Exodus 21:14 has always seemed odd to me. The previous verse mentions a place of refuge, which certainly refers to the cities of refuge (Joshua 20:1-3). But then, seemingly completely out of context, we read “If a person schemes and willfully acts against his neighbor to murder him, you must take him from my altar to be put to death. (CSB)”.
The idea of taking someone from the altar to be executed reminds me of what happened to Joab. He was elderly, but had a lot of blood on his hands from his past. But most recently, he had plotted to install Adonijah as king while the enfeebled David was still alive. His plot was ruined and Solomon became co-ruler for a little while before David died.
Joab knew his life was in danger. He knew that Adonijah himself had gone and clung to the horns of the altar in David’s tent where the Ark of the Covenant had been installed. Adonijah had been spared (temporarily). So Joab did the same thing. It didn’t work. He didn’t expect it to. He basically said “kill me here”. So they did. Maybe he wanted to die in repentance, seeking God’s mercy. The story is in 1 Kings 2:28 ff.
Benaiah, the executioner, was reluctant to do this wet work at the altar. But Solomon ordered it.
So, what I wonder about Exodus 21:14 is whether it got inserted into the Covenant Code just to justify what Solomon had done.
We can’t know. It is just an uncertainty that arose in my mind.
Possibly, Benaiah was reluctant to kill Joab for ritual reasons, rather than moral ones. To come in contact with a dead body would render him ritually unclean. There was a discussion in later Judaism about whether a priest could participate in war. Some said he could as long as he used a long spear to kill so that he didn’t come in contact with a dead body.
But more striking is the possibility that coming into contact with a dead body would defile the altar. Josiah defiled pagan worship sites with human bones (2 Kings 23:14).
Was this perhaps why Solomon went to Gibeon to offer sacrifices shortly after he became king (1 Kings 3:5)?
The editor of 1 Kings obviously disapproved of Solomon doing this. So he may have cut out some material we find in 2 Chronicles 1. The site at Gibeon was apparently where Saul had moved the tabernacle the priests had set up at Nob before Saul ordered them exterminated. It was Moses’ “tent of meeting” (2 Chronicles 1:3). Chronicles also says that the bronze altar from the wilderness (Exodus 27) was there (vs. 5-6).
The Bible doesn’t say that the altar at David’s tabernacle was unusable. Possibly, Solomon sacrificed at Gibeon because he was seeking an oracle. That was a function of the tent of meeting and he did get a revelatory dream. Possibly, he sacrificed there because Zadok, the royal priest who supported him, was presiding at Gibeon (1 Chronicles 16:39).
But it is odd that the site of David’s tabernacle was not used, since Solomon would shortly use it as the site of his great temple. I think it is a reasonable inference that the killing of Joab was considered to have ruined that altar.
When Solomon built his temple, he did not use David’s altar even though he used a number of other items from that tabernacle. According to Chronicles, he built a completely new altar (2 Chronicles 4:1).