What happened in ancient Israel when someone broke the law? Did the criminal face fines? A lengthy prison term?
How different was God’s enforcement system from those we see in the world today?
“The very fact of law presupposes government,” Herbert W. Armstrong wrote in Mystery of the Ages. “Government is the administration and enforcement of law by one in authority. This necessitates authoritative leadership—one in command” (emphasis added throughout). In a 1983 sermon, he said, “Government is only an organized system of administering and enforcing that way of life on those that are under the subjection of the government.”
In God’s government, God installs leaders and gives them authority to serve as His representatives. They are to carry out their offices under God, administering His will and His law. In His justice system, God gives judges authority to carry out His will and execute His justice.
Read God’s instructions to judges in Deuteronomy 17:8-9. Through Moses, God was speaking to those Israelites whose duty was to administer justice. He was not talking about a defendant appealing a verdict from a local judge, but about what a local judge should do if he felt a case was too difficult for him. God instructed him to take it up the line.
Notice in verses 10-11 the authority God gave His judges. These men really had to know the law. God vested them with real authority! The local judges—and the people generally—were to accept these rulings as if they came from God Himself. God did not judge His people by “a jury of your peers.” He judged by vesting authority in a God-fearing judge who knew how to render justice according to God’s law. Then He instructed the people to do exactly as the judge ruled. Note in verses 12-13 the severity with which God dealt with “contempt of court.”
Israel’s judicial system administered God’s laws related to civil and criminal cases. Judges analyzed the law and applied it in individual cases. Their job, under God’s guidance and direction, was to: 1) determine who had committed the infraction and to what degree; 2) enforce punishment; and 3) educate people in the law in order to prevent future infractions.
Simple and Elegant
Looking at God’s law from the perspective of these judges gives you a unique appreciation for it. Judges and lawyers of this world must grapple with an enormous and endlessly expanding and evolving body of law that is impossible to keep up with! God’s law, by contrast, is simple and elegant.
God’s justice system only has slightly more than 600 laws, and they are all based on the Ten Commandments—and those hang on the two great laws: love toward God and love toward neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). So how can so few laws cover all the problems that can arise within a human society? The answer is that God’s justice system deals with principles.
Men tend to write exhaustive rules, regulations and codes. If a lawmaker decides someone shouldn’t be doing something, he passes a rule that specifically outlaws or regulates it. Anything not expressly forbidden is technically legal, even if anybody with common sense can clearly see that it is
hurtful, immoral, unfair or wrong.
God’s law avoids that problem by regulating behavior in two ways. First, it gives the broadest possible principles: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind; love your neighbor as yourself.Anything contrary to those two principles is a sin—and God’s law convicts you. There are no technicalities or loopholes.
“God’s law is spiritual and can be summed up in one simple but all-inclusive word—love,” Mr. Armstrong wrote. “His law for the guidance of human conduct is subdivided into the two great commandments, love toward God and love toward neighbor. These, in turn, are subdivided into the Ten Commandments. Jesus magnified this law by showing how its principle expands to cover virtually every possible human infraction. … [I]t is so perfect that, by applying its principle, it is a complete law” (Mystery of the Ages).
Second, God’s instruction to physical Israel gave some specific, extremely precise details that showed how to apply the broad principles to individual circumstances in ancient Israel’s national justice system. For example, if a man stole an ox and then killed or sold it, when he was caught he had to repay five oxen to the victim of his theft (Exodus 22:1). You can’t get any more specific than that.
God expected His judges to extrapolate these laws to the specific situations they faced. Whatever situation came up, the judge looked at the broad principle, then at the most relevant specific civil or criminal punishment stated in Israel’s national law, and then used wisdom to render a verdict and a sentence in line with God’s thinking. Thus, no criminal could look at the law and protest, Well—that law says, “If a man steals an ox”—but I’m a woman, and I stole a donkey, so it doesn’t apply to me! In God’s law, the principle stands, and there are no loopholes. That is one thing that makes it so perfect while remaining so simple. It also placed great responsibility on the judge to exercise godly discernment.
Today, we are to submit ourselves to the law of the land, including the penalties for its infraction. Yet God wants us to study ancient Israel’s justice system for its spiritual principles—to draw out wisdom.
Specific Crimes, Specific Punishments
Any violation of God’s eternal spiritual law brings the penalty of eternal death (Romans 6:23). If we repent and turn from that sin, and accept Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, then Christ’s blood covers that death penalty. God extended that promise even to those saints who preceded Christ, including Abraham, Moses, David and others. Those who received the Holy Spirit and repented were forgiven of the penalty they owed to the law.
To the carnal nation of Israel, God also gave dozens of specific punishments for individuals who committed specific crimes. This was absolutely necessary within the context of a physical nation vested with civil authority. “[E]very transgression or disobedience received a just retribution” (Hebrews 2:2; Revised Standard Version).
