In our text the Lord elaborates further on His law and covenant which He had given to the people of Israel. In the sixth commandment the Lord commanded Israel, “You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13). Here in chapter 21:12-14 the Lord gives Israel regulations to apply the commandment to specific cases or situations. We find that not every case warrants the same punishment, as our just Judge decrees that His people and nation are to administer different punishments depending on the details of the crime, both in the wilderness and as they enter the land. In the first of three types of crimes in our text, we see the intentional killing of one made in God’s image is a capital offense, punishable by death. But if the killing was unintentional, the Lord would appoint a place of refuge. In verses 15 and 17, the Lord elaborates on the fifth commandment, “You shall honor your father and mother” (Ex 20:12): “Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death. Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.” Honoring God also entails honoring those He put in authority over us in this life, namely our father and mother.
After this, the Lord addresses personal injury in verses 18-27. Some acts of violence against others do not lead to death. It is from this section we find the well-known verse: “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.” Jesus quoted this text in Matt 5:38-39. Lastly in verses 28-36, the Lord addresses criminal negligence, which deals mainly with animals.
These laws deal with justice and are based on the Lord’s righteousness. But we also see the Lord’s mercy in our text. Israel was not to be as the nations around them, but to be a people set apart for His purpose as displayed in His law. They were to be just when justice was called for, and to show mercy when mercy was called for. While we are not the people of Israel, or under the Law as they were, these verses have much to teach us about the Lord and His righteousness. There’s much wisdom to learn from this text and from what the New Testament has to say about these things.