Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? (Ezekiel 18:23 NRSV)
The Bible enables us to sketch a progress of justice, starting in the fourth chapter of Genesis with the legendary figures of Cain and his brutal descendent Lamech. Having murdered his brother and been found out, Cain wails to God:
“My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.”
Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” (Genesis 4:13-15 NRSV)
As numbers are used in the Bible, sevenfold is not a literal six plus one but an indication of complete retaliation – a sort of, “You start it, and Cain’s people will finish it!” Most recently I have heard this kind of declaration of a personal revenge principle from president-elect Donald Trump who, like Lamech from whom we’ll hear next, prides himself in hitting back harder.
If Cain stands as the archetypal figure of retributive justice by blood vengeance, Lamech proudly pushes retaliation beyond all self-restraint. To his wives, Lamech boasts:
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4:23,24 NRSV)
Here again, the number is not literal but represents, no longer merely complete revenge, but wholesale, unlimited brutality. People familiar with the Bible’s newer Testament will make the connection to Jesus’ counter command to his disciples, that they forgive the one who has offended them, not merely seven times (fully persistent forgiveness) but seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven), representing an unfettered desire for healing and reconciliation. This relentless spirit of restoration is the opposite of Lamech’s.
One early meaning of a Hebrew word for “redeemer” refers to the avenger of blood, the kinsman who takes up the responsibility to kill the killer even if the slaying was accidental. To provide for accidental killers, the Israelites established six cities of refuge in which the avenger of blood could not kill them.
Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, so that a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, so that the slayer may not die until there is a trial before the congregation. The cities that you designate shall be six cities of refuge for you . . . . (Numbers 35:10-13 NRSV)
The idea of a trial before the congregation represents the emergence of law and order. Another step against unrestrained vengeance with its perpetuation in cycles of revenge came with the lex talionis or “law of retribution” – the famous “eye for an eye.”
If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life,
eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
(Exodus 21:23-25 NRSV)
I believe there is general agreement among scholars that the law of retribution began as a legal restriction of revenge: only an eye for an eye, rather than the overkill of Lamech and his kind. By the time of Deuteronomy, however, the restriction had turned into a mandate, and so we find added a command against leniency, “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (Deuteronomy 19:21 NRSV) For his followers, Jesus overrides even regulated vengeance (see Matthew 5:38-41, the well-known “turn the other cheek” teaching).
I have sketched this progress of justice to bring us to the primary biblical concern for justice which is the healing of persons, relationships, and community. What is violated by crimes? Perhaps in our efforts to depersonalize and regulate retribution, we lost sight of the relational nature of human life and the harm crimes do to real, live people; perhaps we did the best we could to establish the rule of law as the alternative to chaos and barbarism. In biblical thought, all of life is relational. Even truth itself is a relational concept rather than a merely factual or philosophical one. The biblical concept of sin is not the violation of law but the denial and violation of relationship, first of all with God and then with other people and the human community. Sin is even extended further to include the denial and violation of our rightful relationship with the earth and our non-human fellow creatures. The goal, therefore, of God’s justice is not rewarding or punishing but healing. Even punishment has the goal of healing and restoring. Our thirst for retribution has miscast truth as the verdict of judgment so that justice seems to us fulfilled by the expiration of leniency and the distribution of rewards and punishments according to a standardized determination of what each person deserves. According to the great prophets and Jesus, God sees truth and justice differently – as healing and restoration rather than evaluation and punishment.
So it is that Jesus summarizes all God wants from us and for us in two relational commands: to love our God completely and to love our neighbor as (we love) ourselves. Justice is done, not by evaluating and then rewarding or punishing, but by healing and restoring those who have been harmed individually and collectively. Who are those harmed by crimes or other offenses? That question leads us to the modern restorative justice movements I’ll look at in my next post. How does restorative justice work and for whose healing? What does it seek to restore?
Next: a look at modern restorative justice movements