Understanding the Old Testament

Old Testament Criminal Laws

All quotations are from the New American Standard Bible translation)

Many of the criminal laws in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) have direct parallels to our own. For example, the Pentateuch prescribes punishments for:

     Murder – Numbers 35:30-31

     Kidnapping – Exodus 21:16

     Assault with serious injury – Leviticus 24:19-20

     Rape – Deuteronomy 22:25-27

     Theft – Exodus 22:1

And as we have seen before, God absolutely forbid human sacrifice.

Unlike our justice system, the Pentateuch does not mention prison. Instead, it prescribes death, physical injury, a financial penalty, and/or restitution for various types of offenses. This is not surprising, since the Israelites at that time were a nomadic people. Jails and prisons would have been impractical.

The Pentateuch prescribed punishments for a few offenses that we no longer regard as crimes, such as sorcery, idolatry, and false prophets. This too is not surprising, since God was trying to teach the Israelites to rely on Him rather than on false gods or phony magic. And to teach them proper respect for God, blasphemy was forbidden.

As harsh as Israelite criminal law could be, it could also be quite progressive and merciful. For example, it disallowed punishment—and especially the punishment of death—based upon the word of a single witness. (Numbers 35:30, Deuteronomy 17:6, and Deuteronomy 19:15) A death sentence could be carried out only upon the guilty person, not upon his family members. (Deuteronomy 24:16) The law provided a way for a person guilty of unintentionally causing the death of another to escape punishment by fleeing to one of six Cities of Refuge. (Exodus 21:13; Numbers 35:9-15, 22-28; Deuteronomy 19:1-10) And the law prohibited bribery, false testimony, and the perversion of justice. (Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8; Deuteronomy 16:18-20, 19:16-21)

Question to ponder or discuss: Leviticus 20:10 mandates the death penalty for a man or woman who commits adultery. How could adultery impact a patriarchal society like the Israelites in which land was allocated and passed to heirs based on the father's family heritage?

Copyright 2017 by Don Davidson

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Understanding the Old Testament

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