Tag Archives: crime and punishment

God wants to transform our mess [Crime & Punishment – Deuteronomy 21, part 5]

18 Jan
Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

From our murder mystery in part 1, into the bizarre dead body ritual of part 2 and part 3, and through the messiness of crime in part 4, what have we learned about God’s heart through the teaching of Deuteronomy 21 about crime and punishment?  God is serious about the purity of the land, and the purity of his people.  Because he is so passionate about purity, of course his heart beats for justice.  Even if the perpetrator of the crime is not discovered, as we saw in this passage, there is still a process for justice and atonement.  God’s justice and purity, therefore, are interrelated.  When impurity has occurred, he not only wants impurity to stop, but he also wants to bring justice to the situation. 

So how do we Christians apply these principles of purity and justice to our lives?

First, remember that this is not our covenant!  We are not the Old Testament nation of Israel, and thus we are not bound by their covenant.  Christians don’t have observe ancient Israelite rituals for handling dead bodies.  We don’t stone disobedient kids.  We are the church of Jesus, and we are bound by his New Covenant, which is the teaching of the New Testament.  What we can do with this Old Testament teaching is focus on those underlying principles of purity and justice. 

Let’s take a look at justice first. Christians should be actively pursuing a just society.  Justice in society touches many more issues than we can discuss in this one post.  Since Deuteronomy 21 is about crime and punishment, let’s talk briefly about crime and justice.  Crime is unacceptable in a just society, and it needs to be dealt with.  Right out of college I worked on staff for three years at what was then called Barnes Hall, Lancaster County’s Juvenile Detention Center.  During those years I got to have an up-close and personal view of the justice system, particularly the juvenile justice system.  We saw kids go to a variety of placement and treatment centers, including some who went to jail.  I was shocked to learn that almost nothing helped most kids.  80% would come back, eventually committing more crimes. 

I did some research this week on adults and prison, and here in Lancaster County, PA, 4 out 10 will return to prison in the first year after their release.  Thankfully, Lancaster has some very successful re-entry programs for people coming out of jail.  In the town of Leola, for example, the Potter’s House is a transitional discipleship ministry for former convicts.  Potter’s House and other similar organizations in the county have proven effective, dropping the recidivism rate to 15% for those who successfully complete their programs.  Lancaster’s model is so successful it has caught the eye of counties state-wide, including the city of Philadelphia.  It is amazing to see Christians actively involved in providing alternatives to crime and punishment.  This is right in line with God’s heart for justice.

But Deuteronomy 21 also reminds us about God’s heart for purity. There are many places in the New Testament that affirm that Christians should pursue holiness and purity. I am not saying that unless we are perfect all the time, something is drastically wrong with us.  We must remember that Christ is our atonement.  His birth, life, death and resurrection is the work of making things right.  Jesus defeated sin and death and the devil, and thus he set us free to pursue holiness. 

This is what Paul teaches in Romans 5 and 6. I encourage you to read that this week.  Paul says what Jesus did out of love for us is amazing.  God’s grace in our lives is wonderful.  God’s grace has come to us in the person and work of Jesus, and that has set us free to pursue righteousness!  In other words, disciples of Jesus do not abuse God’s grace, but we seek to purge the evil from among us.

So many people have experienced this transformation.  I recently heard the story of Carla Faye Tucker who was transformed from a killer on death row to an imprisoned preacher.  I also encourage you to read the Testimony articles at end of each issue of Christianity Today.  These are stories of God at work changing lives.  Finally, ask yourself: What impurity is there in your life?  What do you need to remove and deal with?  What will it look like for you to pursue God and his holiness?

The messiness of crime [Crime & Punishment – Deuteronomy 21, part 4]

17 Jan

Crime and punishment is so complex, messy and often frustrating. The third season of the podcast Serial does an excellent job exploring the nuances of the criminal justice, as seen through the lens of Cleveland, Ohio. It likely comes as no surprise to you that we humans have a conflicted history of dealing with crime. In this series on Deuteronomy 21 it has been no different for the ancient nation of Israel. Through it all we have seen God’s heart for purity.  Even when a crime is committed and they don’t know who the guilty party is, Israel still needs to atone for it.  Purity in the land, and purity in his people is vital before God. 

This theme continues in verses 18-21.  Here again we have another one of those passages that is hard for us to hear with our modern sensibilities. Parents were to take extremely disobedient kids to the town elders, who will stone them to death. Whew! 

I think it is important to note that this is not just a regularly disobedient kid.  We all can remember when we were kids and didn’t do what our parents wanted us to do.  How many of you have stories?  I do.  There was the time my parents gave me 50 cents before church one Sunday. I was to put it in a Sunday School class offering.  But I kept it in my pocket instead of putting it in the offering plate.  After church, my family went home, and at some point that afternoon, I went outside to play.  I waited a few minutes, came back inside, and told my parents I found two quarters on the sidewalk!  I then asked if I could go around the corner to the local convenience store to buy a pack of baseball cards.  In high school I once lied to them about which movie I was going to see with some friends, and at the theater, the whole way through I couldn’t enjoy the movie because I felt so awful.  Maybe you know what I mean.

