The Institutes of Biblical Law

Excerpts from R. J. Rushdooney's marvellous book

Compiled by Richard Anthony

Debt and Slavery

Every seven years, there was a cancellation of debt. Since the unbeliever is by nature a slave, he is not released from debt (Deuteronomy 15:1-6). A thief who did not make restitution was sold as a slave (Exodus 22:3). A man could also be sold for debt (Deuteronomy 15:12). The servitude ceased when labor had been performed equivalent to the amount which would have been required to make restitution, and it is limited to six years. A man could renounce his liberty and make himself a slave. He was then set free on the sabbath year. If he chose the security of slavery, his ear was pierced, to indicate that he was now like a woman, permanently in subjection, and he remained a slave (Exodus 21:5-7). Since unbelievers are by nature slaves, they could be held as life-long slaves without this formality (Leviticus 25:44-45).

Since the slave was, except where debt and theft were concerned, a slave by nature and by choice, a fugitive slave went free, and the return of such fugitives was forbidden (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).

Family vs. The State

In the Marxist scheme, the transfer of authority from the family to the State makes any talk of the family as an institution ridiculous. The family is to all practical intent abolished whenever the State determines the education, vocation, religion, and the discipline of the child. The only function remaining then to the parents is procreation, and, by means of birth control regulations, this too is subject now to a diminishing role. The family in such a society is simply a relic of the old order, maintaining itself only surreptitiously and illegally, and subject at all times to the intervening authority of the State. In all modern societies, the transfer of authority from the family to the State has been accomplished in varying degrees.

In scripture, the authority of the family is basic to society, and it is a God-centered authority. The authority of the woman as help-meet (Genesis 2:18) is no less real than that of a prime minister to a king; the prime minister is not a slave because he is not king, nor is the woman a slave because she is not a man. The description of a virtuous woman, or a godly wife, in Proverbs 31:10-31 is not of a helpless slave nor of a pretty parasite, but rather of a very competent wife, manager, business-woman, and mother – a woman of real authority.

In modern education, the State is the educator, and the State is held to be the responsible agency rather than man. Such a perspective works to destroy the pupil, whose basic lesson becomes a dependence on the State. The State, rather than the family, is looked to for moral decision and action, and the moral role of the individual is to assent to and bow down before the State. State education is at the very least implacably anti-scriptural, even when and if it gives the bible a place in the curriculum.

Basic to the calling of every child is to be a member of a family. Virtually all children will some day become husbands and wives, and fathers or mothers. The State school is destructive of this calling. It attempts to meet the need are essentially external and mechanical, i.e., home economics courses, sex education, and the like. But the essential training for family life is family life! It means scriptural education, discipline, and training in godly responsibility.

The State school, moreover, basically trains women to be men; it is not surprising that so many women are unhappy at being women. Nor are men any the happier, in that dominion in modern education is transferred from man to the State, and man is progressively emasculated. The major casualty of modern education is the male student. Since dominion is by God's creative purpose a basic aspect of man, any education which diminishes man's calling to exercise dominion also diminishes man to the same degree.

Abortion and Capital Punishment

It is significant that, as innocent babies are killed, and capital punishment is withheld from their murderers, the same men who plead for the murderer's life also demand the “right” to abortion. Usually, the same picketers that carry a sign one day, “Abolish Capital Punishment,” also carry “Legalize Abortion” another day. When this is called to their attention, their answer is, “There is no contradiction involved.” They are right: the thesis is “condemn the innocent and free the guilty.”

Punishment and Pity

Since God's Law has no sentence of imprisonment but only restitution, God's view of crime is that the act of crime is committed, not by a professional criminal, but a weaker man, who must restore the stolen goods plus at least an equal amount, in order to be restored to the community. Scriptural law does not recognize a professional criminal element; the potentially habitual criminal is to be executed as soon as he gives plain evidence of this fact (Deuteronomy 21:18-21 – see also Proverbs 30:17). Seeing that parents stand towards their children as God's representative, obstinate rebellion is regarded as akin to blasphemy, and is condemned to the same punishment.

At this point, the factor of pity comes into view. The common humanist view is that such a law is pitiless. The scriptural perspective is that it is not; but that the modern perspective reflects not pity, but misplaced pity. Shall the criminal be pitied? Scriptural law demands pity for the offended, not the offender.

