How Today's Justice System Compares to That of Ancient Israel

How Today's Justice System Compares to That of Ancient Israel

How do the legal codes of this modern world compare with one of the oldest known sets of laws? Are there lessons to be learned from the laws on stealing that were given to ancient Israel? Let's have a look...
OpinionFront Staff
Last Updated: Feb 26, 2018
Bible on table
By Earl Hunsinger

A history of ancient Israel is contained in mankind's oldest book, the Bible. This history includes a set of laws dating from the period immediately following the nation's exodus from Egypt, around 1513 BCE. How does this ancient law code compare to the law codes of today?

When the laws contained in the Bible are mentioned, many perhaps think only of what have become known as the Ten Commandments. While these are certainly a principal part of the Mosaic law code, the entire code contains over 600 laws. Even so, this law code was simple compared to the complex and convoluted codes of modern nations. For example, by the end of the 20th century, the federal laws of the United States filled over 150,000 pages in legal books, with about 600 additional laws being added every two years.

How does this huge number of laws benefit the victims of crimes? Many today feel that the modern legal system seems to care more about the rights of the accused than it does the rights of the victim. Some would say that the victim has no rights, only an obligation to help bring the perpetrator to justice. Some nations have begun addressing the subject of victims' rights.

However, in the vast majority of cases, even when the accused is found guilty, no attempt is made to compensate the victim in any way for the crime that has occurred. For any hope of gaining restitution, the victim has to go through a lengthy and expensive civil case. In a crime involving stolen property, there is a good chance that what was stolen is gone forever, and the victim will never be fully compensated for his loss. Based on most criminal justice systems, as opposed to civil codes, the victim is supposed to be satisfied with seeing the perpetrator put behind bars.

Many would argue that this punishes the victim further, by making him work harder to pay the taxes needed to feed, clothe, and house the very individual that victimized him. For example, according to the North Carolina Department of Corrections, this cost is approximately $25,000 per year for each prisoner in this state. With over two million people behind bars in the U.S., or one prisoner for every 142 residents, the total cost paid by taxpayers for all the criminals imprisoned in the U.S. is staggering. The situation in many other countries is similar.

By contrast, the law code of ancient Israel had no provision for a prison system. The emphasis was placed on justice, which meant not just punishing the perpetrator of the crime, but also compensating the victim. The Bible book of Exodus provides many such examples:
  • In a case involving stolen property (Exodus 22:4), the criminal was normally required to made double compensation to the victim.
  • This law even took into account the fact that, for various reasons, one animal might be worth more than another. If the stolen bull or sheep was found alive, the punishment was double compensation, but if the animal had been slaughtered or sold, the compensation imposed was five bulls or four sheep, instead of the usual two (Exodus 22:1).
  • If the thief had nothing, he was to be sold into slavery to pay for the things that he stole (Exodus 22:3).
These laws gave real justice to the innocent victim by trying to compensate him for his loss. They also punished the criminal in a way that served as a deterrent to crime.

In a world where crime is a daily fact of life, and prison populations are on the increase, the differences between the legal codes of today and ancient codes are interesting to contemplate. For more information on the laws given to ancient Israel, spend some time reading the Bible books of Exodus and Deuteronomy.