Column: Exodus passage reflects reality of primitive society

by Father Mike Stubbs

Mother bears are notoriously dangerous when they are with their cubs. They will strike out at an intruder with deadly force, even when the intruder has no harmful intentions. Visitors to the national parks have sometimes learned that, to their dismay.

Parents tend to protect their children. That is one reason that we call God “Our Father.” God takes care of us. That comes across loud and clear in Sunday’s first reading, Ex 22:20-26. God threatens with punishment those who would harm widows, orphans, and the poor: “My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword.”

This threat may clash with our image of a merciful God. But it reminds us that we also believe in a God of justice. That justice is based on compassion: “I will hear him; for I am compassionate.” God’s justice shows mercy to the defenseless.

God’s threat of punishment clearly aims at deterring harm to widows, orphans and the poor. At the same time, on the surface it may appear to conflict with current church teaching, which opposes capital punishment. “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267). Notice that the catechism mentions defense of human lives — not revenge — in this discussion.

We should remember that the centuries-old passage from the Book of Exodus reflects a radically different situation than our own. A primitive, nomadic society could not maintain a prison where criminals would serve out a life sentence. It needed the death penalty to preserve order. Consequently, it imposed the death penalty for many offenses, in such a manner that would appear overly harsh, even to modern advocates of the death penalty: “Whoever curses his father or mother shall be put to death” (Ex 21:17); “You shall not let a sorceress live” (Ex 22:17).

Times have changed. The conditions that justified those measures no longer apply. Modern societies do not need to resort to such methods in order to pun- ish crime. That is why the magisterium of the church teaches that, ordinarily, the death penalty is not needed and, consequently, is unjustified. We can employ other means to defend the innocent, such as widows, orphans and the poor.

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