Issues

The Bible and the law

What does the Bible say about crime and punishment?

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There are many laws written in the Bible. Several Old Testament books are entirely made up of laws for how the ancient Israelites should live together. These cover all kinds of aspects of life – for example, laws relating to the worship of God, to relationships with each other and the treatment of weaker members of the community – and naturally include laws to do with how to deal with people who have injured others in some way.

In the Bible, justice is about making things right. In the books of the law in the Old Testament, retribution (i.e. paying somebody back) is cited as a legitimate aim of punishment. This is a means of making things right for the victim. In Leviticus 24:19-20, it says:

“If anyone injures his neighbour, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for an eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured, so he is to be injured”.

This suggests that the criminal had to make reparation (or pay for) his crime. The commandment’s original intention was to limit revenge, for example if someone had wronged you, you could take the revenge you were due but no more (so if someone had knocked one of your teeth out you had the right to knock out one of theirs, but not to break their leg as well). Once the criminal had made restitution for his/her crime, he/she was cleared of their guilt.

In relation to capital punishment, in Deuteronomy 17:12-13, it is suggested that punishing people by death is a way of deterring others from committing the same crime: “Everyone will hear about it and be afraid to act so arrogantly.”

However, there were also clear systems in place to protect people who  had broken the law unintentionally, in order that they received a fair trial. Numbers 35:11-24 talks about ‘cities of refuge’: places where people who have committed manslaughter can seek asylum to escape vengeance at the hands of an angry mob and instead wait for the religious leaders to decide their fate.

In the Book of Romans in the New Testament, St Paul writes that “the authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1). This suggests that the Government of a country has been put there by God, and therefore has a God-given duty to punish criminals on behalf of the society they govern.

When thinking about the purpose and methods of punishment today, many Christians give most weight to Jesus’ example and teaching. He famously quoted the ‘eye for an eye’ verse from Leviticus which encouraged a purely revenge / retribution approach and suggested there were other ways of dealing with wrongs – by choosing love, expressed in mercy and forgiveness. Look up the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 for more details.

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