That is disobedience, but it was not all out rebellion.  What we are reading here in Deuteronomy 21 is all out rebellion.  It’s not just a few instances, or even a lot of disobedience. It is far worse, and there is no stopping it.  Also, we read that it involves drinking and drunkenness.  So we’re not talking about a child, but at the youngest, a teenager, and perhaps more likely a young adult.  The word “profligate” is used to describe this person, and that is not a word I use much or hear much.  The Hebrew word used there is sometimes translated “gluttonous”, sometimes translated “despicable.”  It refers to a person who is out of control.  So this is way more than disobedient.  This is a criminal.  The person is not just disrespecting or disobeying their parents, but all of society.  And the punishment is death. 

Again I say, Whew.  Death?  The ultimate punishment!  The death penalty.  Like the war passages we studied in the previous series, it is hard to know how to react to this.  Isn’t there some other way to respond than the death penalty?  Is there a possibility for rehabilitation?   Why such decisive, final action?  We know that God dearly values human life, but here we have an instance where he commands them to take life away.  Is God inconsistent? 

When compared to the holy war passage we studied last week, this command to give the death penalty to a profligate son is entirely consistent.  Last week we saw God’s heart to keep Israel pure by eradicating the land of nations that were declared evil.  That was evil outside Israel.  Here God is purging the evil from within.  God wants purity in the land. 

Take a look at that last statement in verse 21.  He says that when they give rebellious people the death penalty, it will serve as a deterrent for the rest of the nation.  Implied in this command is that other people will be afraid, and thus those others will want to be pure. 

We hear these kinds of arguments made for the use of the death penalty in our nation, that it removes evil and provides a deterrent for others, supposedly motivating them to be pure.  As with the disagreement about war, there is among Christians major disagreement about the death penalty, and about crime and punishment in general.  In any church, I’m sure some support the death penalty, and I’m sure some Christians do not. I’m sure we have people who are for jail and imprisonment and those who would like to have significant prison reform.  These are conflicted issues that we will not solve in this post.  Instead I’d like to try to seek God’s heart in this passage. First, we see that God desires that children obey their parents.  Second, he desires that evil is dealt with and restrained, and third, he desires that his people to live lives of purity.

This theme will continue in verses 22-23.  The situation of the evil son in verses 18-21 means that there will be some who are put to death by the death penalty.  The situation in verses 1-9 relates as well, because if the murderer is eventually found, murderers are to be put to death too.  Now here in verses 22-23 what we read is a death penalty that was enacted by hanging.  But similarly to the unsolved murder in verses 1-9 this hanging presents a problem.  What do you do with the body? 

God says, don’t let it hang overnight, bury it the same day.  Those hung, he adds, are under God’s curse.  Why would he say this?  Practically speaking, there could be a physical side to this as the body would start to decompose.  In fact, one scholar says, “A dead body is the primary source of ritual impurity in the Bible, and if it were left to decompose, its parts would eventually be scattered by birds and animals, spreading the impurity.”[1]

What is the principle behind it?  Once again: Do not desecrate the land. What does this teach us about God’s heart?  Purge the evil from you.  God is a God of purity and holiness.  In part 5, we’ll consider the implications of these principles for our lives.

[1] Ibid.

Can we learn God’s heart from a ritual for a dead body? [Crime & Punishment – Deuteronomy 21, part 3]

16 Jan
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Imagine the scene. In ancient Israel, a murdered body is found in a field, and no one knows who committed the crime. Who should deal with the body, and how does God want the people to deal with the blood guilt? In this series we’ve been exploring the fascinating ritual God commands the people to follow. Read part 1 and part 2, covering verses 1-5, and the beginning of the ritual. What happens then in verses 6-9 is the remainder of the ceremony. Thus far, the nearby towns have measured the distance from the body to their towns. The closest town has jurisdiction, and the elders from that town must take a young heifer to a wadi with a flowing stream, and there they break the neck of the heifer with priests observing them. The elders, then, ritually wash their hands over the dead heifer and they recite a prayer to God declaring on behalf of the people that they are innocent, and they ask God to consider them now atoned for. 

This ceremony has led to some amazing speculation as to what was going on with all these unique features.  Ancient Rabbis, one scholar reports, said that “the ceremony [was] an act of punitive magic. A swarm of worms from the heifer finds the killer and seizes him so that the authorities can bring him to justice; [another Rabbi said] the worms themselves kill him.”[1]  Notice that the text says nothing about these magical worms!

So what is the meaning of the wadi with the stream, the heifer, the neck breaking and the hand-washing?  There are numerous views, and one scholar I listed above suggests that we should see the ritual “as a reenactment of the murder…, since it…suggests a reasonable explanation of why it must take place at a barren wadi: that is, so that the imitation blood guilt is kept far from civilization. Nevertheless,” the scholar says, “this view is far from certain.”[2]

But what is certain, is what happens at the end of the ritual.  The prayer.  By going through this ritual, verse 9 tells us, the people will have purged themselves and the land of guilt from bloodshed, declaring that they are innocent, and they are declared as having done what was right in God’s eyes. 

Fascinating ritual, isn’t it?  It is a unique section of Scripture, but what does it matter to us?  What do we see of God’s heart in this passage? 

Through it all, we see God’s heart for purity.  Even when a crime is committed and though they don’t know who the guilty party is, Israel still needs to atone for it.  Purity in the land, and purity in his people is vital before God.  Tomorrow we add to this theme in part 4 as we have two more illustrations of crime and punishment, through which we will learn more about God’s heart.

[1] Tigay, Jeffrey H. Deuteronomy. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996. Print. The JPS Torah Commentary.

[2] Ibid.