“Ancient Israel was a national church—a physical nation organized into the congregation of Israel,” Herman Hoeh wrote. “The people did not have the promise of the Holy Spirit … Moses said they did not even have the power or strength of will to keep what little he commanded them (Deuteronomy 5:29). … For that reason, Israel needed punishments for lawbreakers to keep peace and security and ensure obedience in the land. So God ordained that human judges exercise certain of His divine prerogatives and execute punishments on their fellowmen” (Good News, August 1972; emphasis added).
Men had to have the authority to punish criminals, and God told them how to do it in the way that would be most effective in fulfilling two goals: 1) protecting the victims of crime; and 2) serving as a deterrent to potential future criminals.
Every government in this world grapples with the problem of how to deal with crime in a way that satisfies those two goals. Every government over carnal men would do well to follow God’s laws regarding punishment and restitution! The more national governments depart from God’s example in this respect, the bigger the problems are going to be in dealing with criminal behavior in a society of unconverted people.
Probably the most obvious example is a nation’s attitude toward the death penalty. Many governments say it violates human rights or is a crime against humanity. But God, understanding the carnal mind and having a plan of redemption for all, was the one who instituted it in His criminal justice system (e.g. Genesis 9:6; Exodus 21:12; Leviticus 24:17, 21; Numbers 35:16-18, 31; Deuteronomy 19:11-13).
Whenever we write on this subject, we receive many responses lecturing us on how merciful God is; that He no longer believes in the death penalty. It’s true that converted people in God’s Church who fall under the death penalty for sin, when they repent, are forgiven and have that penalty removed by the blood of Christ. But for the unconverted—those who will have the opportunity to be converted in the second resurrection—God’s system of judgment and punishment for ancient Israel is the perfect model!
That’s not to say that there was no room for mercy within the courts of ancient Israel. There is some evidence in Scripture that Old Testament judges were, at times, allowed to extend mercy to a criminal. At the same time, it is clear that God prioritizes His goal for what He’s trying to achieve on a broad, national scale above what you might consider the best interests in each individual case.
For example, in ancient Israel, God commanded that an adulterer be put to death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). Individually, it might be possible to work with those individuals and convince them to repent and turn things around. Jesus Christ did that personally in the New Testament (John 8:3-11). But for what God was trying to accomplish nationally, He generally needed a more rigid approach in order to safeguard the conditions He wanted to preserve. God wanted strong families with no adultery throughout the nation,so He implemented an uncompromising system to ensure it.
This is a part of God’s instruction to Israel which principles we tend to overlook because spiritual Israel lacks the civil authority in Satan’s world to enforce the specific penalties. However, much can be gained from studying how God set up a national justice system. (For more information on what portions of God’s law were done away, when and why, review Part 3 of this series, “Which Old Testament Laws Still Apply.”)
God’s system of punishments is worth studying for several reasons. It demonstrates God’s love and mercy toward the victim of crime rather than the perpetrator—quite the opposite of what so many modern justice systems do! It shows which crimes God considers most severe. It teaches how God deals with human nature. It gives examples of righteous judgments to combat problems. It includes principles that apply to governing any unconverted people, including our own children. We can even apply these principles to converted people in their spiritual intent.
Whenever God gives someone an office of authority, it comes with great responsibility. In Israel, God was deeply concerned with making sure judges exercised authority in a way that brought peace, solved problems and relieved oppression rather than causing it.
Read in Deuteronomy 1:15 where Moses installed people into offices of authority. Among these “captains” (which means head or governor), Moses appointed judges to serve on the local level. In the next verse, Moses says, “And I charged your judges ….” He delivered God’s commands for how these judges were to carry out their duties.
What follows are several key points from God that are crucial in ensuring people receive justice. Read verse 16, where God commands His judges to judge righteously. You can clearly see God’s love and passion for justice. He wanted His people and even the foreigners living within the nation to receive perfect justice! He wanted all who interacted with Israel to realize that there was something special about this nation. Imagine the foreigner in Israel who got entangled in a dispute with a natural-born Israelite, and who personally witnessed a judge handle the situation with absolute fairness, ensuring that he received real justice. That made an impression!
As God said in Deuteronomy 4, This law is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations. If you keep it, they’re going to say, “What nation is so great that has statutes and judgments so righteous as this law?” It shows that God is not just the God of Israel alone. He wants all people treated fairly—because He wants all people to eventually enter His Family!
Impartial in the Law
When judgment is perverted, the state of affairs is horribly oppressive. Think about it from God’s point of view. He sees everything. He even knows what’s going on in the heart. He knows the right course of justice in every situation. He knows who is guilty and to what degree. He hates seeing human judges rendering bad judgment.God wants His people—and all people—to receive true justice. So He gave Israel many laws to make sure they received it. When this system of justice is followed, God says the people will live and be blessed for it!
Consider God’s instructions to judges in Deuteronomy 1:17. The first three points in this verse are all closely related.
