We have finally arrived at the place where we first see humans given authority to practice law over one another. It comes just after Noah’s flood and, simple as it is, it is the important beginning of what has blossomed into an overwhelming legal minefield.
To better navigate that minefield I’m helping you think about a bunch of foundational principles which combine to be the basis of human law. That starts with God’s law. That’s why I have started in the Holy Bible. We have already seen a bunch of stuff (to use an American expression) out of just a handful of chapters from the first book in the Bible, Genesis. So, let’s press on.
Man Judging Man
In Genesis 4 we find that Cain was punished by God for murdering his brother, Abel, but was not to be punished by man. A special mark was placed on Cain to make sure people knew not to kill him. In those days people lived for up to 900 years, so there would have been many people who would come across Cain’s path in the centuries of his life. None of them was to prosecute human punishment upon Cain.
Prior to the flood of Noah’s day there was no authority given to men to make judgement of other men. The result of that situation was that everyone did what they wanted and what they wanted to do was evil.
“And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Genesis 6:5
It may well be that a form of human court and legal process might have restrained the behaviour of the people. We will never know. But we do know that God gave permission to mankind to punish evil, after Noah’s flood.
Among the various things said by God after the flood are comments about the sanctity of human life. Human blood was not to be shed. People were not to be killed, by animal or by humans.
“And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man.” Genesis 9:5
Note that God had the right and authority to kill mankind. He had just done so in the global flood which wiped out probably millions of evil people. Death as a result of judgement is legitimate. Death by any other means was forbidden.
The very first legal power given to mankind was to exercise capital punishment. Mankind was authorised by God to kill a person who has killed someone else.
“Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” Genesis 9:6
Now, that might sound like a contradiction, like a policeman breaking the speed limit to chase someone who is breaking the speed limit. But it’s a legitimate process. It is authorised by none other than God, Himself.
Capital punishment is an offence to the minds of some people today. So, it is important to at least pay attention to what God has revealed to us in the Bible. The very first legal power given to man was capital punishment.
Relationship With God Re-established
After the flood all those who had broken fellowship with God were gone. God was now in open relationship with all the people on earth – all eight of them. Once again mankind would be tempted to indulge the sinful inclinations of his heart and come under the power of sin, as Cain and others had done. But now there was a check to man’s behaviour. People had the power to prosecute those who went so far as to kill another person.
God’s Law in Man’s Hands
The only legal authority given to man was to exercise the law set down by God. Man could not make up his own laws. Man could not create whatever law he so chose. Law was only that ‘moral law’ which God established as man’s requirement.
God’s law was placed in the hands of men, in a limited way. And so it is today. Man acts as God’s agent when he prosecutes someone for breaking God’s moral commandments.
The first legal processes passed to man were to uphold Moral Law. Man was not given authority to prosecute another based on commerce, contracts or the like, but only on moral principle.
Law was not originally a social construct. It was a divine reality, based on man’s moral accountability to his holy creator God. When we come to consider the many forms of law which make demands of us today, we need to keep in mind the moral laws of God, as separate and special in our considerations.
Action Not Attitude
Man’s authority to hold other men accountable to God’s law was an ‘after the fact’ authority. Man was given no right to prosecute someone based on the attitudes of their heart. While hatred is a moral evil, which God will judge, man cannot prosecute someone for hatred. If the hatred becomes murder, then man has the right to step into the picture.
We saw previously that the people in Noah’s day were engaged in evil actions and also had evil imaginations in their hearts. That second area was retained by God, as His domain.
Punishment is not Crime
As noted earlier, to punish a person for killing someone, by killing them, seems to be a contradiction. If killing someone is wrong, then how can the killer be killed? The answer to this conundrum is that punishment is not a crime.
When a person is punished, that is a moral process. If the punishment is to kill them, then that action is of a different quality to the act of killing someone other than as punishment.
It is criminal to imprison someone, unless the person is a prisoner under punishment. It is criminal to inflict pain on someone, unless the person is an offender receiving their just punishment. It is criminal to kill someone, unless the person is under death sentence as punishment for their crimes.
Note, however, that we are still talking here about punishment as prescribed by God. Our investigation has not yet moved to that area where men make up their own laws and punishments.
We have already seen what happens in a human society where everyone does as they please. Our next exploration is of human society under some regulation. That’s coming up in the next post in this series.