Levitical America

“‘Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them, so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them. But I said to you, “You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the LORD your God, who has set you apart from the nations.'” – Leviticus 20:22-24

A few days ago we commented on the theocratic leanings of Rick Santorum and how we agreed in part, but only on a technicality. A good friend over at possiblywrong commented back regarding Leviticus 20:13 and its implications in a free society. I’ll repost the comment first, then attempt to get to the bottom of the issues (though, admittedly it requires a bit of a dive into theology, which isn’t my natural writing style).

I am curious how Leviticus 20:13 plays here. This is a religious mandate to kill… but as you have discussed and sidestepped this before, this was a part of a covenant with a group of people during a period of time, in neither of which you currently reside, so it does not apply to you now.

But what about those to whom it *did* apply, *when* it applied? Presumably (hopefully?) the principles described above are timeless (“the only constraints placed on them are in regards to the fundamental human rights of others (life, liberty, property) and that the government will enforce the rights of all”). How would someone– how would you– reconcile this principle of freedom with this order to kill?

For reference, here is Leviticus 20:13 – “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

To get to this, we need to go down the following paths. First, we need to draw a distinction between America 2012 and Levitical Israel, and why I do not hold that the above statement, while clearly Biblical, should be held binding by the laws of America. This is not exactly the question asked by possiblywrong, but it seems relevant to the discussion. Then we’ll try to get to the conflict of “life, liberty, and property” and the death penalty. Actually, the points will intertwine some, but hopefully we’ll touch on all of them.

Adam, Cain, Lamech, Moses and Jesus …

Leaving aside Levitical law for just a moment, we note that the Bible tells a winding story of the human condition from Adam down to us. It is not linear, and the rules to which we were accountable were not always written the same. I don’t find in this a contradiction, but “growth” or “process”.

In Adam we saw very little in the way of “do this not that” commandments, other than this: “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen 2:17). Of course Adam violated that one command, and the rest is history.

In a short step from Adam to his son Cain, we had gone from disobedient fruit eaters to murders: “And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him” (Gen 4:8). God duly punishes Cain, driving him away as a “restless wanderer” and cursing the ground that he works. Cain protests that the punishment is too great (see Gen 4:13-15) and God gives him a mild reprieve, noting that He will take vengeance “seven times over” on anyone who kills Cain. (Side note, parents may find that they have resorted to this just to get some semblance of order back in the house. “If you take your brother’s toy again I will take away all your toys!” Overdone to be sure, but what we’re angling for is to end the toy snatching, not set up one child as more important than the other.)

A few short verses later we get to Lamech who states in Gen 4:23-24, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” Now it is getting out of hand. Lamech is claiming an even higher status for himself than Cain. Claiming that crimes against him are far worse than crimes against others, and that vengeance for those crimes rightly carries a stiff penalty.

Before we get to Moses, I think Lamech calls for another, longer, side note. The “law of Lamech” is, in my mind, one of the great struggles of the American, even the American Christian. What we saw during the “prosperity” movement was a massive role inversion between God and Christians. That is, Christians often took the view (perhaps subconsciously, but it was there, hidden in the theology) that “God wants me to be happy” and that “whatever makes me happy is therefore the will of God”. No, the will of God is the will of God. Yes, He wants His children to be joyful, but this does not mean happy-at-all-costs. How does this apply to Lamech? Well, the happy-at-all-costs (or prosperity-at-all-costs) doctrine  placed me above all else, and all others. It said that true judgment about what is right or wrong in a situation can be informed by how it impacts me.

In Moses we saw a departure from the law of Lamech. It was back to an “eye for an eye”. People feel like that is harsh, but it was much better than the “wild west” attitude of Lamech. No, now everyone would be equal. Consider Lev 19:15: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” That is, people are given equal status … this is what we mean by equality before God (see Rom 2:11 for Paul’s statement on God not being a “respecter of persons”).

After this, we have the culmination of the old testament process that pointed toward a savior and redeemer – Jesus. And yet, Jesus came preaching a message of peace and forgiveness, and of turning the other cheek. Consider Luke 6:28, for example, “bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Now, is Jesus changing the rules? Is He saying “what used to be wrong is not wrong any more”? No. He is changing the execution of judgment. (See Matt 5:17 “I came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it.”) Jesus is not saying “the people who are mean to you, My followers, will get off free because you are the lowest of all peoples.” No, He is telling us to let God sort out judgment (see Rom 12:19 – “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath”). He is also telling us in the same breath that human judgment is fundamentally flawed by the law of Lamech, and that if we really want to judge rightly we must remove ourselves and our selfish motives from the equation, and reverse roles with the other person: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” – Luke 6:31. (This is of course the Golden Rule, and it forms the basis of what I would call good governance in a Democracy: consider the Rightful Authority Spectrum.)

