The Bible and Self Defense – Part I

Exodus 21-22

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
January 2017

For the last two weeks, we have been studying a passage that is not familiar to most Christians.  The Ten Commandments are very familiar to most people.  Everyone knows them.  We have learned them since childhood but most people do not have a clue what is in the chapters that follow the Ten Commandments.  Pastors do not preach on these passages in the pulpit.

Last week, we looked at what the Bible says about capital punishment.  We saw that God’s laws are often different from man’s laws.  In some places, you cannot get the death penalty, no matter how what you do.  It is seen as barbaric.  The Bible has a different view on crime and punishment.

There are twenty-four crimes in the Law of Moses, which had the death penalty.[1]  We are not under the Law of Moses today but the idea of capital punishment is biblical.  It runs through the entire Bible.  Today, we will see that every crime in the OT did not result in death.

We will also look at what the Bible says about a different topic.  We are going to look at what the Bible says about self-defense.  We are also going to look at what the Bible says about fighting.  We have been studying case law.  Case law takes the general principles of the Ten Commandments and applies them to a specific situation.

They do not deal with every possible situation.  They are not exhaustive but they do deal with different situations of daily life.  We want to start today by looking at what the Bible says about three different kinds of violent crimes.  One of these crimes specifically affects women.  The other two could affect anyone. These are personal injury laws.  We are going to look at three of them.

Three Case Laws

1. Case Law dealing with injury in a street fight

“If people quarrel and one person hits another with a stone or with their fist and the victim does not die but is confined to bed, 19 the one who struck the blow will not be held liable if the other can get up and walk around outside with a staff; however, the guilty party must pay the injured person for any loss of time and see that the victim is completely healed” (21:18-19 NIV).

This is one of the few places in the Bible that talks about fighting.  It deals with fist fights.  In this situation, two people get in an argument.  It starts with a quarrel and, like it often does, the quarrel escalates into a fight.  One person gets hurt in the fight.  The individual does not die but is seriously hurt.

We want to look at what the Bible teaches about fighting. There are two points we should make here.  First, the Bible does NOT forbid people from fighting completely.  There is a reason for that.  In the OT, some of the best fighters in Israel fought in the army.  The best fighters in the land became soldiers (e.g., Joshua 8:3).  King David said, “Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle” (Psalm 144:1 ESV).

The Bible does not forbid fighting perse.  In some cases, fighting is necessary.  If you are attacked, you may have to defend yourself or your family.  We will see that in Exodus 22, so the Bible does not completely ban fighting.  The Bible does not outlaw fighting but it does discourage fighting.

Second, the Bible discourages fighting as a way to solve personal conflicts.  We are to live in peace with everyone (I Thessalonians 5:13).  We are to seek peace (Psalm 34:14).  We are to be peacemakers. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9).  We should be the ones involved in settling disputes and trying to reconcile people.

The NT also discourages fighting in the church.  Those are the kind of people who are disqualified from leadership in the local church (Titus 1:7). They should not be brawlers.  They should not be people who abuse their wife and kids.  They should not have a temper problem.  They should not be violent. They are to be gentle. Church leaders should not be bullies.

Fighting is discouraged in the Book of Exodus.  The first time we see it is in Exodus 2:13 where Moses “saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, ‘Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?’”

In Exodus 21, fighting is also discouraged.  How?  Exodus 21:19 says “If you choose to fight and hurt someone in the course of that fight, whether you use your fist or a weapon, like a stone, you are responsible for taking care of that person.”

You can get into a fight but, if you injure someone in a fight, you have to pay that person’s medical bills and workman’s compensation.  That is the way it discouraged fighting.  If you win the fight, it may cost you financially, so if you win, you may actually loose in the end.

2. Case Law dealing with injury to a pregnant woman

Exodus 21:22-25 ESV says, “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine.

But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (tit for tat as we say today, which literally means “blow for blow”).

This is a different situation.  Here two men are fighting but one of the fighters does not get hurt.  An innocent bystander gets hurt instead.  The bystander happens to be, not only be a woman, but a pregnant woman.  Perhaps the woman stepped in to defend her man.  One of the men fighting may have been her husband.

Normally, if you kill someone accidentally, it is not considered murder but this case is different.  This involves a pregnant woman.  There are two lives at stake here.  God cares about women.  He also cares about the unborn.

What the Bible says is very different from what society says today.  It was very different from the laws that existed at the time in the Ancient Near East.  There were secular laws at the time that dealt injury to a pregnant woman.  We have Hittite and Babylonian laws about a woman who loses her baby because of a fight.

They had the first fetal homicide law in history.  Hittite Law said if you caused a woman to miscarry, all you had to do was to pay a fine.  If you caused a free woman to miscarry, the fine was twenty shekels.  If you caused a slave woman to miscarry, the fine was five shekels. (17-18). The Code of Hammurabi said something very similar (65-67).

In these ancient laws, the punishment for causing a woman to lose her baby was just a fine.  The ancient world, like much of the modern world does not value children and human life the way God does.  God looks at things differently.

Exodus 21 is not dealing with a miscarriage.  The baby in our passage does not die but is born and there is more than one of them.  The word “children” is in the plural, so there is more than one. The text says literally “her children come out.”  There is no miscarriage, contrary to some translations (So RSV, NRSV, NASB 1977).  The children do not die but they are born early and we are told that there “is no serious injury”.

This is dealing with a premature birth (so NIV, NLT, ESV, NASB 1995), not a miscarriage. In the Law of Moses, if you caused a woman to have a premature birth, you had to pay a fine.  How much did you have to pay?  That was up to the husband. “The offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows” (21:22)

If a life was taken, it was a completely different matter.  If there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise (21:23-25).

