Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Layperson’s Bible: Crime and Punishment Part III – Murder

In Biblical times, much like today, murder was an offense punishable by death. But also much like today, there were certain exceptions. In the Old Testament, the Lord directs the designation of cities of refuge for those who have committed justifiable or unintentional homicides. Qualifying offenders who are not legally subject to the death penalty may flee to these cities in order to escape the blood-vengeance of their victim’s families (Numbers 35:15).

Take, for example, the case of accidental homicide or manslaughter:

“And this is the case of the slayer, which shall flee thither, that he may live: Whoso killeth his neighbor ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past;
As when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbor to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbor, that he die; he shall flee unto one of those cities, and live:
Lest the avenger of the blood pursue the slayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and slay him; whereas he was not worth of death, inasmuch as he hated him not in time past.” (Deuteronomy 19:4-6)

The presence of malice aforethought is therefore key in determining the defendant’s guilt. Accidents may happen, and one whose temper flares suddenly and without warning is not held to the same level of culpability as one who plans a murder:

“But if he thrust him suddenly without enmity, or have cast upon him any thing without laying of wait,
Or with any stone, wherewith a man may die, seeing him not, and cast it upon him, that he die, and was not his enemy, neither sought his harm:
Then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the revenger of blood, and . . . restore him to the city of his refuge.” (Numbers 35:22-25)

Interestingly, the Old Testament also provides for extradition from the cities of refuge in the case of murder in the first degree:

“But if any man hate his neighbor, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally that he die, and fleeth into one of these cities:
Then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die.” (Deuteronomy 19:10-12)

The Bible also advises caution when judging capital offenses, requiring the confirmation of multiple witnesses before a defendant may be condemned to death:

“One witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die.” (Numbers 35:30)

“At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.” (Deuteronomy 17:6)

As we know, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is the Ninth Commandment, which I believe has its roots in the politics of its time. According to Claudius, in ancient Rome, persons accused of certain offenses could have their property confiscated by the state. Less honorable and more extravagant Emperors (Caligula, for example) were suspected of hiring witnesses to make false accusations against more prosperous citizens, thus boosting their coffers at the expense of the heirs. Of considerably less relevance today, this historical practice is likely the reason why that particular commandment was included among the original ten.

In the case of merely attempted manslaughter, the guilty party must recompense the other for his lost wages and medical bills:

“And if men strive together, and one smite another with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keepeth his bed:
If he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only shall he pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed.” (Exodus 21:18-19)

However, in accordance with popular legend, you are permitted to kill someone caught breaking and entering:

“If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him.” (Exodus 22:2)

In other words, even in Holy Writ, not all murders or murderers are alike. It’s not purely eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life; extenuating circumstances can and must be taken into account. Thus even the simplest system of justice must expand beyond mere right and wrong, sin and good; even an omnipotent God requires a myriad of rules to govern adequately the countless subtle nuances of human behavior. 

The Layperson’s Bible: God Rules It’s OK to Snack in the Produce Aisle

“When thou comest into thy neighbor’s vineyard, and thou mayest eats grapes thy fill at thine own pleasure; but thou shalt not put any in thy vessel.
When thou comest into the standing corn of thy neighbor, then thou mayest pluck the ears with thine hand; but thou shalt not move a sickle unto thy neighbour’s standing corn.” (Deuteronomy 23:24-25)

This finally explains it: why my Mom never thought it was stealing to eat grapes from the bin while at the grocery store.

On Books: Anatole France’s Penguin Island

France, Anatole, Penguin Island, New York: Bantam Books, 1958

This is one of the most brilliant books I have ever read. The initial premise concerns a fictional Saint Mael, an avid proselytizer whose travelling boat one day through the work of the devil is carried off to a distant frozen tundra. The good but aged and impossibly near-sighted Saint, finding himself surrounded by quiet, well-behaved men of short stature, proceeds to lecture and then baptize his newest batch of converts, unaware that they are not men, but penguins. This naturally creates an uproar in heaven over what to do with the poor creatures, for although the baptism, being proper in form if not in function, is decided over objections to be valid (“But by this reasoning… one might baptize…not only a bird or a quadruped, but also an inanimate object…that table would be Christian!” p. 17), the penguins lack the capacity to achieve salvation and will thus be condemned to eternal hellfire if left alone, which hardly seems fair. And after considerable argument among the Lord and the Saints, it is decided to change the penguins into men.