1) Don’t respect persons. God’s justice requires impartiality. God doesn’t favor one man over another because of looks, position, wealth or station. All God looks at is whether a man fears Him and works righteousness (Acts 10:34-35). In America’s justice system, people who commit minor offenses have a choice: Go to jail, or pay a fine. That means the man with money escapes—not because he’s innocent, but because he has money. The poor man goes to jail—not necessarily because he’s guilty, but because he’s poor.
God told the entire congregation of Israel, “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour” (Leviticus 19:15). Christ commanded: “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24).
2) Hear the small as well as the great. Everyone is equal under the law. God doesn’t allow anyone to receive preferential treatment. Deuteronomy 24:17 specifically says don’t pervert justice due to strangers or orphans—people who tend to be overlooked when the judge tries to score points with important people.
3) Don’t be afraid of the face of man. Judging righteously takes courage—being afraid of God rather than of man! “Let not the bold, daring countenance of the rich or mighty induce you to give an unrighteous decision; and let not the abject look of the poor man induce you either to favor him in an unrighteous cause, or to give judgment against him at the demand of the oppressor” (Adam Clarke’s Commentary). Movies often depict the mafia don in the courtroom shooting withering looks at a witness on the stand, intimidating him into changing his testimony. God says, don’t be afraid of any man in the courtroom, lest you pervert justice. Also, don’t be affected by the crowd if they’re clamoring for a particular decision. A judge should not be influenced by people in any way. Why?
4) The judgment is God’s. A judge can’t render God’s decision if he is swayed by anything other than his responsibility to God and to God’s law. Seeking God’s will in the judgment is the most important point for a judge to remember. He is standing in for God, rendering judgment according to how God would judge. And in Israel, God was with the judges, helping them to render judgment.
“No tribunal can enforce justice in the same absolute spirit of independence as that which existed under the Hebrew theocracy,” says the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary. “The judges were represented as holy persons sitting in the place of God … and this official elevation placed all the people of Israel, both small and great, on a lever of equality. The [judges] were to know no difference among the litigants whose causes were submitted to their tribunal, nor were they to be biased by a regard either to rich or poor, but to decide without fear or favor.” This too shows why it was so critical that the judge be an expert in God’s law. The whole judiciary is underpinned by His perfect law,and it exists to administer that law.
5) The system of appeals. If the lower judge couldn’t make the decision in faith, he took it up the chain. There were cases where Moses said, If this particular type of situation comes up, I want you to bring it straight to me (Exodus 18:25-26).
This same type of government can be found in God’s Church today. These are the same principles and the exact same spiritual laws God’s ministers must judge according to today. We must be impartial—we must be fair—we must be courageous—and we must always remember: The judgment is God’s!
Money and Justice Don’t Mix
In America’s justice system, an innocent man can be convicted, and a guilty man can be set free. The prosecutor is trying to get a conviction, and the defending attorney is seeking an acquittal—regardless of whether the defendant is innocent or not! It’s a test of skill between the lawyers. Justice is secondary! God’s laws are very different.
Read another instruction in Deuteronomy 16:18 that places judges and officers in every town on the local level. The word just means right judgment; equity, justice; even righteousness.
Now notice God’s commands in verse 19 aimed at preventing injustice. God didn’t want His judges preventing true justice from being administered because they were being bought off. He knows human nature’s potential for corruption. This is always a danger with human judges! (Proverbs 29:4). “Do not accept a bribe …. Follow justice and justice alone …” (Deuteronomy 16:19‑20, New International Version). God doesn’t want anyone earning money from giving testimony or trying to sway a judicial outcome.
What, then, does God think of lawyers who do exactly that for a living? Did you realize that there are no professional lawyers in God’s justice system?
God’s Expectations of Judges
How did God want the proceedings to unfold when a matter was brought before a judge?
Read God’s instruction about the poor in Exodus 23:3 and 6. Judges must not favor the poor man, nor deny him the justice due him. Read the additional injunction against bribes in verse 8. Read also—in the context of court proceedings—God’s command that the stranger receive justice in verse 9.
Now study verse 7. God is very aware of the danger of false testimony. He tells the judge, “Keep far from a false charge” (Revised Standard Version). It is a judge’s responsibility to be alert to such dishonesty! He must not convict and punish an innocent man because of someone else’s lie! God wants to ensure that guilt is established based on the truth! The authority given to the judge is a heavy responsibility: A judge who made a mistake could actually be guilty of killing a righteous man—which is murder!
Lange’s Commentary says that “I’ll not acquit the wicked” probably refers to a wicked judge! God is going to judge the judge! Also, where justice is subverted and an innocent man convicted, God is certainly going to follow up with the real criminal and see that he is punished. Judges in God’s judicial system had great authority, but fearsome accountability. God motivated them to judge righteous judgment!
These laws reveal what a travesty of justice Jesus Christ’s own trial was. So many of these laws were broken by the Jewish officials who carried it out. God’s law was intended to prevent just that type of injustice from taking place.
In the next issue, we will look more specifically into how God prevented false testimony and ensured justice.