Do God’s people need an executioner? The question seems strange, right? Let me explain. Many argue that with such violence in the Law of Moses it is impossible to escape. Let’s look at the L
When I first converted to Christianity, reconciling Jesus and the Old Testament were hard. It seemed that hiring an executioner was a divine mandate. I certainly wasn’t the first to struggle with this. However, I think this are of Scripture needs a renewed study in our day.
As Westerners, we often approach Bible study from a facts and information standpoint. Here’s what I mean: Learn the facts, gather information, put it into an equation. Me+Jesus=Saved. Approaching God’s Word with that type of hermeneutic can be easy. How? I read what it says and I do it. I don’t take into consideration customs, authorship, history, and cultural context. This is the literalist approach.
In my last post I referred to the “ideal” and the “real.” If we’re going to read and understand God’s word, we’ve got to have proper context. Context is always king in bible study (and everything else you do). Taking a literalist approach in the area on the sensitive issue of non-violence, which I believe the Bible teaches, doesn’t work. There are too many variables.
The skeptic will look for proof that God is a violent, genocidal, homicidal, self-aggrandizing malevolent deity. Richard Dawkins has quite the paragraph in his work, The God Delusion. There are plenty of verses we could cherry-pick to make that seem accurate. The skeptic seeks to destroy God’s credibility and render Jesus’ teachings either contradictory, or irrelevant in light of the God of the Old Testament.
I believe this: not everything in the Law was meant to express God’s supreme ethic. What I mean is that He didn’t set many things in place for everyone and for all time.
It is my conclusion, at least right now, that the Law was given to Israel to meet them in the culture they were immersed in (real), and point them toward God’s Shalom (ideal). There’s a lot of pieces of Law in Exodus through Deuteronomy that were not God’s ideal moral standard. Does that make God a liar? Absolutely not! The Law points Israel back to Shalom, and that wouldn’t be fully revealed until Jesus Christ.
Sincere people of faith tend to approach the issue at hand in the same way, albeit for different reasons. In our modern-age of terrorism and endless wars this has only increased. Is God like Allah? Are Christians allowed to be like that? What role does non-violence have in a violent world? Again, cherry-pick handfuls of verses, and it seems the matter is settled. God is fine with that, right? What about the Death Penalty? Let’s look at the source material to see where those ideas are found, and what God says. Back to the “real” vs. “ideal.”
Violence in The Law of Moses
I believe that the Law of Moses was designed as a guide for a particular nation of particular people at a particular time. It takes into account the culture in which they found themselves, and as a moral code, as Sprinkle writes, “both accommodates to and improves upon the ethical systems of surrounding nations” (Sprinkle, Fight, pg. 47). Paul tells us that the Law was a guide when he writes:
“Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”Galatians 2:23-25, NIV
That the Law makes room for the moral norms of other people groups of the ancient Middle-East, it doesn’t absorb those norms. Things like divorce, slavery and polygamy all existed in the nations around Israel. When God creates the promised nation from the promised people that He promised Abraham (Gen. 12), he does so by taking them where they were (culturally) and begins moving them back to His ideal (Shalom).
For Israel to even exist, they had to take part in moral structures of other nations while at the same time, as Sprinkle notes, “critiquing” them. Heres what that means:
The Law of Moses did not make illegal every less-than-desirable cultural practice; instead, it took the cultural practice as it stood, and improved on it.
We can’t forget that God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12) set up the systemic shift of society for Israel. Beginning in Exodus 19, God gives the Law to Israel. Now they are a nation. Now they have a civil system.
Crime is defined and punishments are prescribed. God’s legal system sets up judges to settle disputes and give sentencing. What about the death penalty? It’s there. It mostly centers around murder, but there are other places where the death penalty is given as an option:
- Murder: Ex. 21:12-14; Lev. 24:17, 21
- Kidnapping: Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7
- Assaulting your Parents: Ex. 21:15, 17; Lev. 20:9
- Child Sacrifice: Lev. 20:3
Taking all that in we know of sixteen places where God allows the death penalty to be used on the offender. What you might not know is that in fifteen of the sixteen occurrences, God allows fines to be levied instead of execution.
Crimes like theft/vandalism/property damage receive less strict fines than other cultures in the area. In other cultures and countries of the time, you would get limbs removed for stealing. God never once sanctions mutilation as a punishment.
Is capital punishment allowed in the Old Testament? Yes. Was it used frequently? We don’t know. The Scriptures only allude to it being carried out a few times. What we can know is that reading supposed violence into the Law of Moses is a misnomer. Context always wins in Bible study. Here’s a better way to read what it really says:
The perceived strictness of the Law of Moses has to be understood in context. We must view it among the contexts of other ancient cultures around the same time.
It’s my belief, and I could be wrong, that God is improving the system the people who make up the fledgling nation of Israel grew up in. He begins where they are, and incrementally begins moving them back to the Shalom of Eden. Violence in the Law certainly exists – but not in the villainized forms so often foisted upon it.
So what about the military conquest of the Promised Land? That’s where we’re heading next. See you then!