#142. Can a murderer ransom his life through a monetary compensation? (Ex 21:30 vs Num 35:31)

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All of the Pentateuch’s 3 law codes attest to the ancient custom of lex talionis, the law of retaliation—in this case, a life for a life.

The law code in Exodus 21 lays out this penalty quite clearly.

  • one who strikes a man and he dies shall be put to death!
  • one who strikes his father or mother shall be put to death!
  • one who steals a man and sells him shall be put to death!
  • one who curses his father and mother shall be put to death!
  • an owner who knows that his ox is a goring ox and it gores a man so that he dies shall be put to death!

It’s difficult to say whether these law were actually practiced, and to what extent, or if they were merely part of a scribal culture or tradition. All of the above also find themselves in the laws of the King Hammurabi whose 8ft. stela depicts the king receiving the laws from the god Marduk.

The goring ox example is interesting because the owner of the goring ox, who is guilty for murder, is also allowed to have his life ransomed by a monetary compensation. “If a ransom will be set upon him, then he shall give everything that will be set upon him for the redemption of his life” (Ex 21:30). This may not be the only case. If an owner strikes his slave and the slave dies, immediately, the law tells us that the slave’s life “shall be avenged” (21:20). In other words, it does not say that “he shall be put to death.” So maybe a monetary ransom was allowed in these cases too.

At any event, the Priestly law code allows for no such redemption for the life of a murderer.

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