The sixth of the Ten Commandments forbade murder, but God did not leave the matter up for much in the way of debate over the actions constituting murder. Exodus 21:12-32 provided the paradigms necessary for adjudicating matters of suspected wrongful death among the people of God.
The legal code set forth does not prove terribly complicated. At its base, the law asks the following: did the action leading to death have intention or not? If yes, even the intention in the heat of argumentative passion, then murder occurred. If not, the person in question caused death, but he did not commit murder. Interestingly, Exodus 21:28-32 expounds on negligence in the realm of work animals and their unpredictable behavior. Not bad for an ancient group of people post-Enlightenment thinkers reckon as superstitious yokels.
Rather than place each accused person at the mercy of a capricious or wanton judge, the leadership of Israel would possess an outside source to serve as a basis for their decision. They would know God’s own thoughts on the matter.
Genesis 9 reveals God already proclaimed the shedding of the blood of God’s own image bearers resulted in their own deaths. Now those Moses appointed to serve under him at Jethro’s direction had further word from God for the purpose of right judgment.
The revelation of these laws helped the people then, and us now, understand part of God’s character. The pagan world presents all kinds of gods who rule over all sorts of things except their own whims and tempers. One never knew if Marduk, Molech, or Baal would raise or raze the crops, nations, or families of their worshipers. To walk into some sort of judgment by these gods meant suffering whatever idea popped into their head at a given moment. The One True God, Yahweh, reveals himself as the opposite. He has standards, objective propositions which would endure generations. He abhors chaos, confusion, and caprice. He is good.
These portions of legal material kick against the outsider notion of the Old Testament God as some sort of foil to Christ. Precisely because the God of the Old Testament has ultimate holiness, Christ would willingly go to the cross. The good God set forth regulations for his people preventing the worst sort of autocracy in Israel, and Israel’s eventual failure would lead Jesus to keep the Law perfectly, making himself the holy sacrifice for the sin-filled failure of his own people.
Yet, his goodness terrifies the one who truly meditates on the law. The Psalmist asks in 130:3: If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? As Jesus expounds on parts of the Torah in Matthew 5, he reveals how deep the Law penetrated: as intention proved the necessary component for murder, evil intent in the heart did not escape God’s view. Hatred held in made one guilty enough for God’s judgment.
Chaos shall not reign, not even in the hearts of God’s people. We shall not stand as rabid-but-caged wolves, inwardly frothing and outwardly collected. Fake-it-till-you-make-it does not pass muster with the God who sees the heart and soul as books open to read. God’s goodness outstrips any human standard, revealing just how much we miss the mark in attaining to his standard. Even our thoughts and passions condemn us in the fact of his holiness.
So do we live in a sort of fearful despair? May it never be; the worldview of fearful despair serves as the basis for pagan thought, not the heart of God’s people. We certainly have nothing to offer for our own defense in his court. However, even these laws teaching the definition of murder and its intentional nature push us to embrace the Savior, Christ Jesus himself. When we submit to his gospel, we profess trust in even our hidden evil intentions receiving due penalty on Golgotha. We count on the comprehensiveness of God’s understanding of us extending mercy to our innermost parts.
The holy judge shall not wave away as inconsequential inward sin. Neither will he abandon his people as if such things remain some sort of unconquerable stronghold. No, believer in Christ. Even as you feel the weight of your guilt and shame due to the sin Jesus so incisively revealed in Matthew 5, know these most intimate sins do not escape God’s sight, but neither do they escape his grace. Though we fail on even this point of the Law, Christ never did. His righteous life includes his accomplishment of never holding hate in his heart for his brother. Along with so much else, the cleanness of his motivations also becomes credited to you when you believe on him for salvation.