“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.”
These laws in Exodus sound harsh to the modern ear, but if we will read them in context, they reveal some of the character of God. But first allow me to offer several points of clarification (at least I hope they will clarify things)
First. This call for an eye for an eye is actually an improvement on the morals of the day. It is a call for retributive justice, where the punishment must fit the crime. An example of the barbaric concepts of justice in biblical times can be seen in our own day in countries under Sharia which is Muslim law. In these lands women are murdered by their own families for being victims of rape, acid is thrown in women’s faces for being immodest or this week’s report of Sheikh Fayhan al-Ghamdi killing his 5 year old daughter because he suspected that she was no longer a virgin. (http://frontpagemag.com/2013/dgreenfield/muslim-sheikh-accuses-5-year-old-daughter-of-not-being-a-virgin-beats-her-to-death-gets-off-with-50000-fine/). Retributive justice stops such madness.
Retributive justice also stops the kind of vengeance that says “if you kill one of us then we will kill ten of you.” Such thinking sparks feuds that never end whereas when justice is met, people tend to find a certain amount of closure and move on with their lives.
Second. These laws are more about social ethics than personal ethics. God was setting up Israel as a theocracy and so the laws of the land were to reflect God’s sense of justice meted out by proper authorities. A neighbor who witnessed another sacrificing to false gods did not have carte blanche to stone him according to Ex 22:20. The accused would be arrested, tried and sentenced by Israel’s leaders. A parallel passage states that someone can only be found guilty if there are two or three witnesses (Duet 19:15-21). There was also built into the system strict punishments for bearing a false witness against an innocent party. The combination of multiple witnesses and punishment for perjury set a standard that went a long way in preventing injustices. These social ethics would allow them to build a strong nation that is governed by laws. Israel will learn the hard way that when you stray from God’s commandments a vacuum is created that is quickly filled by evil leaders.
Third. Even in the midst of what may seem to be strict standards of justice we can see God’s mercy as well. In Ex 22:21 God warns not to mistreat foreigners in any way and in 22:22 He warns against exploiting widows and orphans. In 23:11 He commands that the poor be allowed to harvest any land that has been left fallow. IN all these cases God is standing up for the most vulnerable among His people. We are called to mirror His mercy.
Fourth. God’s laws add to the dignity of man. They hold us accountable and make us responsible and insist that we live above the animalistic instincts of our fallen nature. It is beneath our calling as image bearers of God to allow our passions to rule. As a loving heavenly Father, God wants the best for us and so through the law He calls us to a higher ground.
Thus while we are not creating a theocracy, nor any longer under the law of Moses, these laws are relevant still. They reveal to us a God of justice and a God of mercy. English and American law both were built upon these godly virtues and we were blessed in our pasts because of them. These laws also show us His wisdom. The requirement for a thief to pay back TWICE what he stole is brilliant. It teaches the thief an ongoing lesson as he works off his debt and it leaves the victim with more than he had to begin with, a salve for his wounds.
I employed this wisdom once to a very good end. I helped a fatherless teen open a bank account that he fraudulently misused. Since I was on the account, one of us had to make it right or one of us was going to jail. I covered the debt and then told the teen that he was to give me every paycheck from that time forward until he had paid me twice what I paid on his behalf. To his credit he was faithful to do so. Once he paid me back the initial amount, I put the additional money in a discretionary account that I use to help people in need. Then, before he reached the point of paying back double, I released him from the debt. When he objected that he still owed me money, I told him that I wanted him to learn mercy as well as justice. We have a good relationship to this day and we were able to help other people while he was learning a lesson or two. God’s wisdom created a win/win situation. It has been my experience that it usually does.
So Christians don’t write off the law of God. Look into them for what they can teach us about the nature of God and about the nature of man. Look for the principles which case laws reflect and don’t miss the proverbial forest for the trees.