Now the tables have swung. We have gone from 7 eyes for an eye, to 77 eyes for an eye, to one eye for an eye, to no eyes for an eye … or no eyes yet. Jesus has placed us squarely in the camp of “wrong is wrong, but God will handle the vengeance.”

So Then, What of the Law? …

What then is the role of Levitical law to the Christian? Of course the Bible has plenty to say (as do Christian theologians, though they often disagree). One of the first direct handlings of this issue in the New Testament era is given in Acts 15 at “the Council at Jerusalem.” Here there is a dispute amongst Jewish Christians as to whether the newly converted gentiles should follow the law of Moses. Peter says in Acts 15:10, “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” Afterward, James (the brother of Jesus, not the brother of John, who had been executed by this point) says in Acts 15:19, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”

So if Christians are no longer bound to fulfill Levitical law, what is it’s purpose? Paul addresses this in Galatians chapter 3; consider verses 19-24:

What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator. A mediator, however, does not represent just one party; but God is one.

Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.

Consider also Romans 7, where Paul also notes that the purpose of the law is to make sin evident (that is, to show us clearly what is right and wrong).

Three Schools of Thought …

With that I will draw up three schools of thought out there regarding the role of morality in government policy (surely these are not the only ones).

America as Israel. The first, and most common amongst conservative evangelicals, is to draw this notional relation between America and Israel (or any country and Israel for that matter). In this school it is held that the country should base its policy on the moral codes of the Bible. They tend to quote things like Proverbs 14:34 – “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” They springboard from this to the position that enforcing moral behavior amongst the people will bring the blessings of God on the nation, and we are thus better off as a whole even if it means people being forced to do other than what they would freely choose on their own. (It really is a progressive notion, when you think about it.)

Freedom from Religion. The next school, which also includes some Christians, is that religion really ought to have no part in informing government policy. It’s something nice to do on Sunday, but ought not even come up when we discuss policy and legislation.

Equality of Man. (Naturally I picked a nicer euphemistic name for my school of thought.) I hold that men are created equal, endowed with life and liberty by their Creator (I left off pursuit of happiness, not because I don’t believe it, but because the explanations get quirky to say the least.) In this, government policy should defend men from having their life and liberty (and property, which derives from the first two) violated by their neighbors. But equality also implies equality of moral judgment. Not that I believe all men are equally right in their decisions – they are not – but they should be equally allowed to decide for themselves. In fact, the very principle that we are not all equally correct in our moral decisions implies that we should not tolerate “majority rule” on moral issues, for the majority can also be quite wrong.

I tend to dismiss the America as Israel crowd on the simple grounds that the promises made to Israel in the Mosaic covenant were made to Israel, not America. Further, history is replete with examples of theocracies leading people away from freedom, joy, and even prosperity (or, if you will, “the blessings of God”).

I also tend to dismiss the Freedom from Religion position on the basis that I am a Christian, and my faith informs all of my decisions – including my vote, which impacts policy.

And Now, The Death Penalty …

You’ll find that the death penalty is not a point of agreement amongst all Christians. Many oppose the death penalty on the basis of the “deferral of justice” provisions in the New Testament. That is, “we don’t need to exact death, the Lord will deal with that in His time.” They also point to the Lord’s handling of “the woman caught in adultery” (see John 8:1-11).

The other group that supports the death penalty will point to 1 Tim 1:9 (“the law is for the lawless”) and 1 Peter 2:13-14 (“obey earthly authorities … sent to punish those who do wrong.”) This is consistent with a position long held in American legal tradition that prosecution of crimes is not a measure of vengeance on behalf of the victim, but defense of liberties on behalf of the society as a whole.

I wouldn’t say I’m hard over on either side. To date I don’t oppose the death penalty, though I do find a certain “ick” to it in the sense that it brings with it the most egregious form of “type II errors” – the possibility of punishing, executing, an innocent man is horrifying.

And the Levitical Death Penalty? …

But the question from possiblywrong really pointed to exacting a death penalty in the time of Levitical law, and whether it runs counter to the “life, liberty, and property as a basic human right” missive. To this I will say that the death penalty in Leviticus 20:13 and the current judgment against sin only differ in the timing of justice. That is, the death penalty for sin is still in effect (“for the wages of sin is death” – Rom 6:23). However, the time of the penalty is different.

In Leviticus the penalty for sin against God was immediate. God was pointing out to His people just how awful and deplorable sin is, and just how violent the consequences are. This is the purpose of the law, to make sin evident. Today the punishment is no less severe, but God has given all men room to repent. He has delayed judgment to the end, not wishing to snatch up the tares with the wheat (see Matt 13:24-30).

So then, the Levitical death penalty does not run counter to life and liberty as being a gift to men from our Creator. He gave them to us, and He set conditions on them. In Leviticus those conditions were strict and the exacting of consequences was immediate. Today the conditions are the same, but the scope is eternal. A man’s life is eternal – “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecc 3:11). And life is still a gift from God, whose conditions and parameters are set by Him – “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23).

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