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Week 6 - Leviticus 19-Numbers 10, Psalm 36-42

If you are like me, by this point in the Bible reading it becomes difficult in how to understand some of these passages, especially the ones with repeated calls to put sinners of various kinds to death. I wanted to devote this week's blog entry to the topic of crime and punishment in the Old Testament.

When we read passages like Leviticus 20 we get the impression that Old Testament Israel was this blood thirsty society that was putting people to death all the time. In actual practice, this was likely not the case. Rather, the Old Testament Law, even passages like Leviticus, represent a society that was distinctly more humane than the surrounding ancient world. Let me explain what I mean:

First, the use of the death penalty was not unique to ancient Israel, rather it was practiced by every society in the ancient world. What makes Israel's law so unique is how it places limits and regulations on how to punish various crimes and offenses against God. For example, the Law of Moses commands that only people who have been convicted of crimes by the testimonies of multiple eye witnesses were to be put to death. The requirement of a trial as well as clearly stated laws was far more developed than the other societies of the day, which often operated according to the principle of "might makes right".

Second, Jewish rabbinic tradition points out that the punishments described in the Law of Moses were practiced not as a "mandatory minimum" punishment. Rather, they were received as the upper limit. In other words, the actual punishment could not exceed what was written in the Law. In practice, the most serious punishments were often reserved for people who demonstrated clear and persistent defiance to God's Law. As a result, the judges who were hearing cases had the space to exercise mercy in accordance with the character of God who gave them this law.

The result of the Old Testament Law was that it produced a society that was actually more measured, deliberative, and just, when it came to the punishment of various kinds of crimes. God's design in creating the people of Israel is that their very existence would demonstrate the reality of God to the surrounding nations.

So then, how do the various crime and punishment laws apply to us as New Testament Christians?

We can't deny how serious these laws are. God takes sin very seriously and speaks about it with life and death seriousness. "Suffering is always better than sinning", as the Puritans would often say. In our modern age, this idea makes very little sense to us, because we often view obedience to God as a matter of personal preference or practicality, rather than the law instituted by our very creator. We were created to live under the authority of our creator, not to be an authority unto ourselves. The Old Testament Law helps us to keep this reality in view and restore a sense of seriousness about how we live our daily lives in obedience to God.

Finally, the Old Testament Law points us to the fulfillment of the Law, which was done by Jesus our savior. Let us always remember that if the penalty of sin is death, Jesus died that death in our place. Fear is not what drives our obedience to God, gratitude is.

Bible Project Resources

Day 36 - Leviticus 19-20, Psalm 36 -

Day 38 - Leviticus 24-25, Psalm 37-38

Day 39 - Leviticus 26-27, Psalm 39 -

Day 41 - Numbers 5-7, Psalm 41

Day 42 - Numbers 8-10, Psalm 42


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