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Several times now, I have read the words of Christians who interpret Exodus 22:2-3 to mean that defending oneself using lethal force when one’s home was invaded was forbidden under Old Testament Law, at least during the daytime. If only one had done it, my inclination would be to blow it off. But since this interpretation is apparently widespread, I feel I need to answer it.

This interpretation relies on a twisting of Scripture in order to promote a preconceived pacifism, and I here attempt to rebut it.

What does Scripture say? In Young’s Literal Translation, the passage reads:

2`If in the breaking through, the thief is found, and he hath been smitten, and hath died, there is no blood for him;

3if the sun hath risen upon him, blood [is] for him, he doth certainly repay; if he have nothing, then he hath been sold for his theft;

This is rather hard to understand. What is ‘the breaking through?’ Perhaps the New King James Version will be somewhat clearer.

2 If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed. 3 If the sun has risen on him, there shall be guilt for his bloodshed. He should make full restitution; if he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.

Aha! Now this is comprehensible. I like Young and rely heavily on him myself, but even I had trouble making sense of what he said there. Now, what does this mean? Well, first let us note that there are two contrasting scenarios. In the first, the thief ‘is found breaking in’. In the second, ‘the sun has risen on him’.

Those who take the view I here attempt to debunk interpret ‘the sun has risen on him’ to mean that the break-in took place during the daytime. Thus ‘found breaking in’ must mean the break-in happened at night. This obviously makes no sense. Why should the fact that he was found breaking in lead us to think it was happening at night? Why would the passage be written in such a confusing way? ‘If he breaks in, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed, but if he breaks in during the day, there shall’. This is nonsense.

The more reasonable interpretation would be as follows:

The assumption, first of all, is that the thief probably broke in at night. Thus, if he is caught while breaking in and the owner of the house defends himself, killing the thief, he is not guilty of murder. If, however, the thief escapes, and is found later, presumably after the sun has risen again, and he then is killed, this is murder.

In other words, the Law is saying that lethal self-defense is allowed, but we are not to hunt down thieves and kill them; larceny is not a capital crime. The sun having risen cannot be taken in a rigidly literal sense; it indicates the thief being found at some later time, rather than while he was breaking in as in the first scenario.

I hope this post has been helpful. Whether you agree or disagree, I’d love to hear from you. Comments are open as always, and I remain ever

Your Humble Servant,

Samuel C Starrett