Civil Justice and Old Testament

Excerpts from “The Bounds of Love” by Joel McDurmon

The book of Hebrews is dedicated to proving that the New Covenant is superior to the Old in every way. It has a superior mediator, superior sacrifice, superior temple — it is superior in every way because of Christ. Yet even though the book is filled with comparisons that show the Old Testament system to be “obsolete,” “old,” and “ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8: 13), there is one aspect of the Old Testament it does not criticize but rather upholds, and that is the penal sanctions. These it simply calls “just” and warns its readers not to drift away from it (Heb. 2: 1). It should be clear from this that these laws were not part of those intended to be replaced by the coming of Christ. If there were any place in the Bible we would expect an argument for the end of the Old Testament standards of justice, it would be here in Hebrews. But instead we find just the opposite: a statement supporting their abiding validity. If Hebrews says we ought to pay close attention to these laws, I consider that an exceedingly strong reason to pay close attention to them.

Indeed, we should pay close attention to the simple but powerful description Hebrews gives to these penalties: “just.” When God provides standards of justice, we ought to be at pains to obey them in our societies and governments. We should do so for one simple reason: what God says is just is just, and any other standard can only be unjust. Without obedience to God’s laws, our systems of justice are not so much systems of justice as they are systems of injustice.

This word “just” demands our attention. The Greek word is derived from the same word as “righteous.” It is not referring to a particular instance or application of the law, but is describing a quality of the judicial law. “Just” refers to a principle that runs throughout the administration of God. His system of justice is “just” or “righteous” throughout.

…The Scriptural teaching, then, is that God’s judicial laws are righteous and just altogether, and that every infraction was assigned a “ just” penalty (Heb. 2: 2). As far as our need to understand God’s revealed system of justice, we could really stop here: Scripture has spoken. There need be no other inquiry beyond this. But God is gracious. He has not only given us bare fiat and commanded us to obey without understanding. He has given us a system of justice composed of general laws (laws of love and the Ten Commandments) as well as case examples of how to apply those laws (judicial laws) so that they are applied justly. In other words, He has given us a principle by which justice can be done in any case, and this principle is directly revealed in the law and reflected in every single law He revealed.

Lex Talionis

…So what is this principle? Simple: it is traditionally called the lex talionis. It is stated in the judicial law like this: “you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Ex. 21: 23–25). The principle is repeated in Leviticus 24: 24 and Deuteronomy 19: 21.

…Such an unfortunate mistake perpetuates the popular misconception that “an eye for an eye” is about personal revenge or physical violence, which is the second way it is misunderstood.

Let’s set the record straight. Lex talionis is not properly translated as “law of the talon,” but as “law of the talion.” “Talion” is a legal term taken from the Latin word talis. It means “such” in the sense of “same as.” A related English word derived from this is not “talon” (which comes from a completely different derivation) but “retaliate.” Even here, however, we must be careful, for we usually use the word “retaliate” in terms of individuals retaliating. Instead, we need to consider it in the sense of state-sanctioned restitution or punishment that is precisely measured to match the severity of the infraction or crime.

The lex talionis says essentially one thing: the punishment must fit the crime — no more, no less. It is a rule that says justice must be done in two ways: first, the crime should be punished, and second, the state must administer punishment only to a requisite extent and in a particular way proportionate to the crime.

This is not just one more law among others, but rather is a principle of law that runs through all the others, much the same as the principle of love summarizes the whole of the law. Lex talionis is in itself the principle of justness, fairness, equity in redress of injury or punishment of crime. But this means it is more than any old judicial law allowed to be set aside in “more civilized” or modern societies, or abrogated in New Testament times. It is, in and of itself, the principle of justice. It is thus a moral and eternal principle for all times and in all places.

Turn the Other Cheek

From this many Christians conclude that Jesus was replacing the Old Testament teachings with his own kinder, gentler doctrines. But this is a common misunderstanding of the Sermon on the Mount. Far from replacing the Old Testament law, Jesus said He came specifically not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. He said that anyone who does annul these laws would be called least in His Kingdom, and whoever taught them would be called great (Matt. 5: 17–18). Jesus was therefore fulfilling the lex talionis.

What Jesus said next helps us understand what He was communicating in the Sermon on the Mount. He said, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5: 20 NASB). While this verse contains quite a bit for discussion, one thing it suggests is that Christ’s teaching of the law in the Sermon on the Mount is to be seen in direct contrast to that of the Pharisees. Indeed, this is exactly what we find. Every time Christ says, “You have heard that it was said,” He is not contrasting the Old Testament with the New. Rather, He was taking the false interpretations the Pharisees and others had put upon Old Testament teaching and contrasting it with the true meaning of the Old Testament law as the perfect law of righteousness it was meant to be. The unbelieving Jewish leaders had corrupted and twisted its meaning in various ways through their oral traditions. Jesus was setting the record straight.

Thus, when we come to Matthew 5: 38, Jesus is not replacing the lex talionis, He is simply correcting an error of the unbelieving teachers — namely, that the lex talionis could be applied to personal vengeance. Jesus corrected this mistaken notion. Biblical law actually forbids private revenge. Instead, we should be willing to turn the other cheek, and even submit to certain aspects of government tyranny for the sake of love and peace. As a matter of fact, some of Jesus’ points here (v. 42) were already taught in the Old Testament anyway (Deut. 15: 8; Psa. 37: 21; 112: 5; Prov. 21: 26).

Instead of supporting private revenge, the lex talionis is actually a principle of justice to be applied through due process and a proper jury trial. Far from condemning or replacing this foundational standard of justice, Jesus was actually vindicating it from a perverse use of it.

Death Penalty

…”of course” even the Old Testament death penalties were “just” because, after all, all sins deserve death. Putting aside other aspects of fallacy, this argument unwittingly calls into question the justice of all other penalties in the Mosaic law in which God did not prescribe death. For example, if all sins deserve the death penalty, then why not prescribe death for all infractions across the board — false witness, theft, covetousness, etc.? The fact that God instead prescribes restitution for theft should itself alert us to the fact that in civil/ judicial law, we are dealing with a different sphere of jurisdiction and sanctions than God’s eternal judgment and our justification before Him.

When we address judicial law, we are dealing instead with God’s standards of material justice between men in history — and that is distinct from the cosmic, theological nature of sin in God’s eyes. When God prescribes something less than death for a certain crime, we must call that penalty just and not argue, or imply, that in the civil realm it deserves death.

On the other hand, when God does call for death — rapists, murderers, kidnappers — and our society, times, or sentiments desire something less, we must recognize that to apply something less is also to deny civil justice according to God’s standard. Again, we are not allowed in this sphere to call such penalties just only because all sins deserve death, but only because God has prescribed death as a civil penalty in such a case. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that He does so and seek to obey his standards in society.

On this point, we must always remember that all of these applications are nothing more than deductions from that simple principle of lex talionis: the punishment must fit the crime — no more, no less.

Joel McDurmon. The Bounds of Love (Kindle Locations 2377–2387). American Vision Press. Kindle Edition.