“We want justice! When do we want it? We want it now!!”

I remember the chant of the crowd as if it was yesterday, but it was more than 50 years ago. Thousands of people filled the streets and marched with signs that read — “End the War Madness Now!” — “Bring The Troops Home!” — “End The War In Vietnam And Social Crisis At Home!” — “Make Love Not War!”

I was a young reporter in 1968 and talked with many of the anti-war protestors. They wanted justice. They believed the Vietnam War was an unjust war and should be ended immediately.

Here’s another protest from another time.

Thousands of people marching down a mountain and into a plain. They stopped and began to build a city and a tower “whose top is in the heavens.” They were also marching for justice. “Let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” You may recognize those words from Genesis 11.

Whether it’s protesting a war or God’s command to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth,” people cry out against what they see as injustice.

In the last part of our study, we saw Noah and his family leave the Ark that protected them through the devastating Flood. Noah set up an altar and made offerings to God. God made a new covenant with Noah and his descendants that included several important features:

  1. God would never again cause the ground for man’s sake nor destroy every living thing with a Flood. The rainbow would be a sign of the covenant.
  2. God said that whoever shed the blood of a human, “By man his blood shall be shed.”
  3. God told humans to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”

That brings us to humanity’s great protest against God’s injustice on a plain in the land of Shinar. God told them to be fruitful and multiply, “and fill the earth.” They didn’t want to do it and thought that building a city with a tower that would rise into the heavens would give them justice for their grievances. However, what it brought to them was God’s Justice.

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, ‘Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lordconfused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Genesis 11:5-9

This is a classic collision of human ideas about justice colliding with God’s idea about justice. So, who’s right? We could just say that God is right because He’s bigger and more powerful than humans, but there’s more to it than that.

God is Eternal and knows everything. In fact, God is able to declare the end from the beginning!

Remember the former things of old, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure.’

Isaiah 46:9-10

Nothing surprises God. Nothing gets by God. God knows everything that will happen before it happens. God knew what the descendants of Noah would do when He made a covenant with them. How did He know? God knows the end from the beginning and He knows our fatal flaw ..

I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.

Genesis 8:21

Humans have a sin nature from birth that affects our thoughts, imaginations and desires. God knows that the imagination of a person’s heart is evil from his/her youth. That sin nature, that fatal flaw, is at the heart of our rebellion against God. It’s a rebellion we humans often think of as our justice. We see things differently than God sees the same things.

The descendants of Noah thought God’s command that they multiply and fill the earth was unjust. They believed that God’s command would harm them as a people. They wanted to build a city and tower to make a name for themselves, “lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”

The very thing they didn’t want to happen is what happened when God’s Justice prevailed on the earth. God knew that what humans wanted to do would not be good, so He confused (confound, mingle, mix – balal) their language (lip, speech – saphah) so they couldn’t understand each other. Then God did what the people didn’t want – He scattered (dispersed, scattered – puwts) them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Justice and Kingdoms

You can read where the different families traveled to in Genesis 10. We know that one of the leaders of the rebellion against God built a large kingdom in ancient Mesopotamia. His name was Nimrod and his kingdom included Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar, and Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen in the land of Assyria. You can read more about the early kingdoms in our special series on Crowns and Thrones: The Majesty of Our God.

Part of God’s covenant with Noah and his descendants concerned the intersection of Divine and human justice.

Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man.

Genesis 9:6

We see that justice carried out by ancient kings, like Nimrod. Genesis 10:9 tells us that Nimrod was ” a mighty hunter.” He knew how to kill. Based on the size of his kingdom and that people had scattered from each other because they couldn’t understand the different languages, Nimrod most likely used his hunting skills to defeat his enemies as he expanded his kingdom. Members of his family (Nimrod was a Cushite) would have fought with Nimrod in establishing kingdoms.

We have information about how ancient kings and queens used the death penalty for murderers through different legal codes from thousands of years ago. The Code of Ur-Nammu dates to the 22nd century BC. It was written in the Sumerian language of Mesopotamia, the same area where Nimrod established parts of his kingdom. The Code of Ur-Nammu tablets include two offenses that were punishable by death:

  1. “if a man commits a murder, that man must be killed.”
  2. “if a man commits a robbery, he will be killed.”

Though God’s covenant with Noah said nothing about the penalty of death for robbery, we do see that early kings followed God’s Law concerning taking the life of a person who committed murder.

Other ancient codes that mentioned justice for murder are the Code of Urukagina (24th century BC), Laws of Eshnunna (20th century BC), Code of Hammurabi (18th century BC), and the Code of the Nesilim (17th century BC).

Were these kings just carrying out the covenant of God? God gave humans the right to take the life of someone who murdered another person — “Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed.” However, whether each of the kings discharged their duties justly is something only God knows for sure. Kings were human, which meant they also had the fatal flaw. The imaginations of their hearts were evil from youth as well as others. However, carrying out God’s justice was based on what was right according to God’s command. If kings then were like earthly rulers now, some get it right and some don’t. God’s justice is always just and right. Injustice is when people use their power to treat people unjustly and wrongly. There’s no reason to blame God for what humans do wrong.

