And if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from Mine altar, that he may die. (Ex. 21:14)
What a strange formulation! If you want to kill a murderer, that is one thing: but what does G-d’s altar have to do with it?
The answer lies in the word “arum”, which is translated here as “guile” – but also equally means being potentially self-aware. The kind of forbidden killing is not accidental manslaughter; it is premeditated and evil. Killing with “arum” is not a crime of passion, but one of design.
And the amazing thing is that this word, which is not very common in the Torah, is first found to describe the snake in the Garden of Eden –
Now the serpent was more arum than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. (Gen. 3:1)
The snake sought to kill Eve (and Adam), since G-d had pledged that if they ate the fruit, then they would die. The snake, with premeditation, succeeds in his mission – once they ate the fruit, their consciousnesses were transformed, meaning that the “old” Adam and Eve were no longer.
So the snake, with arum, kills. This happens in Genesis.
In Exodus, G-d tells us that if anyone kills with arum, then they should also be killed. But not simply killed. They must be “taken from the altar.” Why?
The answer is simple: it was the snake’s punishment. Because it killed with arum, the snake lost its legs, and was forced to eat only dust – to wallow in physical depths with no potential for spiritual growth.
The altar’s purpose is to elevate one’s soul, to connect the physical world with the spiritual one. An altar is a means of growth upward. The snake lost his pathway upward, so any murderer who kills in the same way that the snake did, suffers a similar fate.
The Torah ties it together neatly, with words that seem to stick out, but in fact are markers to show us that the laws of the Jewish people as expressed later in the Torah are drawn directly from the events described in the very beginning.
[this idea was developed in chevrusa with Toyam Moshe)