A few months ago, I posted an article in which I wrestled with the question “what would you do if someone attacked your family?” (you can read it here). As could be expected, the article prompted lots of interesting discussions, and not everybody agreed on the best way a Christian should handle such a challenging situation.
On one hand, Christians are commanded to love their enemies and do good to them (Mt. 5.38-48; Lk. 6.27-37; Rom. 12.14-21; 1 Thess. 5.15; 1 Pet. 2.21-23; 3.9). On the other hand, God “hates hands that shed innocent blood” (Prov. 6.17), and almost all of us would instinctively feel justified in using violence to protect our loved ones if we absolutely had to. Yes, we must take Jesus’ commands to love our enemies seriously, but surely we also have the responsibility to protect innocent people when it is in our power to do so. It’s not a simple problem.
It doesn’t bother me when I see Christians disagree with one another. And it doesn’t bother me to hear Christians raising hard questions and thoughtful objections to what they think are flawed positions. But what does bother me is when Christians simply “pick a side” and do their best to read their opinions into scripture rather than seriously trying to study the text. What does bother me is when Christians elevate “common sense” or “effectiveness” over faithful allegiance to Jesus and his teachings.
The Exodus 22:2 Question
In response to my article, one reader responded by pointing to Exodus 22:2. He suggested that Exodus 22:2 should quite simply resolve the supposed “attacker at the door” dilemma. And here’s the thing: he might be right. The scripture reads,
If the thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account. – Exodus 22.2
The verse seems pretty straightforward, and it addresses the home invader scenario almost perfectly. Notice carefully:
- The bad guy attacks
- The good guy catches bad guy and kills him
- The good guy is not guilty of the home invader’s blood. Case closed.
Maybe it really is that simple. Maybe bringing up all this “love your enemy” stuff really is reading more into the commands of Jesus than Jesus ever intended. It certainly seems that way.
At least until you read the next verse…
Don’t Forget About Exodus 22:3
But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. – Exodus 22:3
In verse three we have almost the exact same scenario as verse two. Observe:
- The bad guy attacks
- The good guy catches bad guy and kills him
But this time, the good guy is guilty. The only difference between the two scenarios is that “the sun has risen on him.” In other words, in home invasion happened during broad daylight.
Why are the two scenarios treated differently? What difference does it make whether the home invasion happened during the day or the night? Why is the homeowner free from guilt at night, but guilty during the day?
The answer is this: we don’t know for certain.
Perhaps the difference is that during the daytime the homeowner could see and know exactly what was happening, and thus verse three refers to an intentional killing, while at night the killing would be unintentional since the homeowner couldn’t clearly see the attacker. Maybe the “daytime” implies that the neighbors would be wide awake and the homeowner could call for help, while a night time invasion implies a true “worst case scenario” where “kill or be killed” are literally the only two literal options available for the homeowner. Or maybe the issue is self-defense. Maybe during the daytime the thief is more likely only interested in taking things, while a night time invasion implies a more direct danger to someone’s family.
The problem is that the text never exactly tells us why the two cases should be treated differently. It simply tells us that the two cases are to be treated differently. I suppose we could do a google search, or consult several commentaries, and pick out whichever proposed explanation we like the best. But we need to be careful. Since the text doesn’t give us an explanation, even scholarly commentators are, to some extent, guessing. Maybe they have educated guesses, but since the text is silent, we just can’t be certain.
How Do We Apply Old Testament Laws?
Not only do we need to wrestle through the complications presented by verse three, but we also must wrestle with the hermeneutical question of how God expects Christians to understand and apply these Old Testament laws now that the old law has been fulfilled.
Does God expect us to apply these laws as if they were written for us? If we can use Exodus 22:2 as justification to kill an attacker at the door, should we also sell daytime attackers into slavery as Exodus 22:3 instructs? Should we also follow Exodus 22:16-17 which says that if someone has sex with a virgin then they must marry her or pay her dad a bride-price for her? Should we also put children to death when they curse their father or mother as is commanded in the previous chapter (21:17)?
We should remember that while the law of Moses is certainly God’s inspired word, and while it certainly demonstrates God’s wisdom (especially when compared with the ethical practices of Israel’s ancient near eastern neighbors), it was never written to establish God’s ideal law for all nations at all times. For example, God’s law never eliminated slavery, but it did establish a more humane attitude and more just treatment of slaves. This does not imply that slavery was God’s ideal, but rather it pointed Israel towards God’s ideal by improving upon the slavery practices of their culture.
For another example, consider the way the Law of Moses protected divorced women by requiring that their husbands write them a certificate of divorce. Divorce was never God’s ideal, but “because of hardness of heart” (Mt. 19.8) God permitted it.
When we read Exodus 22:2-3 in this same light, it would suggest that the law was not necessarily written to place God’s stamp of approval on killing home invaders at night. Instead, it seems as if this law, like all the others in the surrounding context, were written to point Israel towards a more loving and gracious treatment of their enemies by placing restrictions on when an attacker could be killed.
Interestingly, this command is mentioned only fourteen verses after the “eye for an eye” and a “tooth for a tooth” command (Ex. 21.24), the very command that Jesus fulfilled when he taught:, “Do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Mt. 5.39).
If Jesus understood “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” as pointing towards a day when God’s children would love their enemies and resist the urge to retaliate, how do we think Jesus would want His disciples to apply Exodus 22.2-3? By blowing an attacker’s brains out without giving it a second thought?
The Importance of Honest and Humble Study
Perhaps there is a biblical defense for killing an attacker in a worst case scenario. Perhaps a Christian can feel justified in killing an attacker, even while sincerely seeking to uphold Jesus’s teachings and examples about how we are to treat our enemies. Perhaps a sound biblical argument can be made for lethal force, and perhaps Exodus 22:2, when handled humbly and responsibly, can somehow be woven into that defense.
But to simply throw out Exodus 22:2 as a proof text without even attempting to wrestle with the many questions surrounding this verse is irresponsible. To use Exodus 22:2 irresponsibly can actually weaken someone’s case as it gives the impression that they are simply trying to read their opinion back into scripture rather than really trying to study and draw out what the text really teaches.
Let’s never back away from challenging questions about difficult verses. But let’s be careful to approach those questions humbly and honestly, and most importantly, with faithful allegiance to Jesus.