April 5, 2014 - Numbers 35:9-15, 30-34

Click here for a printable version of this sermon.

Last week my son made an impassioned and reasonably well-argued case that school should last no longer than three hours a day, including recess. I can see his point, and in second grade I probably would have agreed with him. But seeing as I don’t set the educational requirements for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania… he’s out of luck.

Swedish scientist Anders Ericsson famously calculated that, on average, it takes ten thousand hours of practice to master a particular skill, whether it be playing the piano or computer programming or driving a truck. That works out to about twenty hours a week for ten years. In other words, there’s a reason people are in school as long as they are, and if my son wants to be a productive member of society… he’s got to go longer than three hours a day.

The Israelites needed even more time. Forty years, in fact, to learn even the basics of obedience, to learn who God is and who they were as his chosen people and what it was that they were chosen for. Those decades in the wilderness were more than a punishment. They were an apprenticeship, a time of training. It was during Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness – the time between their salvation from slavery and death in Egypt and their eventual entry into the promised land – that God gave them his Law, pointed them toward the salvation to come through Jesus Christ, established the pattern of true worship, and otherwise instructed them in what it was to be a people set apart from the world.

One of the most basic differences has to do with the value of human life itself. To say that the pagan world treated life cheaply would be an understatement. This was a world in which people were hunted and killed for sport, in which prisoners were tortured and murdered to the delight of cheering crowds, in which unwanted babies were exposed, that is, set outdoors, on the side of the hill, until they died. Not to sound like an alarmist, but the old pagan world was, in many ways, like the new pagan world, like our own – a world in which life was cheap. The law laid down for Israel here in chapter 35 was intended to set a different standard.

The basic principle is established in verses 16 to 21: the punishment for murder is death. But this isn’t some random blood-vengeance. It’s tempered with cities of refuge, provisions for witnesses, and other conditions, all of which combine to make a point: that human life is a gift from God, and not a thing to be bought or sold or taken casually.

It starts here in verse nine with the provision for six sanctuary cities, cities of refuge at strategic points in the land of Canaan where a person could flee in the case of a killing, until he was given a fair trial. When you read this, keep a couple of things in mind: first, that the ancient world was devoid of police and jails. There was no provision to keep a man under lock and key for the next thirty-five years. Punishments were swift and harsh, or not, depending entirely on your wealth and connections.

Second, remember that this was a clannish, honor-based society. Large chunks of the world still are: in other words, if you kill my brother, whether intentionally or accidentally, I am honor bound to hunt you down and exact revenge. If I can’t exact it on you, I’ll take it out on your wife and your children and your brothers and sisters. You, in turn, will attack my family, and down we go in an descending spiral of deadly vendetta. If you want to see the ancient world in action, watch the Godfather movies. Same idea.

What the Lord did here was to establish a kind of cooling-off zone, a place to which a man or woman could flee until their case was heard. Notice in verse 13 that these sanctuary cities were open to everyone, Israelite or foreigner. That’s not a minor detail. Human life – all human life – is sacred, by virtue of being made in the likeness and image of God, regardless of race or ethnic origin or language or any other manmade dividing line.

The cities of refuge were established specifically so there should be no revenge in the case of an accidental killing. For example, if a man pushed another man with no intent to kill him, and he tripped and fell and died. Or if a woman accidentally dropped a pot from her roof and it fell on someone’s head, who subsequently died. In such cases, the Lord decreed, there should be no revenge. God’s law thus distinguished between premeditated murder, and accidental killing, killing without hatred or malice or intention. That, incidentally, was almost unique in the ancient world.

In cases of premeditated murder, however, provided there were two or more witnesses (v.30) the punishment was clear: “the murderer shall be put to death. The avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death.” (v.19) You might say – plenty of people do – “wait a minute, human life is sacred, and yet God commands the death of murderers. Isn’t that inconsistent?” It’s the same argument leveled against pro-life campaigners, that in order to be consistent they have to oppose capital punishment.

And yet it’s a bogus argument. I say that as a guy who is passionately opposed to abortion, and also personally opposed to capital punishment as it’s currently practiced. In particular, I am unconvinced that the death penalty serves any purpose as a deterrent, I am bothered by the racial and economic disparities in sentencing, and I am horrified by the fact that innocent men have been, and almost certainly are being, executed. For all that, the concept itself – the God-given commandment – is consistent. Human life – at whatever age, in whatever form – is so valuable in the eyes of God that its taking is simultaneously forbidden, and punishable by death. That was the law handed down to Israel.

You might also notice, in verse 31, that there’s a no-bribery clause: “You shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death.” In other words, in the eyes of the Lord, rich or poor, it doesn’t matter. Life is life, and human beings have intrinsic, inalienable rights simply by virtue of being human. If you don’t believe that money affects the administration of justice today, I direct your attention to O.J. Simpson.

There’s one other odd provision here: if a person kills another accidentally, and flees to one of the sanctuary cities, one of the six cities of refuge, he or she has to stay there until the death of the high priest. (v.28) At that point, the accidental killer may go home unharmed.

And that’s actually the detail that points to something deeper here. On the one hand, this is a powerful and sobering reminder that human life isn’t disposable. It can’t be thrown away just because it becomes inconvenient (as with the Nazi T4 program) or because we’re mad (as with murder) or because we don’t think the person’s life is worthy of life (as with the Belgian involuntary euthanasia program). Human beings have profound value simply by virtue of being human, of being made in the likeness of God. I am convinced that one of the principle tasks of the Church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century will be to say “no” to the commodification of human beings – the reduction of people to something that can be bought and sold, or disposed of, whether it be via abortion, or eugenics, or in the sex trade, or via cloning for body parts. The Church will stand that ground alone.

At the same time, though, these laws point deeper, to the redemption purchased by Christ on the cross. Paterius, a sixth-century theologian, pointed to the odd detail of the high priest’s death: “What does it mean,” he asked, “that a homicide returns for absolution after the death of the high priest, except that the human race, which brought death upon itself by sinning, receives absolution for its guilt after the death of the true high priest, namely our redeemer?”

Even the dire warning in verse 33 points to Jesus: “You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it.” We don’t live in the theocratic kingdom of Israel. But we do live among – we ourselves are – a blood-stained people. You don’t believe me, read the paper. Watch the news. There are only two ways that stain will be covered: by the blood of the sinner himself, by death and hell and everything that goes with it – or by the blood of Christ, who took on the flesh and blood of sinful man, and stood in our place, that all who trust in him might find forgiveness and absolution. May God forgive a violent people, and may God open the hearts of violent men to the forgiveness of Christ. Amen.

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