The Foreword by Howard Zehr, pioneering restorative justice advocate, points out that Lind does not shy away from difficult texts in which a caring God seems to urge the death penalty for sexual relationship violators, blasphemers, murderers, or even for whole communities. Lind brings out deeper Biblical themes that take us beyond the common practice of quoting proof texts for or against capital punishment. In this Biblical study related to the death penalty, he makes a number of valuable contributions.
As his former seminary students know, Lind presents law in the Old Testament in a positive way rather than classifying it as primitive thinking, outdated and replaced by the New Testament. The key concept is the covenantal character of the Ten Commandments and other Biblical laws. The covenant is a key part of the laws given to a people chosen to be a light to the nations, a nation through whom other nations will be blessed.
A covenant, of course, is a partnership, an association that affects us, works on us and changes us. It is a relationship we don't control. That kind of partnership provides a different kind of motivation for faithful living than the motivation provided in the older law codes of Israel's neighbors, from which they likely borrowed. The Code of Hammurabi, Hittite law codes, other Near Eastern law collections used physical force as motivation. The motivations in the covenant were gratitude for the rescue from oppression in Egypt, well-being or a more wholesome life, and the desire to belong to those chosen to be God's partners in the mission to the nations.
The source of Covenant Law is God, rather than the source being a king backed by an army. That explains why offenses against God are called sin, a relationship violation, and offenses against the government or the king are called crimes. Law based on a relationship or covenant allows refusal. It has voluntariness, a freedom to be faithful or not, that was not present in other Near Eastern punitive law codes.
In Covenant law, God is sovereign, not the law. That means it can be revised, or can be modified because persons and personal relationships matter. Also in Covenant law, the king, like other persons, is accountable to God. In the law codes of Israel's neighbors, those in upper levels of the hierarchy were treated differently than those of lesser rank. Israel had laws respecting the rights of slaves and aliens.
The tension between the retributive kind of justice and the law based on a God-relationship is traced by Lind in case law passages, Elijah's experience with Baalism, prophetic and apocalyptic writings, and the New Testament. He shows the trend is away from retributive justice. However, that struggle between contrasting understandings of justice was revolutionary then and it still is. Laws given by Hosea's forgiving, second-chance kind of God and Isaiah's suffering servant vision, which put human rights above property rights, were in tension with those Biblical laws which were similar to Israel's Near Eastern neighbors. That same struggle visible in the Old Testament exists today between the restorative justice movement seen in VORP (Victim Offender Reconciliation Programs) and the political popularity of punitive prison-filling, death-row-filling justice systems. The disparity between Covenant Law and current punitive anti-drug legislation or the way our nation punishes nations that do not yield to our nation's threats or policies makes that Old Testament contrast very relevant to the same disparity in contemporary life.
Lind's use of the term "tension" helps to see that it is unnecessary to explain differences between the Old Testament and New with concepts such as "progressive revelation" or a sequence of dispensations. The character-changing relationship to God in the varied versions of the Covenant was always present in Israel's history but it had to compete with the punitive justice system that was also present in Israel. Against the eye-for-an eye, tooth-for-a-tooth, life-for-a-life, God did not demand that Cain, David, or Moses pay the penalty for their acts of murder. Israel was not destroyed for its violations of the law. God modeled a different kind of restorative justice that Israel should also model in its calling to be the people through which other nations would be blessed
Lind also specifically shows how Jesus and the New Testament writings do not contradict Covenant Law but build on it. That should reduce the too frequent stereotyping of the Old Testament as simply moralistic and make us more understanding of the faith of our Jewish neighbors. Both Jews and Christians have trouble letting go of the Hittite kind of retributive laws. Yet Jews and Christians are also still not quite able to turn our backs on that life-giving covenant offer from the Partner who cares about us and invites us to be part of his redemptive work.
Thanks to Lind for summarizing much of his lifelong scholarship and teaching of Old Testament law and ethics in this book. It should help us recover and increase the tension with contemporary punitive justice systems and invent alternatives. As the Old Testament writers taught, we also don't have to be like the Hittites. Lind makes clear that the covenant offered to us included being chosen to demonstrate a better way.