Justice and the Death Penalty

I say that because one of the big cries for social justice today is against the death penalty for murder. God’s covenant with Noah was simple: Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed. God expanded on His covenant through a document known as The Law of Moses (15th century BC). God gave the Law to Moses after leading the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. The Israelites would have been familiar with Egyptian laws concerning murder and the death penalty. They knew that the pharaoh (king) of Egypt was often harsh and would kill anyone who opposed him. We don’t have copies of ancient Egyptian legal codes, but we get some sense of what they may have done in given situations because of funerary texts and legal documents. Beliefs about the will of gods and goddesses directed life in ancient Egypt.

The most famous of all legal codes is a code that remains in effect today in many parts of the world — The Law of Moses (15th century BC). Moses was the author of Genesis in addition to Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Because God spoke personally with Moses, what we find in his writings gives us the best information about God’s justice concerning most aspects of human life.

The most famous document from the Law of Moses is known as the Ten Commandments. You’ll find it in Exodus chapters 20 and 21. Here’s what God said about murder:

You shall not murder.

Exodus 20:13

What about the penalty for murder?

He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. However, if he did not lie in wait, but God delivered him into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. But if a man acts with premeditation against his neighbor, to kill him by treachery, you shall take him from My altar, that he may die.

Exodus 21:12-14

That’s why premeditation is mentioned in many modern legal codes about the death penalty. However, God didn’t stop there:

And he who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death. And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death … Whoever lies with an animal shall surely be put to death.

Exodus 21:15-17, 19

You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.

Exodus 31:14-15

Again, you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘Whoever of the children of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell in Israel, who gives any of his descendants to Molech, he shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones.

Leviticus 20:2

The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, hewho commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death.

Leviticus 20:10

If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall surely be put to death. They have committed perversion. Their blood shall be upon them.

Leviticus 20:12

If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.

Leviticus 20:13

If a man mates with an animal, he shall surely be put to death, and you shall kill the animal.

Leviticus 20:15

If a woman approaches any animal and mates with it, you shall kill the woman and the animal. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood is upon them.

Leviticus 20:16

A man or a woman who is a medium, or who has familiar spirits, shall surely be put to death; they shall stone them with stones. Their blood shall be upon them.’ 

Leviticus 20:27

And whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall certainly stone him, the stranger as well as him who is born in the land. When he blasphemes the name of the Lord, he shall be put to death.

Leviticus 24:16

And when the tabernacle is to go forward, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be set up, the Levites shall set it up. The outsider who comes near shall be put to death.

Numbers 1:51

But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has spoken in order to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage, to entice you from the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall put away the evil from your midst.

Deuteronomy 13:5

If there is found among you, within any of your gates which the Lord your God gives you, a man or a woman who has been wicked in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing His covenant, who has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, either the sun or moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded, and it is told you, and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently. And if it is indeed true and certain that such an abomination has been committed in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has committed that wicked thing, and shall stone to death that man or woman with stones. Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness. The hands of the witnesses shall be the first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall put away the evil from among you.

Deuteronomy 17:2-7

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not heed them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, to the gate of his city. And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall put away the evil from among you, and all Israel shall hear and fear.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21

But if the thing is true, and evidences of virginity are not found for the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done a disgraceful thing in Israel, to play the harlot in her father’s house. So you shall put away the evil from among you. If a man is found lying with a woman married to a husband, then both of them shall die—the man that lay with the woman, and the woman; so you shall put away the evil from Israel.

Deuteronomy 22:20-22

The death penalty in the Mosaic Law extended beyond murder. As you can see from examples of the Mosaic Law above, it included things like:

  • striking your father or mother
  • cursing you father or mother
  • kidnapping
  • having sex with an animal
  • profaning the Sabbath
  • working on the Sabbath
  • sacrificing your children to Molech
  • committing adultery
  • having sex with your daughter-in-law
  • men having sex with men
  • being a spiritual medium with familiar spirits
  • blaspheming the name of the Lord
  • an outsider who comes near the tabernacle
  • false prophets
  • people who worship other gods (idol worship)
  • a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or mother
  • sexual promiscuity.

Another aspect of the death penalty is the necessity of multiple witnesses to the crime.

Whoever kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the testimony of witnesses; but one witness is not sufficient testimony against a person for the death penalty.

Numbers 35:30

In case you think all of this is a bit much for our modern ideas about human justice, Moses summed up the death penalty pretty well in this verse ..

Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin.

Deuteronomy 24:16

People are responsible for their own actions. That’s God’s justice.

Next Time

In the next part of our series, we’ll look at whether God has the right to establish laws that we have to follow. Does He? We’ll see next time when we continue with God’s Justice: How It Works.


Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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