Saturday, May 24, 2014

Civil Penalties and Leniency (Joshua 22:15-20)

Joshua 22

King James Version (KJV)

15 And they came unto the children of Reuben, and to the children of Gad, and to the half tribe of Manasseh, unto the land of Gilead, and they spake with them, saying,
16 Thus saith the whole congregation of the Lord, What trespass is this that ye have committed against the God of Israel, to turn away this day from following the Lord, in that ye have builded you an altar, that ye might rebel this day against the Lord?
17 Is the iniquity of Peor too little for us, from which we are not cleansed until this day, although there was a plague in the congregation of the Lord,
18 But that ye must turn away this day from following the Lord? and it will be, seeing ye rebel to day against the Lord, that to morrow he will be wroth with the whole congregation of Israel.
19 Notwithstanding, if the land of your possession be unclean, then pass ye over unto the land of the possession of the Lord, wherein the Lord's tabernacle dwelleth, and take possession among us: but rebel not against the Lord, nor rebel against us, in building you an altar beside the altar of the Lord our God.
20 Did not Achan the son of Zerah commit a trespass in the accursed thing, and wrath fell on all the congregation of Israel? and that man perished not alone in his iniquity.

What is interesting about this situation is that the Israelites are willing to forgo putting their brethren to the sword if they repent of what is perceived to be rebellion against God (verse 19). This could have implications for civil punishments in general. Henry Bullinger includes this text while arguing for the flexiblity of at least some penalties:
Moreover, godly and wise magistrates have many times pardoned unwitting offenders, whom they saw ready to repent upon giving of warning. The Lord in the gospel biddeth us admonish a sinner; then, if he repent, to pardon his fault; but if he rejects a fair warning once given him, then to punish him so much the sharper. [Matt. 18:15-17] And Joshu [Joshua], before he made open war to be proclaimed upon the children of Reuben, did first by embassage command them to dig down the altar, which they seemed to have made contrary to the law of the Lord. [Josh. 22.] ... Moreover, Josias did not utterly kill all them that were wrapped in error and idolatry, but those especially that were incurable, and would not recant. The magistrate therefore must wisely moderate the matter, and be very circumspect in punishing offenders.[1] 
While we don't find Bullinger's argument from Matthew 18 compellingsince it is an instruction for the church, and not the statewe see his overall logic in pardoning unwitting offenders. 

After all, Scripture itself makes a distinction between murder and accidental manslaughter. While murderers must be punished with death, a lesser punishment is required of those who commit accidental manslaughter (in Israel, it was confinement to a city of refuge until the death of the high priest). 

And we see no reason not to extend this principle of leniency to other crimes. A somewhat parallel situation to physical murder would be to promote damnable heresy, which is attempted spiritual murder. This also warrants the death penalty.[2] But what about a case where one accidentally promotes damnable heresy? For instance, one may unwittingly promote damnable heresy by using a bad choice of words in describing a particular doctrine. These words may not have been used had this person had given them more careful thought.

Another example of unwittingly committing a crime is when one purchases stolen goods in good faith that they were not stolen. Or, when a man marries a woman whom he believes to be single, but is actually married to someone else. In these and other situations where a crime is committed unwittingly, leniency seems to be the best course. 

Regarding Joshua 22, however, it seems likely that the crime that is mistakenly believed to have occurred was not committed unwittingly, but knowingly. Since the Israelites take for granted that setting up an altar for sacrificing to God was wrong other than at a place of God's choosing (per Deuteronomy 12:5-7), then they might have thought that it was likewise taken for granted by their brethrenthe children of Reuben, the children of Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh.

And yet, despite their readiness to put their brethren to the sword for this, they were willing to offer leniency upon repentance. 

If this example of offering leniency in the case of repentance is meant to be a pattern to follow in civil matters, then we must consider to what extent. It certainly cannot be applied in all situationsat least not in the case of murder:
31 Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death. (Numbers 35) 
33 So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.34 Defile not therefore the land which ye shall inhabit, wherein I dwell: for I the Lord dwell among the children of Israel. (Numbers 35) 
There is much in Scripture to consider when working out the idea of offering leniency for repentance. This is not a simple matter, and different points of view should be consulted. 

For a perspective in support of the flexibility of capital punishments (save murder), see pages 16-27 of Is the Death Penalty Just? by Phillip G. Kayser. For a perspective against the flexibity of capital punishments, see pages 251-254 and 258-261 of No Other Standard: Theonomy and its Critics by Greg L. Bahnsen.


[1] Henry Bullinger, "The Second Decade: The Sixth Precept in the Ten Commandments," in The Decades of Henry Bullinger: The First and Second Decades, ed. Thomas Harding, trans. H. I. (Cambridge: The University Press, 1849), 362.
[2] According to Deuteronomy 13, enticing others to serve false gods warrants the death penalty because it promotes rebellion against God: "And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage," verse 10. While not all damnable heresies directly promote serving false gods (such as denying justification by faith alone), they too promote rebellion against God. As such, it seems that promoting damnable heresies should likewise be punished with death.