Pity, in fact, is specifically forbidden as evil in certain cases. Obviously, in the law concerning the delinquent son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), pity for the son is forbidden. But in other laws pity is specifically forbidden:

In Deuteronomy 7:16, pity for the poor inhabitants of Canaan was forbidden; God's pity for them, and His patience, had lasted for centuries. Now, the time for pity was gone; it was a time for judgment and death.

In Deuteronomy 13:6-9, pity for the subverter of the faith is forbidden, even when that man is a near and dear relative. The foundations of godly order are at stake, and pity here is an evil.

In Deuteronomy 19:11-13, pity for a murderer in a case of premeditated murder is forbidden. No extenuating circumstances can be pleaded against the fact of murder by premeditation.

In Deuteronomy 19:21, the general law of justice is stated: the punishment must fit the crime; there must be a comparative restitution or death. Pity cannot be used to set aside justice.

In Deuteronomy 25:11-12, no woman, in defending her husband who is fighting with another man, can attempt to aid her husband by mutilating the other man's penis. This is the only instance in scriptural law where mutilation (cutting of the woman's hand) is the punishment, and its significance is of central importance. A wife is under God to be a help-meet to her husband, but only and always under God's Law. In a quarrel between two men, she could not take unfair advantage of her husband's assailant. Faith requires staying within the law of God, and a woman can never help her husband lawlessly. If such were permitted, then a man could step aside and let his wife break the law for him with impunity. A lawless love is under the sentence of the law.

In the case of the lawless wife, the fact of mutilation was a grim public warning; a lawless hand or help-meet was no hand or help at all. Her mutilated hand was a grim reminder to all of the prohibition of lawless love. She was not to be pitied, for pity must also move in terms of law, or it becomes the condonation of evil. Pity must never become lawless.

The principle of capital punishment is involved here. Life is created by God, governed by His Law, and to be lived only in terms of His Word. Neither the parents nor the State are the creators of life, and therefore they cannot fix the terms of life.

The failure of the law to execute the professional criminal is creating a major crisis and leading increasingly to anarchy.

Death Penalty

It should be noted that Deuteronomy 13:5-18 does not call for the death penalty for unbelief or for heresy.

To deny the death penalty is to insist on life for the evil; it means that evil men are given the right to kill, kidnap, rape, and violate law and order, and their life is guaranteed against death in the process. The murderer is given the right to kill without losing his life, and the victim and potential victims are denied their right to live. Men may speak of unconditional love and unconditional mercy, but every act of love and mercy is conditional, because, in granting it to one man, I am affirming the conditions of his life and denying others in the process. If I am loving and merciful to a murderer, I am unloving and merciless to his present and future victims. Moreover, I am then in open contempt of God and His law, which requires no mercy to a man guilty of death (Numbers 35:31-34).

The sacrificial system incorporated into law a basic principle: the greater the responsibility, the greater the culpability, the greater the sin. This is very clearly set forth in Leviticus, according to which there are four levels or grades of sin:

  1. of the high priest (Leviticus 4:3-12), whose sin offering required a bullock, the largest and most expensive sacrifice. Religious leaders, because they have a central responsibility with respect to the law of God, are all the more guilty, and all the more severely judged by God.
  2. of the sin of the whole congregation is next in consequence (Leviticus 4:13-21). The sin of a people collectively is a real one: it can be a sin of ignorance, or of falling short in obeying the law, but it is still a sin. The required sacrifice was again a bullock.
  3. of the sin of a ruler is next in order of consequence. The sin offering here was “a kid of the goats, a male without blemish” (Leviticus 4:22-26). The “ruler” clearly includes all civil magistrates (Proverbs 24:12).
  4. of the sins of individuals, of any of the people of the land, are last in the order of sins (Leviticus 4:27-35). For the well-to-do, the prosperous, a female kid was required; if they were unable to bring the kid, a lamb could be offered. For sins of inadvertency, the poor could bring two turtle-doves or two young pigeons (Leviticus 5:11); for other sacrifices also, this poor man's offering was possible.
Thus, some individuals have a responsibility almost equal to rulers, in that they rule an estate or a segment of society.

There are two kinds of capital punishment. First, God directly executes judgment and death upon men and nations for certain offences. This He does at His time and will. Second, God delegates to man the duty of inflicting death for certain offences and that without undue delay and without hesitation.

In examining the obligation of man to inflict the death penalty, we see, first, that, normally, no ransom or fine could be paid for murder to release the guilty (Numbers 35:31). The one exception to this is in cases where an ox, with a record of goring, kills a man; the owner then “shall be put to death,” unless “there be laid upon him a sum of money” (Exodus 21:29-30). In such cases, because the ox is the primary murderer, there is a possibility of escape for the owner.

