The Gospel and the Law, Part 3: The Civil Law


In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we saw that theologians recognize three facets of the Old Testament Law, the Moral Law, the Civil Law, and the Ceremonial Law. We also saw that the Moral Law still applies to us today in the New Covenant era, and is in fact at the heart of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 33:31ff. But what about the Civil and Ceremonial Laws? Do they have any bearing on us today?

The answer is a qualified yes, especially with respect to the Civil Law. Unlike the Old Covenant, which was given to a single nation, the New Covenant is international in scope. The details of the Civil Law were specifically for the nation of Israel, and thus its provisions no longer apply as written to the church today. But the Civil Law is built on the Moral Law; it explains how the principles of the Moral Law were to be applied in ancient Israel and thus reveals God’s standards for justice as well as the proper responsibilities of civil government. Studying the Civil Law can therefore be very profitable for us if we look for its underlying principles. To understand how this works, it will be helpful to look at a few specific examples.

An Eye for an Eye and a Tooth for a Tooth
One of the most controversial provisions of the Old Testament Law is the so-called lex talionis:1 “And a man who inflicts an injury upon his fellow man just as he did, so shall be done to him [namely,] fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Just as he inflicted an injury upon a person, so shall it be inflicted upon him.” (Lev. 24:19–21) Jesus Himself seems to have said this was a bad law, or was at least superseded, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:38-39). So what is a Christian supposed to learn from this law?

To answer this, we need to understand the historical and legal context for this law. Jewish scholars note two important points about the verse. First, it sets limits to legal retaliation for offenses; in other words, the law is intended to prevent excessive retaliation rather than to mandate exact standards for punishment.  But Jewish commentators take this further. They note that with only one exception, maiming is never prescribed as a punishment for a crime, and even that exception may be not be intended to be taken literally. Jewish scholars thus argue that the lex talionis in Leviticus must be read symbolically. Its intent is simply to mandate that appropriate compensation must be paid for any harm one does to another.

In the Western legal tradition, we often see the image of the Scales of Justice: Justice is depicted as a blindfolded woman (to show that there is no favoritism under law) holding an old fashioned set of scales. The idea is that in order for there to be justice, the weight of the crime on one side of the scales has to be balanced by the punishment on the other side, such that the punishment be neither too harsh (or it will be unjust) nor too lenient (or it will encourage others to commit the same crime). According to the rabbis, this is essentially the point made in Lev. 24:19-21.

With all this in mind, we can look at Jesus’ teaching on this verse. Jesus’ teaching in this section of the Sermon on the Mount centers on correcting misunderstandings and misapplications of the Law, so one would expect this verse to be doing that as well. When we look at the examples Jesus gives of not taking an eye for an eye, we find that none of them refer to criminal acts. Instead, they discuss how we are to respond to wrongs done to us. It thus appears that people were taking Lev. 24:19-21 and applying it to personal retaliation rather than to criminal procedures conducted by the civil authorities. Jesus does not allow us to take vengeance ourselves for wrongs or slights, but He says nothing here about the role of criminal courts.

Jesus thus does not reject the lex talionis per se, but instead He restores it to its proper sphere in judicial procedures administered by legitimately constituted governmental authorities. And that means that the underlying principle behind the lex talionis continues to apply today: courts are to be careful to assign punishment proportional to the harm done in the crime.

Cities of Refuge
The Civil Law also recognized intent as an important factor in determining guilt or innocence. Numbers 35:9-30 distinguishes between those who kill someone with malice aforethought, and those who kill another person impulsively, accidentally, or negligently.

There is no need to go through the details of this provision of the Law here, but a few observations are in order. The provision of Cities of Refuge is an application of the lex talionis. Intentionally killing someone warranted the death penalty. Since intentional murder is more serious than unintentional homicide, putting a person to death who had unintentionally killed someone would unbalance the scales of justice: it would punish a less serious crime as severely as a more serious crime. Therefore, unintentional homicide was punished by the less severe penalty of exile to a City of Refuge until the death of the high priest,

The law thus recognized that negligent or impulsive action was punishable by law, but not to the same degree as intentional actions. God’s justice thus takes into account both intention and action; just legal systems must therefore do the same.

Safety Regulations
Deut. 22:8 is also relevant to this discussion: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.” In the ancient near east, the roof was part of a house’s living area: people used it as a porch, as an area for work or for rest, sometimes even as a sleeping area. This law thus is a safety regulation to prevent someone from accidentally causing a person’s death. This law demonstrates that civil government is responsible not only for criminal and civil cases but also for safety regulations, housing codes, etc.

Restorative Justice
More broadly, the Old Testament Civil Law was built around the concept of restorative justice. Restorative justice, as the name suggests, focuses on the restoration of relationships between perpetrator and victim. Many provisions of the Law concerned just this issue. T. M. Moore provides a few specific examples:

In ancient Israel, whenever someone was injured by the neglect or indifference of a neighbor, restoration was required in order to return justice to the community. Once restoration was made the injured party was satisfied and the guilty party was exonerated. Neighbors could quickly get on with being neighbors without grudges being built up against one another. No prison time was involved, and no revenge was needed. Restoration could include money paid to return an injured person to health or for lost opportunity costs (Ex. 21:18, 19), borrowed things that were broken or lost (Ex. 22:14, 15), or even lost items that one might find (Deut. 22:1-4).

Moore also points out that this principle still holds in Jesus’ life and teaching, as the example of Zacchaeus demonstrates (Luke 10:1-10).  Applying this principle to jurisprudence today would greatly reduce the prison population and would have other positive effects in the community, as has been amply demonstrated by the experience of jurisdictions that have tried it. Put simply, restorative justice works better than the alternatives, demonstrating that God’s standards for justice, which we can learn from the Civil Law, reflect His wisdom and the best way to deal with crime and punishment even today.

These are just a few examples of the moral and ethical principles underlying the Law that are still in effect for us today. Although the details of the Civil Law no longer apply in the New Covenant era, the principles it embodies help us understand true standards of justice and righteousness, as well as giving us guidance on the proper role and limitations of government. The Civil Law thus continues to have value to us today even though we no longer are bound by its specific provisions.

In the next article, we turn to the Ceremonial Law and its relationship to the Gospel.

1Technically, the term lex talionis applies to any legal code that prescribes specific punishments for specific crimes, though it is usually used in the sense of “an eye for an eye.”

Next steps

Rate your regard for the Old Testament: interesting but irrelevant? boring and thus untouched? hard to understand and likewise untouched? Or fully God’s Word, relevant and important to comprehend? If you haven’t read it in a long while, make plans to read at least the Pentateuch. And start today!

BookFurther reading:
If you’re intrigued by the relationship of Gospel and law, go to the Online Bookstore where you can purchase Five Views on Law and Gospel. Or you can go to the Colson Center Library and download T. M. Moore’s “Law and Gospel: Embracing the One without Losing the Other."



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