Humane Features Of The Hebrew Law -- By: Henry M. Field

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 010:38 (Apr 1853)
Article: Humane Features Of The Hebrew Law
Author: Henry M. Field


Humane Features Of The Hebrew Law

Henry M. Field

All writers upon law accord in assigning to Moses a high place among the founders of States. He is ranked with Solon and Lycurgus. Yet this homage is often qualified by the remark, that his laws are altogether too severe to be adopted in modern legislation. Especially, the advocates of the abolition of capital punishment are wont to set aside an appeal to the Hebrew law by styling it a sanguinary code, only fitted for a nation of barbarians. We have now before us a long and very able argument for that reform by its most earnest American advocate.1 The writer devotes many pages to the Hebrew legislation. Like every man of cultivated mind, he regards with great curiosity and veneration the most ancient body of Jaws which history has preserved to us, while, at the same time, he plainly considers it an obsolete barbarism. To the milder spirit of our times those ancient statutes appear “terrible” and “Draconian.” “The code of Moses was indeed a scarcely less sanguinary one than that which the Athenian legislator was said to have written in blood.” p. 10. Its punishment for many offences “it would be a perfect insanity of ferocity and fanaticism to dream of applying at the present day.” p. 11.

Nor is this subject dismissed with an epithet. The writer is too candid and too intelligent to think that he can overthrow Moses with a sneer. He has, therefore, condensed into these pages all that is sternest, and darkest, and most terrible in these ancient laws, by which the mind is overwhelmed with images of horror. Against this sudden and severe judgment we enter a protest. Notwithstanding this formidable array, we doubt the justice of this mode of speaking. After examining with great care, both the general features and the details of this ancient code, it seems to us, not only a wise, but most humane body of laws.

We do not contend for a moment that every statute of Moses would be just at the present day. That law was framed for other

times than ours, and for a different people; a people not yet formed into a State. The nomadic habits of the Hebrews, induced by forty years wandering in the desert, and their settlement in a new country, required peculiar laws. It is a merit of any legislation that, while founded in natural justice, it has a special fitness to the latitude and race over which it is to have sway. It is easy to pick out of every national code particular statutes which would be cruel, if they were not necessary; and which must appear harsh in those happier climes where extreme severity, is not needed. But such isolated and extraordinary acts by no means justify us i...

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