This morning I preached a sermon at Riverhead Presbyterian Church on Christ’s exposition of the 6th Commandment, the prohibition on homicide, contained in the Sermon on the Mount. This Sunday Study series is essentially a transcript of today’s sermon.
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca, ‘ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5: 21-26)
This passage is the first of a series where Jesus contrasts what his listeners “have heard that it was said to the people long ago” with his own teachings. In v27 he contrasts, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery’” with his own teaching to not look at another person’s spouse lustfully. In v31 he contrasts, “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce,’” with his own teaching that divorce is unacceptable except for adultery. In v34 he contrasts, “you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath,’” with his own teaching about keeping one’s word. The rest of chapter five continues in this manner.
One way these contrasts are commonly understood is to see Christ as repudiating and rejecting the teaching of the Old Testament and replacing it with his own teaching. The problem is that this goes against the context and genre of the text.
In the verses immediately prior to these, Christ tells his readers not to interpret his comments as a rejection of Old Testament commands; in v17 he states emphatically “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them.” In v19 he states, “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” The contrast Christ draws in v 20 is not between The Torah and his own teaching but between faithful obedience and the obedience of the scribes and Pharisees. This suggests that Christ is contradicting, not The Torah per se but a particular interpretation of it; he is correcting the interpretation.
Daube provides confirmation of this. Daube notes the contrast in this pericope between “you have heard it said” and “I say to you”. This, Daube points out, was a common way of setting out rabbinic teaching. The rabbi would contrast an excessively formalistic interpretation of the torah that people had “heard” with a fuller correct one that the rabbi himself expounded. This observation fits precisely other parts of the Sermon on the Mount where the same formula is used. The relevant pericope then can be usefully analysed in three parts. First, “You have heard that it was said,” the excessively formalistic interpretation. Second, “I say to you,” which is Christ’s authoritative interpretation. Finally, Christ draws two applications of the interpretation he has expounded. I will turn to each of these features in turn over a two-part series.
You Have Heard That it was Said
What Jesus’ hearers “heard said to the people long ago” was, “’Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” The word “judgment” (greek krisis) used here refers to legal proceedings. Jesus was succinctly summarising some of The Torah’s explicit teachings regarding homicide. An overview of these teachings follows.
Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man. As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.” (Genesis 9: 1-7)
This passage occurs at the end of the flood story in the proto-history of Genesis 1-11. It outlines a covenant God made with Noah “and his descendants” and with “every living creature … the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals.” Two things are relevant for our discussion here, murder is implicitly condemned and human beings are commanded to ensure that those who are murdered are brought to justice.
The same teachings are expounded upon in the law of Moses. The 6th commandment of the Decalogue, which occurs in Exodus 20 and also Deuteronomy 5, states, “you shall not man-slay;” this passage teaches that the killing of one human being by another is prima facie condemned.
Other sections of The Torah outline duties that the community of Israel have towards people who engage in homicide;
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. (Exodus 21:12-14)
The cultural back-drop to this was the ancient near-eastern custom of blood vengeance; the cultural mores of the time dictated that the kin of anyone killed by another were honour-bound to avenge the death of their kinsman by killing the killer. In such a culture anyone who killed another would flee to an altar for sanctuary.
In this context, the universal pre-Sinai law of Genesis 9 was given a specific application in ancient Israel. If a person killed another then the community had three responsibilities. First they were to determine whether the person’s actions were premeditated and deliberate or whether they were an accident. Second, if they were accidental, the community was to provide institutions that would protect them (the reference to “an altar” and a “place they can flee” to refer to ancient practices of sanctuary). Third, if the killing was pre-meditated they were to execute the offender, that is, bringing the offender to justice.
After the settlement of Canaan this law was expounded on in Deuteronomy 19 and Numbers 35; the Israelites were commanded to establish a series of cities of refuge, defined as, “places of refuge from the avenger, so that a person accused of murder may not die before he stands trial before the assembly.”
While an exposition of all the aspects of these institutions are beyond the scope of this post, behind them are the same three requirements I mentioned above. First, if a killing occurred the community was required to determine whether the killer acted with pre-meditation or whether there was some mitigation or accident. This is seen in the laws relating to trials, corroboration by witnesses, perjury, etc that are laid down in The Torah. Second, if the person was not guilty of pre-meditated homicide, the community was to provide the person with protection; this is the very basis of the cities of refuge. Third, if the person was guilty of pre-meditated homicide, they were to execute him. In fact, Numbers 35 goes so far as to state, “‘Do not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. He must surely be put to death.’”
In common with other ancient near-eastern laws, several crimes in The Torah ostensibly called for the death penalty. JJ Finkelstein notes that the capital sanctions that occur in ancient near-eastern legal texts, “Were not meant to be complied with literally even when they were first drawn up, [But rather they] serve an admonitory function” Raymond Westbrook notes that such sanctions typically, “reflect the scribal compilers’ concern for perfect symmetry and delicious irony rather than the pragmatic experience of the law courts.” As I argued in my series, Capital Punishment in the Old Testament, in practice such punishments were substituted for monetary compensation. Numbers 35 tells us that pre-mediated homicide constitutes an exception, in this situation the law must be applied literally.
Interestingly, Deuteronomy suggests that failure by the leaders of the community to establish institutions that protect the innocent from being violently attacked or a failure to execute those guilty of murder, makes those communities (or at least their leaders) complicit in the crime. The reason they are to build cities of refuge is, “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.” (Deuteronomy 19:10) Further, the murderer must be brought to justice to “purge from Israel the guilt of shedding innocent blood, so that it may go well with you.” (Deuteronomy 19: 13)
Jesus’ summary, then, of, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment,” is an accurate rendition of what The Torah taught. Murder was condemned and a community that failed to respond justly to murder by protecting the innocent from it and condemning those guilty of it violated the command.
The problem is that this is not all the Old Testament said. In the book of Leviticus it is affirmed that,
‘You shall not go about as a slanderer among your people, and you are not to act against the life of your neighbor; I am the LORD. ‘You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. ‘You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:16-20)
Here there is a command to “not act against the life of your neighbour;” literally, to stand by the blood of your neighbour, that is to not refuse to protect or assist a person from danger when one is reasonably able to. Not that alongside it is a condemnation of “hating your neighbour in your heart,” bearing a grudge and lashing out with slander. In other words, The Torah requires not just that one refrain from killing and protect others from being killed, it required an absence of malice and these kinds of expression of it. In my next Sunday Study, Sunday Study: Christ on The Prohibition on Homicide Part II, I will conclude this series by looking at Christ’s authoritative interpretation, “but I say to you,” and the application of the interpretation he expounded.
 David Daube The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (London: Athlone Press, 1956) 256.
 Don Carson “Matthew” in The Expositors Bible Commentary Volume 8, ed Frank E Gaebelein ( Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 1984) 148.
 J. J. Finkelstein The Ox that Gored (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1981) 34-35.
 Raymond Westbrook, “The Character of Ancient Near Eastern Law,” in A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, Vol. 1, ed. Raymond Westbrook (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2003) 74.