That, to me, was the only disappointing part of the book. I had imagined that the penguins would, upon becoming civilized, retain some of their original appearance and character, and be examined in that light. But as humans with a very short history, instead they are as an isolated aboriginal tribe which is plunged unexpectedly into modernity, discovering for the first time clothing, personal property, government, and so on, and then experiencing the main phases of human history, described in satirical and unflattering fashion. France’s portrait of these new citizens is amazingly well-done, very humorous and surprisingly undated for a century-old work. I personally found the first few chapters the most amusing, particularly when the Lord is discussing his own character. In responding to the suggestion that the current generation of penguins be allowed to burn, that the problem may resolve of its own accord with their unbaptized offspring, God says:

“You propose a…solution…that accords with my wisdom. But it does not satisfy my mercy. And, although in my essence I am immutable, the longer I endure, the more I incline to mildness. This change of character is evident to anyone who reads my two Testaments…” (p. 22)

“But my foreknowledge must not encroach upon their free will. In order not to impair human liberty, I will be ignorant of what I know, I will thicken upon my eyes the veils I have pierced, and in my blind clear-sightedness I will let myself be surprised by what I have foreseen.” (p. 26)

France’s political observations are as entertaining as his religious ones. One of his characters suggests sarcastically that the rich must not be taxed because “The poor live on the wealth of the rich and that is the reason why that wealth is sacred.” (p. 40) Furthermore, throughout the centuries, the wealthy object to taxation because it is deemed ignoble: “Since the rich refused to pay their just share of the taxes, the poor, as in the past, paid for them.” (p. 179) Instead a flat tax or a sales tax is suggested:

“If you ask a little from each inhabitant without regard to his wealth, you will collect enough for the public necessities and you will have no need to enquire into each citizen’s resources, a thing that would be regarded by all as a most vexatious measure…” (p. 40)

“What is certain is that everyone eats and drinks. Tax people according to what they consume.” (p. 41)

It’s really amazing – trickle-down economics and a cumbersome tax code were perceived to be a problem before they even existed. As the nation of Penguinia survives the centuries, it acquires other problems of human civilization:

“Peoples who have neither commerce nor industry are not obliged to make war, but a business people is forced to adopt a policy of conquest. The number of wars necessarily increases with our productive activity. As soon as one of our industries fails to find a market for its products a war is necessary to open new outlets.” (p. 104)

Government is equally as ludicrous as business. Describing a minister who is driven to distraction by the unfaithfulness of his wife, he writes:

“If he had been in the employment of a private administration this would have been noticed immediately, but it is much more difficult to discover insanity or frenzy in the conduct of affairs of State.” (p. 208)

Nor does France shy away from the subject of sexuality, discussing at length liaisons occurring with and without ulterior motive, both in practice and in theory. Thus one of his characters declares on the subject of virginity:

“The obligation imposed on a girl that she should bring her virginity to her husband comes from the times when girls were married immediately they were of a marriageable age. It is ridiculous that a girl who marries at twenty-five or thirty should be subject to that obligation. You will, perhaps, say that it is a present with which her husband, if she gets one at last, will be gratified; but every moment we see men wooing married women and showing themselves perfectly satisfied to take them as they find them.” (p. 184)

On prostitution and chastity:
“An excellent moral theologian, and a man who in the decadence of the Church has preserved his principles, was very right to teach, in conformity with the doctrine of the Fathers, that while a woman commits a great sin by giving herself for money, she commits a much greater one by giving herself for nothing.” (p. 204)

And finally, quoting a Professor who argues why urban women are more adulterous than their rural counterparts:

“ ‘A woman attracts a civilized man in proportion as her feet make an angle with the ground. If this angle is as much as thirty-five degrees, the attraction becomes acute. For the position of the feet upon the ground determines the whole carriage of the body, and it results that provincial women, since they wear low heels, are not very attractive, and preserve their virtue.’ These conclusions were not generally accepted.” (p. 215)

Accepted or no, such conclusions are pretty entertaining, and if this is a representative sample of Anatole France’s work, I will certainly be reading more of it.

The Layperson’s Bible: Crime and Punishment Part II – In Which God Says Leash Your Dog

This is my personal favorite. In general, if an ox kills a person, the owner is absolved of responsibility and only the ox is stoned. Except in the following circumstance:

“But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:29)

Maybe reviving that clause would get people to keep better control over their attack dogs, eh?