Old Testament Law and Punishment
by Anthony Weber
In previous posts, I noted three key points in relation to Old Testament law. First, the laws cannot be understood apart from their context and purpose. Second, many of the laws that seem unusually restrictive served an important purpose: God wanted a people who understood what it meant for something to be “holy” – separate, undefiled, and distinct. Third, God actively involved the Israelites in a progressive movement toward individual and societal restoration. In this post, I will add a fourth and final claim: the system of punishment and restoration in the Old Testament was purposefully used to foreshadow the Gospel message. In order to do this, I will need to address the cultural, historical, and religious context in which the system of punishments were given.
First, there were no prisons in Israel, so there needed to be a way in which offenders could maintain life in the community without minimizing or ignoring actions that harmed their relationship with God and others. If they did not agree with the covenant, they could leave. Israel was not a closed nation. Those who stayed agreed to live in a nation linked in a covenant with God, knowing full well how covenant worked.
Second,the Jewish nation believed that the primary purposes of God’s Law were restitution, rehabilitation, and atonement. Punishment was not the point. Both the laws and the punishments served an interest greater than themselves. For that reason, most of the punishments were not applied literally. Thus, “an eye for an eye,” was never understood to call for actual maiming of an offender. Rather, it required equivalent compensation for the value of the victim’s lost eye. If someone killed the livestock of another, he or she did not automatically lose an animal in response. If a thief took someone’s shoes, the victim had a right to equal compensation, though it might have taken a different form.
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With this in mind, consider the many safeguards that Jewish law put in place when it came to the death penalty. In order to convict and execute someone, they needed:
- at least two eyewitnesses of unquestionable character
- evidence that was neither circumstantial nor self-incriminatory
- testimony from witnesses that did not include family members or personal confession
- proven premeditation in the act of crime, which meant the criminal had to be specifically warned by the eyewitnesses prior to the crime, the criminal had to indicate that he or she heard the warning, was fully aware of the magnitude of the deed, but was determined to go through with it.
In effect, this did away with the application of the death penalty for much of Jewish history. The Mishna declared: “The Sanhedrin that executes one person in seven years is called “murderous.” Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah extended this to one execution in seventy years. That does not mean the punishment was meaningless, or the crime irrelevant. The punishment clearly attached a level of severity that God considered appropriate to the crime. But in every case but one, there was another way the penalty could be paid…
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