:32 OSB

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One response to “Biblical Principle #248: God’s Instructions to Israel for Homicide”

  1. Roger Walters Avatar
    Roger Walters

    God established the sanctity of life, He created it. Therefore, He created laws that held life high, and for anyone who broke His laws, He gave the appropriate punishment.

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