Thursday, July 30, 2009

Death Penalty

Most people believe that the God of the Old Testament is harsh and cruel. The death penalty is one reason for this belief. It is true that Old Testament provides for a death penalty, but it is very different from what is generally believed. The way that the death penalty is used in most American states is totally different. The modern use of the death penalty is not supported by the Old Testament.

Modern criminal justice uses two main penalties.

  • fines paid to the state for lesser crimes
  • imprisonment in state funded prisons for serious crimes.
Old Testament justice is totally different from anything we know. Prisons did not exist, because they were not practical in among agrarian, nomadic, tribal societies. They could not afford the millions of dollars needed to run prisons.

The Old Testament system is based on restitution to the victims of crime. A thief had to repay four times what they had stolen back to the person they had stolen from (Ex 22:1). This compensated the victim for the cost of tracking down the thief. It provides a strong deterrent against theft.

When a person assaulted another, they were not put in prison. They had to compensate their victim for all the damage done. The expression “eye for an eye” was not an instruction to take revenge. It was first used in the Old Testament in the context of calculating the compensation due to a victim of assault. If the assault victim lost an eye, the criminal would have to pay financial restitution sufficient to fully compensate them for the loss of an eye (Ex 21:23-25). If the victim lost an arm, the criminal would have to compensate then for the loss of potential income. This was a severe penalty.

If the criminal could not pay restitution, he would have to find someone in his community to pay the restitution, in return for his agreeing to work for them for sufficient years to payback the money that had been loaned. Indentured labour allowed a poor criminal to pay restitution to their victim (Ex 22:3).

A murderer had to pay his victims family restitution to compensate them for all the income and support his victim would have provided during the rest of this life. Unless, he was rich, he would usually have to mortgage his life as an indentured labourer for a long time to pay what he owed (Num 35:31).

In very serious cases of murder, the Old Testament does not allow the restitution alternative. A serial killer or serial rapist who is unrepentant would continue to be a danger to his community if the was allowed to pay restitution (Num 35:31). He could not be locked up in prison, so the death penalty was the way to protect the community from a dangerous community. Just as a sheepdog that develops a habit of worrying sheep has to be put down, a person who becomes so evil that they murder several people, may need to be killed to protect the community from harm. This is probably more merciful than locking them up and throwing away the key for thirty years.

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