Exodus 21:29–30—Why was capital punishment commuted in the case of some murders?

Problem: Numbers 35:31 commands that “you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death.” However, Exodus 21 says if the guilty one has “imposed on him a sum of money, then he shall pay to redeem his life, whatever is imposed on him” (v. 30). But these are contrary instructions about punishing murderers.

Solution: The reason for the difference is clearly stated in the text—one was willful murder, and the other was just negligent homicide. In the first case there was malice, but in the second case there was no evil intent. In fact, in the latter instance the guilty had not actually taken the other person’s life. Rather, he had simply been negligent about confining an ox that was known to gore people (Ex. 21:28–29). In such a case a fine could be levied rather than capital punishment.

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.