Justice Without Jail in the Old Testament

I am not advocating for anything in this article, I am just pointing out some unexpected insights from God's Law in the Old Testament. Our church is the first to admit that the Law in Exodus was exclusively for Israel and the church is not Israel. Thus believers are not under law but under grace.


Yet it is fascinating that strict as it is, God's Law for Israel never called for jail sentences.


Wait, really? No prisons, no jail time? How can there be true justice then?


Well, for about a dozen specifically stated crimes, God's Law for Israel called for the death penalty.


These cases of capital punishment were limited to 1) wicked cases against humanity such as premeditated murder, kidnapping and human trafficking; 2) egregious immoral sexual acts including rape and bestiality; 3) corruptible crimes such as sorcery and false prophecy which would harm the nation's special relationship with God.


In all other crimes, true justice mandated restitution not prison.


Not solitary confinement. Not degradation. Not mixing nonviolent offenders with violent ones. Not subjecting prisoners to rape, gangs, or violence.


But restitution for damages and additional compensation all straight to the victim.


If a person stole something, damaged something that belonged to another, caused physical harm to someone or to their family or to their business or property, or if someone violated another person's rights, after thorough and guided investigation and witnesses, the wrongdoer was obligated to pay back the initial loss plus two to five times the losses, damages, or violations suffered. 


Exodus 22:1 If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.


Not thirty days in jail. Not thirty years in prison.


The only possible sentence looked more like the Seinfeld episode ("The Pilot") wherein an uninsured motorist hit Jerry's car and the motorist couldn't make restitution. The solution? The Law of Moses.


He had to serve as Jerry's butler until he paid off the debt.


The only sentencing was a backup plan and was not served in prison. If a person committed a crime and he could not make financial restitution, he worked off the debt by serving the victim of his crime.


Again, restitution and true justice. No prisons, no prison system, and no prison funding.


Limits were set by God. If the person's debt was so great that it couldn't be fully paid back within six years, he was to serve for six full years. All debts were released at the start of the seventh year and the offender was then free to leave.


As an aside, for those seeking retribution for the terrible injustices committed by many slave owners centuries ago, restitution was not passed on to the children or grandchildren of the wrongdoers.


Ezekiel 18:19 Yet you say, "Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity?" When the son has practiced justice and righteousness and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live. 20 The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.


There was also mercy in justice, which helped the person succeed in life turn from future crimes.


If the "debt-servant" was destitute, upon compensating his victim twofold for all damages, he was allowed to stay with his "debt-master" as a merciful provision against homelessness and recitivism.


If he was impoverished yet sought to live on his own, rather than release him back on the street without a dime to his name, the person he served for six full years was to help him make a fresh start.


This was an act of mercy and faith in God's grace.


Deuteronomy 15:13 When you set him free, you shall not send him away emptyhanded. 14 You shall furnish him liberally from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your wine vat; you shall give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you.


Pretty merciful in a time without much mercy and a lot of poverty. 


These provisions had the potential to build relationships, reconcile people over time as many servants chose to stay on with their master or employer for mutual benefits.


But again, other than grave offenses, there was no condemnation but restitution, compensation, and rehabilititation.


That was justice, Old Testament style.


Food for thought considering the current calls for police reform and legislative change.