Even if the mother and baby survive, there is still a fine but, if either one of them dies, it is considered murder and the punishment is “life for life.”  God highly values pregnancy.  If you accidentally hit a pregnant woman in a fight, you have to pay a fine but if you caused a murder in this case (even an accidental murder), you must suffer the consequences.

This passage raises a very interesting question.  If there is a punishment for injuring a pregnant woman by mistake, what would the punishment for killing a woman’s baby on purpose through abortion?  One injury is accidental.  The other injury is intentional and deliberate.

Incidentally, the first time in the Bible we see the phrase “eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth” is in Exodus 21.  Most people think that this law is primitive.  It is actually not primitive but modern.

The whole point of the law is that the punishment had to fit the crime.  It had to be proportional.  That is a concept we still have today. This law was not barbaric.  It is actually humane.  It did not encourage and promote violence.  It limited violence.  If someone took out your eye, you did not have the right to kill him.

3. Case Law dealing with a home invasion

“If a thief is caught breaking in at night and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; 3 but if it happens after sunrise, the defender is guilty of bloodshed. (22:2-3 NIV)

This passage raises a very interesting question.  Is self-defense biblical?  Should Christians defend themselves and their families?  Should they be gun owners?  How does the Bible relate to the Second Amendment?  The Bible actually addresses this question.  There is a lot of misunderstanding on this topic, even among Christians.

Is Self Defense Biblical?

Many Christians have no idea what the Bible teaches on this topic or they have had some bad teaching on it.   Some think that it is unchristian to defend yourself, because Jesus told people that we have to turn the other cheek if someone hits us.  They are called pacifists.  There are whole churches and denominations that believe that teaching.  We have an answer from this passage.  What it says is very interesting.

“If a thief is caught breaking in at night and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is NOT guilty of bloodshed” (NIV).  Why is it okay to kill a night-time burglar, but not a daytime burglar?  Why would God allow people to protect themselves from thieves during the night, but not during the day?  Does the time of day determine if something is right or wrong?

What is the situation here?  A man breaks into your house at night in the dark. Robbers steal during the day when they do not expect anyone to be home (and the assumption here is that it is non-violent) but, if they break in at night when the thief knows people are home, it is a different matter.

Keep in mind that there was no electricity in the ancient world. You could not turn on any lights and find out who it was in the middle of the night.  In this situation, you did not know who is in your house or what they motive is.

What you know for sure is that there is forced entry into your house by a stranger at night without your permission and that your family might be in serious danger.  Their lives and your life are put in serious jeopardy.

 Crime & Punishment Principles

1) Self defense is a right

God says that when you use deadly force in that situation, you are completely innocent.  God says that you have not done anything wrong.  There is no crime committed.  You have not committed murder.  You can kill the intruder and use weapons to kill him.  There is no punishment. You don’t even have to flee to a city of refuge.

God says you have the right to protect and defend yourself and your family from intruders at night. It is not just a right, it is a responsibility.  I Timothy 5:8 says, “If anyone does not provide for his own, and specially his own household, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever.”

It is our responsibility to not only provide for our family but to protect our family.  The first principle from this passage in Exodus 22 is that people the right to defend yourself and others from physical danger, even if it means the taking of a life.

2) Punishment can be excessive

Killing a thief just for stealing is excessive.  God is concerned with criminal rights, as well as property rights.  He wants to protect people from excessive punishment.  He also wants to protect homeowners from loss of property.  If you kill a thief for stealing, you become a murderer and your crime is greater than the thief’s crime.

The punishment for stealing was NOT death in the Law of Moses.  Stealing is not a capital crime.  The punishment for stealing was restitution, not death.  Exodus 22:1 says, “Whoever steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep” (NIV).

3) Self defense and revenge are two different things

If you kill the thief that night, it is self defense.  If you hunt him down a week later, it is revenge. Self defense is not revenge.  What is the difference?  One is legal and one is not.  In one case, you are protecting yourself, which you have the right to do.

In the other case, it is getting back at someone and retaliating for something done to you. The motives are completely different.  We have no right to take revenge.  That is God’s job.  He says “Vengeance is mine. I will repay” (Romans 12:19).

Revenge is not protecting yourself but acting as the judge, jury and executioner.  We need to avoid taking the law into our own hands.

 Next week, we will look at what the NT says about self defense. We will answer the question, Did Jesus teach something different that should be followed today?

[1] The list includes: murder (Ex. 21:12-14; Num. 35:16-18), accidentally causing the death of a pregnant woman and/or her child (Ex. 21:22-25), allowing a proven dangerous animal to kill a person (Ex. 21:28-20), striking a parent (Ex. 21:15), cursing a parent (Ex. 21:17), rebellion to parents (Ex. 21:18-21), kidnapping (Ex. 21:16), sorceress or witch (Ex. 22:18), mediums or psychics (Lev. 20:27), adultery (Lev. 20:10), incest (Lev. 20:11-12,14), homosexuality (Lev. 20:13), sex with animals (Lev. 20:15-16), prostitution (Leviticus 21:9), lying about virginity (Dt. 22:13-21), rape of a married woman (Dt. 22:25-29), defiance to the God-ordained legal system (Deuteronomy 17:12), blatant disobedience and defiance to God’s Law (Numbers 15:30-31), bearing false witness in a capital case (Dt. 19:16-20), breaking the Sabbath (Ex. 31:14-15; 35:2; Num. 15:32-36), blasphemy (Lev. 24:16, 23), idolatry (Ex. 22:20; Deut. 13:1-11), child sacrifice (Lev. 20:2) and false prophecy (Deut. 18:20). Everyone has a different number of capital crimes in the Law, based on the way they are grouped.

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