Sunday, April 6, 2014

Dealing with Manslaughter (Joshua 20:4-6)

Joshua 20:4-6

King James Version (KJV)
And when he that doth flee unto one of those cities shall stand at the entering of the gate of the city, and shall declare his cause in the ears of the elders of that city, they shall take him into the city unto them, and give him a place, that he may dwell among them.
And if the avenger of blood pursue after him, then they shall not deliver the slayer up into his hand; because he smote his neighbour unwittingly, and hated him not beforetime.
And he shall dwell in that city, until he stand before the congregation for judgment, and until the death of the high priest that shall be in those days: then shall the slayer return, and come unto his own city, and unto his own house, unto the city from whence he fled.

The manslayer is granted a hearing with the elders of the city to defend his innocence. Note two important principles of application: the accused should always be allowed to speak on his own behalf (something that oppressive states don't necessarily permit), and his defense is considered by more than one person ("elders"). These elders are not women, but men; and one would expect them to be wise and discerning.

If the elders permit him to dwell among them, they are to provide him with a place to live. Perhaps then as we consider how to apply the equity of this law today, state-funded dwellings would be appropriate in similar circumstances. Note the freedom here—the manslayer is not to be kept in jail pending trial. 

The manslayer is to be protected, and not to be handed over to the avenger of blood. He is presumed innocent prior to trial. Note, then, that handing over an innocent man to appease a lynch mob is unbiblical. JesusWho was completely innocent of any sin whatsoever—was sinfully allowed by Pilate to be murdered to satisfy an angry crowd.

The manslayer dwells in the city "until he stand before the congregation for judgment." What is meant by "congregation"? We plan to address this in the future. 

Finally, the manslayer must dwell in that city "until the death of the high priest that shall be in those days: then shall the slayer return, and come unto his own city, and unto his own house, unto the city from whence he fled."

Even accidental manslaughter requires some degree of punishment. Sometimes, if not most of the time, accidental manslaughter is due to negligence. Here, the punishment requires the manslayer to live apart from his hometown until the death of the high priest.

While applying the punishment for accidental manslaughter cannot be the same of that of Israel (since the office of priest is no longer biblical), perhaps at least the manslayer should endure some sort of confinement to a local jurisdiction. That is, he could have freedom of movement within a certain jurisdiction (say, the size of a city), but could not go beyond the borders. (That the manslayer was not permitted to leave the city of refuge before the high priest's death is seen in Numbers 35:26-28.) This, by the way, is much more freedom of movement than house arrest.

Perhaps, too, the manslayer's dwelling/area of confinement should be some other location than his hometown. Joshua 20 assumes a scenario where the manslayer flees from his hometown "unto one of those cities." The punishment is certainly greater when one is confined to an area not his hometown. But it is also true that the possibility of blood feuds between the manslayer and the family of the slain are reduced when they live far apart.

Finally, how do we apply the death of the priest to today's circumstances? The earthly, Jewish priesthood is abolished in the New Covenant era. If remaining in the city until the death of the high priest has some equity, perhaps we can roughly estimate the average number of years a manslayer would have lived in a city of refuge by factoring in the age that one became a high priest, and the average life of an Israelite during those days.

Not sure if the Bible speaks to the former, but at least the latter would take historical research. (We stress calculating an average number of years since it was possible for the high priest to die anywhere between the very day of the manslayer's confinement, to decades from then.) If an average can be determined, then perhaps that number of years can be the sentence for manslaughter today.