Second, as appears in the case of the goring ox, scriptural law holds animals as well as men liable for murder charges. This clearly appears in Genesis 9:5 as well as in the law. If a man owns an animal, and the animal kills a man, the animal dies. The owner is not guilty if the animal has no previous record of unprovoked violence (Exodus 21:28). But if the animal had a record of violence in the past, then the owner is liable for murder charges and capital punishment. For a free man, ransom was possible; with slaves, the ransom is specified by law, thirty shekels of silver, to prevent undue ransom being required for a slave as the alternative to death (Exodus 21:29-32). An offense by an ox against another man's ox is also guilty before the law and liable. If the criminal animal had no previous record, then it must be sold, and the proceeds divided between the two owners, and the killed ox is also sold and the proceeds divided. But if the criminal ox had a record of misconduct, then it is sold and the proceeds given entirely to the owner of the dead ox, who retains possession of the proceeds of the dead ox (Exodus 21:35-36). This principle of animal liability, and the liability of their owners, is still a part of our law. If the executed ox was killed by stoning, its flesh could not be eaten, having not been bled (Exodus 21:28).

Third, we have seen that the principle is life for life, i.e., a punishment proportionate to the crime. This crime has no reference to the criminal or his mentality but only to the nature of the act. Scriptural law has no plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Neither is there any privileged status before the law for a minor. Murder requires the death penalty whether the offender is an animal, an “insane” man, a child, or someone who's feeble-minded. The modern plea of not guilty by reason of insanity arose in 1843 in the trial of Daniel M'Naughton for the murder of Edward Drummond, secretary to Sir Robert Peel. As a result of M'Naughton's trial, the M'Naughton Rules were developed. It was (a) presumed that every man is sane until the contrary is proved, but (b) a man who was insane or laboring under a defect of reason while committing the act, so that he did not realize the nature of the act or its wrongness, was not guilty by reason of insanity. M'Naughton was committed to an asylum instead of being executed. The M'Naughton Rules led to the decision in 1954 by David T. Bazelon of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that no one could be held “criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or mental defect.” This was the Durham case, the trial of Monty Durham, a housebreaker and check-passer who had been in and out of jails and mental hospitals for seven of his twenty-four years.

Such pleas as the M'Naughton and Durham Rules permit the courts to set aside the life for life principle, the principle of justice and justice itself, in favor of a humanistic concern for the life of the criminal.

Proverbs 12:10, "…the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel."

The courts today, moving in terms of humanistic law, are already hostile to law and order. As Gardner has pointed out, “the rights of the individual are being protected, provided the individual has committed a crime.

The move to abolish the death penalty substitutes “medicine for morals,” and it denies “the legal doctrine of individual responsibility,” one of the fundamentals of godly law. The door to pagan savagery is opened by this psychiatric approach. Instead of individual responsibility, guilt, and punishment, group responsibility, guilt and punishment is stressed. The society at large and the family get the blame, not the criminal.

Negativism of the Law

It is important to call attention to an aspect of the law which makes it especially offensive to the modern mind: its negativism. To the modern mind, laws of negation seem oppressive and tyrannical, and the longing is for positive officials of the law. The best statement of a positive concept of law was the Roman legal principle: "the health of the people is the highest law." This principle has so thoroughly passed into the world's legal systems that to question it is to challenge a fundamental premise of the state. The Roman principle is basic to the American development, in that the courts have interpreted the “general welfare” clause of the U.S. Constitution in terms radically alien to the original intent of 1787.

A negative concept of law confers a double benefit: first, it is practical, in that a negative concept of law deals realistically with a particular evil. It states, “Thou shalt not steal,” or, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” A negative statement thus deals with a particular evil directly and plainly: it prohibits it, makes it unlawful. The law thus has a modest function; the law is limited, and therefore the State is limited. The State, as the enforcing agency, is limited to dealing with evil, not controlling all men.

Second, a negative concept of law insures liberty. If the commandment says, “Thou shalt not steal,” it means that the law can only govern theft: it cannot govern or control honestly acquired property. When the law prohibits blasphemy and false witness, it guarantees that all other forms of speech have their liberty. The negativity of the law is the preservation of the positive life and freedom of man.

