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the weird assault & battery laws

We’re not trying to explain away the weird passages in the Bible. We are simply trying to understand them in their proper contexts.

It’s way too easy to plop a twenty-first century perspective into the ancient world of the Bible. But if we understand the environment in which these laws were given, we’ll find principles that are relevant in every culture and every generation. Let’s look at the assault and battery laws in the Torah. Like today’s laws, they often go together.

Assault is the act which causes a victim to apprehend physical harm, while battery is the actual act that causes the physical harm. Today, most state criminal codes make assault a misdemeanor punishable by fines and up to one year in the county jail. Threats of death or serious bodily harm are charged as “aggravated assault”—which is a felony that is usually punishable by fines and a maximum of 10 to 20 years in prison.

When we read the Old Testament assault and battery laws, we should not assume an implied approval into the conditional “if/when/whoever” clause. If we say, “When someone attacks another person, call the police,” we are not condoning the incident. The same is true in the Bible. It uses the if/when/whoever clause to deter people from exhibiting aggressive, threatening behavior toward others, even if physical contact did not actually occur.

The Bible’s assault and battery laws are paradigmatic. They do not address every possible circumstance; they are not meant to be exhaustive. These laws set a standard by example.

  • “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies will be put to death” (Exodus 21:12). The Hebrew phrase, “shall be put to death,” always refers to a civil court verdict.
  • “Whoever strikes his father or mother shall be put to death … Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:15, 17). In the case of elderly abuse, both physical and emotional, parents were allowed to take their adult children to court.
  • “When men quarrel and one strikes the other” and injures him, the assailant must pay for the victim’s medical expenses and the wages he lost during his recovery (Exodus 21:18-19). Sounds fair.
  • “When a man strikes his slave, male or female,” and the slave recovers after a day or two, “he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money” (Exodus 21:20-21). That doesn’t sound fair! But if you keep reading, merely knocking out one tooth of a slave sets the slave free (Exodus 21:26-27). Losing one’s capital investment (“his money”) would hit his own wallet.

The Bible’s weird assault and battery laws are not weird; they are paradigmatic. By setting a standard by example, they are designed to deter people from harming others.