A Lawyer Explains the Difficult Laws of Moses: Are They Harsh?

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This blog post is about the punishments for crimes given in the Old Testament, specifically those in the “Books of Law” Genesis – Deuteronomy. Many times, we see things like “Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:15), and that seems just…   …harsh. Except, no. It’s not harsh. You just don’t know how it works.

Comparing Modern and Ancient Law

Here, I’ll explain why this doesn’t seem harsh to me. I am a lawyer in the Commonwealth of Virginia. As with most states, we have a Code that defines offenses and gives punishments for those offenses. One of those offenses is “Reckless Driving” which includes driving 20 miles per hour over the speed limit. That is a Class 1 Misdemeanor.

The Terrifying Code of Virginia

Eh… so what? How bad can it be? At least it’s not a Class 4. The number 4 is higher than 1!

Oh, silly, silly person who has not passed the Bar Exam: In the Code of Virginia, “Class 1” is much worse than Class 4. The penalty that the Code of Virginia gives for all Class 1 misdemeanors defined at Va. Code Sec. 18.2-11 is ONE ENTIRE YEAR IN JAIL OR A FINE OF $2,500 OR BOTH. Sounds harsh for the crime of going 45 in a 25 doesn’t it?

Of course it sounds harsh, unless you know what you’re reading. No one EVER gets put in jail for going 45 in a 25. That’s because the legal system is not MERELY the code. The legal system is “the Code” plus how the Code is put into effect by police, judges, juries, prosecutors, elected officials, and our Constitutions (both state and local).

When you understand the context, all these laws say is that THE ABSOLUTE MAXIMUM PENALTY YOU CAN EVER PUT on someone going 45 in a 25 is either 1 year in prison, a $2,500 penalty, or both.

The Reasoning behind the Terrifying Code of Virginia

Why would we do this? Think of this situation: A driver is drunk. The driver gets in a car wreck and kills an innocent pedestrian, then crashes into a concrete wall. He was going 45 in a 25. The drunk driver is also critically injured. The drunk driver is rushed to the hospital by ambulance. The drunk driver goes into emergency surgery. The drunk driver barely survives. When they wake up from anesthesia, THEY ARE NO LONGER DRUNK.

Then, the police start to investigate and gather evidence. They interview him in his hospital bed, and (since he is a lawyer) he knows to never admit that he was drunk or had been drinking. Therefore, THERE IS NO EVIDENCE YOU CAN GIVE IN COURT to show that there was drunk driving (Which is also a Class 1 Misdemeanor in Virginia).

Does the man go free with just a ticket? If you had to charge him with Drunk Driving or nothing, then he would go free. But is there an emergency back-up solution to issue the drunk driving punishment, even when you cant prove drunk-driving beyond a reasonable doubt?

Virginia apparently decided on keeping this emergency clause for situations that you can’t properly foresee in your regulation of traffic.

Explaining the Bible’s Books of Law with Our Modern Code of Law

The Books of Law are in the genre of Law. They also contain a few stories to give context to these laws. These are the issues of genre that have helped me when reading the Code of the Commonwealth of Israel.

Is slapping your mother or father punishable by death (Exodus 21:15)? Well, technically yes, as that’s what “the Code” says, but actually no. The Hebrew word “strike” is actually nakah which does mean “to strike” but which includes our modern-ish word “to smite.”

Therefore, a more specific (but wildly awkward translation) of Exodus 21:15 is that “He who initiates physical violence against his father or mother, including all physical violence up to and including death, shall be punished. The punishment shall not exceed: death.”

And if you think that’s a joke about a punishment not exceeding death, then you lack the imagination to understand the full variety of punishments for crimes that ancient rulers dished out to wrong-doers. For example, see Jesus’s death by crucifixion. (For an even worse example that will give you nightmares [reader beware], read this about the ancient Persian punishment of Scaphism.)

This should be in our mind whenever we see something like Leviticus 20:10, where the punishment for adultery is “death.” But when we skip ahead to Matthew 2, where Joseph actually thinks his wife has committed adultery, we see that a much more normal thing to do in the face of adultery is “to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19). That’s the kind of stuff that actually happenedNot what is in “the Code.”

We should realize that Israel (like the United States and every-country-ever-from-the-beginning-of-time-until-today) has an entire structure and system to decide disputes (See Exodus 18). So, that should cover 99% of the objections that we see to the ancient laws of Israel.

In Summary

Whenever someone comes to you and says “Look at this is [Genesis/ Exodus/ Leviticus/ Numbers/ Deuteronomy] That’s so harsh! God is so terrible! We would never do something like that today!” Follow this simple three-part response:

  1. Inform them that when they read the books of the Law, they are reading the Law.
    • Then, if necessary compare the harshness they read with the harshness of the Code of Virginia.
      • If you need another example, use this one: if you move from Maryland to Virginia (from one side of the Potomac River to the other) and stay 6 months and 1 day, the penalty of continuing to drive with a Maryland driver’s license rather than going to the DMV and getting a Virginia driver’s license, according to the Code of Virginia and the related local codes is ONE YEAR IN PRISON AND/OR A $2,500 FINE. (It’s not “death” but it’s still pretty darn harsh.)
  2. Second, you should point out that even though they don’t understand the punishments, they do understand what is required of the Law of that nation.
    • You should also point out that these laws are presented so clearly that an ordinary person can generally understand what is an is not required of those under that law.
      • Can you say the same thing for the the Code of the United States during tax season? (Remember: Not paying taxes can lead to prison time.)
  3. Third, you should point out that this clarity on the law still remains about what is required of ordinary people.
    • For emphasis, point out that the English copy they are likely reading was translated from Ancient Hebrew to Koine Greek and into Modern English, across a time-span of 3,700 years.
      • If you still need to emphasis the point, ask them to imagine what would happen if someone was tasked with translating the Code of Virginia the other direction: From English to Koine Greek and then to Ancient Hebrew. Would the clarity remain? (Can people even read our modern laws in Modern English today? Nope. That’s why I have a job.)
        • If you’d like try, use use the United States Criminal Code here and Google Translate here. Give me a comment about the most hilarious translation you can find.

So, to review:

  1. The penalties in the Bible are not harsh. Instead, the directions are clear.
  2. Our God is not terrible. Instead, he is compassionate.
  3. The Bible’s punishments are not “more harsh” than back then. Instead, our laws are just as “harsh” as back then.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we should understand the context of what we read when we read it in Scripture. As St. Augustine said about Scripture nearly 2000 years ago:

If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood. (St. Augustine, Letter From Augustine to Jerome 1.3)

The “Yes I Am A Lawyer” Fine Print

(This article is not intended to be legal advice. If you are facing the issue of reckless driving, driving without a license, adultery in the state of New York or elsewhere, domestic violence by “striking” your father or mother, or murder in the first degree, you should contact a Lawyer. I know an incredibly good looking one who may be able to help. If you believe you may be in danger of the ancient Persian punishment of Scaphism, call the police, an exterminator, or both. This article is intended to be Biblical study using a legal analogy.) Therefore:

Feel free to share this Biblical guidance if you found it helpful. 

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