God spoke to Moses: “Tell the People of Israel, When a man or woman commits any sin, the person has broken trust with God, is guilty, and must confess the sin. Full compensation plus twenty percent must be made to whoever was wronged.” Numbers 5:5-6 (MSG)
As a child, I recall living under a fairly simple rule of law in my family that was rooted in the ancient law of Moses. When I was growing up, if I wronged someone, then under this system restitution had to be made as a form of compensation. If I stole something, I was made to give it back. If I broke something, then my allowance and paper route money were required (no matter how long it took) to pay for what I broke. The key was that the offender was literally made to pay for the wrong and the victim was compensated.
I don’t always get the intricacies of the law of Moses. My 21st century American brain has difficulty wrapping my mind around ancient mesopotamian culture. I can’t fathom what every day life was like back then. More often than not I’m left scratching my head and shaking it in bewilderment. Nevertheless, the basic concepts make a lot of sense.
I think about the current system of justice in our culture and I wonder if we’ve strayed too far afield from the concept of restitution. When crimes are committed, we tend to simply lock the offender up, the victim is not compensated for the pain and loss suffered, and the community is stuck with the bill for the offender’s incarceration.
He must make full compensation, add twenty percent to it, and hand it over to the owner on the same day he brings his Compensation-Offering. He must present to God as his Compensation-Offering a ram without any defect from the flock, assessed at the value of a Compensation-Offering.Leviticus 6:5b-6 (MSG)
It’s interesting to read these ancient laws and think in comparison to our justice system today. In cases where a person had wronged another person, the Levitical prescribed resitution for both the victim (with interest) and God. The victim was compensated, by the perpetrator, for their suffering.
I can’t help thinking about Bernie Madoff, who took millions in people’s life savings and perpetrated a giant shell-game in which he and his family, well, made off like bandits. Others lost their entire life savings. Madoff is in jail, but those he victimized are still suffering from his crimes.
I feel like the concept of restitution has been largely been lost from our culture and legal system. We made perpetrators pay for their crimes with time away from society, but how often to they have to compensate their victims for the crimes they’ve committed against them?
We may not be able to do much to influence our society, but there is a system of justice in which we have a great deal of influence: our own families. Parents can still teach children by expecting them to provide restitution when they’ve victimized their siblings, neighbors, or friends in childish crimes. Often, changing the world starts with changing our own realm of influence.
As I read through todays chapter, which is a list of some of the first laws recorded in human history, it struck me how much of it was plain common sense. It was a victim-centric system of justice. The offender had to make sure that the victim was not out anything because of their sin or crime. If you steal something you have to pay the victim for what was stolen. If your livestock eat your neighbors grain, you have to pay so that his livestock can eat. That's not rocket science.
I thought about Bernie Madoff as I read through today's chapter. What about all the people whose life savings and retirement accountts were wiped out by his scam? While he was under house arrest in his posh New York apartment, his victims were out finding jobs to replace the money he stole. Something is not right with that picture.
The code of human justice originally prescribed by God made sure that the power did not take advantage of the weak and powerless, and that victims received restitution. As I sit and mull it over my first cup of coffee this morning, it seems to me we have abandoned the victim-centric code of justice originally prescribed by God and evolved into an offender-centric society.