But, if the law is positive in its function, and if the health of the people is the highest law, then the State has total jurisdiction to compel the total health of the people. The immediate consequence is a double penalty on the people. First, an omnipotent State is posited, and a totalitarian State results. Everything becomes part of the State's jurisdiction, because everything can potentially contribute to the health or the destruction of the people. Because the law is unlimited, the State is unlimited. It becomes the business of the State, not to control evil, but to control all men. Basic to every totalitarian regime is a positive concept of the function of law.

This means, second, that no area of liberty can exist for man; there is then no area of things indifferent, of actions, concerns, and thoughts which the State cannot govern in the name of public health. To credit the State with the ability to minister to the general welfare, to govern for the general and total health of the people, is to assume an omnicompetant State, and to assume an all-competent State is to assume an incompetent people. The State then becomes a nursemaid to a citizenry whose basic character is childish and immature. The theory that law must have a positive function assumes thus that the people are essentially childish.

When the law of the State assumes a positive function in protecting the health and general welfare of its people, it then does not assume the liability. The people are absolved of responsibility, but the medical profession (business firms, property owners, and the like) assume total liability. The steps toward total liability are gradual, but they are inevitable with a welfare economy.

Historians often praise the medical practice of pagan antiquity, and they commonly credit it with far more merit than it had. At the same time, they blame Christianity for corrupting and halting medical progress. But the decline in ancient medicine began by their own admission in the third century B.C. In fact, Christianity rescues medicine from sterile presuppositions.

In ancient Egypt, Babylon, and elsewhere, the doctor was subject to total liability. If the patient lost his life, the doctor lost his life. Even though the fault was not his, the doctor was totally liable. But, even when the doctor was at fault, what made the doctor totally liable? The patient, after all, had come voluntarily, and the doctor was not a god. Or should he be? The European pagan background, as well as other pagan practices, associated medicine with the gods. Ascetic practices were required of the doctor, so that the doctor was gradually converted into a monk. Only gradual, with the Christianization of the West, was this pagan concept of medicine abandoned, and, with it, the concept of total liability which required the doctor to be a god or else suffer.

State controls over the medical profession have steadily restored the old concept of liability, and the doctors find themselves especially prone to lawsuits. It has become dangerous for a doctor to administer emergency roadside care in an accident because of this proneness to liability. The day may not be too far distant, if the present trend continues, when doctors may be tried for murder if their patient dies. There were hints of this in the Soviet Union in Stalin's closing days.

If the law assumes a positive function, it is because it is believed that the people are a negative factor, i.e., incompetent and child-like. Then, in such a situation, responsible men are penalized with total liability. If a criminal, who is by his criminality an incompetent, enters a man's house, he is protected in his rights by law, but the responsible and law-abiding citizen can face a murder charge if he kills the invader. A hoodlum can trespass on a man's land, climbing a fence or breaking down a gate to do so, but if he then breaks his leg in an uncovered post-hole or trench, the home owner is liable for damages.

When the law loses its negativity, when the law assumes a positive function, it protects the criminals and the fools, and it penalizes responsible men. Responsibility and liability are inescapable facts: if denied in one area, they are not abolished but rather simply transferred to another area. If criminals are not responsible people but merely sick, then someone is guilty of making them sick. Under communism, this means the total liability of the Christians and capitalists as guilty of all of society's ills. As totally liable, they must be liquidated.

Responsibility and liability cannot be avoided. If a scriptural doctrine of responsibility be denied, a pagan doctrine takes over. And if the scriptural negativism of the law is replaced with a law having a positive function, a revolution against Christianity and freedom has taken place. A negative concept of law is not only a safeguard to liberty but to life as well.


Relativism reduces all things to a common color. As a result, there is no longer any definition for crime. The criminal is protected by law because the law knows no criminal, since modern law denies the absoluteness of justice which defines good and evil. What cannot be defined cannot be protected. A definition is a fencing and a protection around an object: it separates it from all things else and protects its identity. An absolute law set forth by the absolute God separates good and evil and protects good. When that law is denied, and relativism sets in, there no longer exists any valid principle of differentiation and identification. What needs protecting from whom, when all the world is equal and the same? When all the world is water, there is no shore line to be guarded. When all reality is death, there is no life to be protected. Because the courts of law are increasingly unable to define anything due to their relativism, they are increasingly unable to protect the righteous and the law-abiding in a world where crime cannot be properly defined.

The relativistic society is indeed then an “open society,” open to all evil and to no good. Since the relativistic society is beyond good and evil by definition, it cannot offer its citizens any protection from evil. Instead, a relativistic society will seek to protect its people from those who seek to restore a definition of good and evil in terms of Scripture.

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