The Law of Victim's Rights
Issue No. 292
I spoke on this topic at the Tabernacles conference in St. Louis a few weeks ago and thought it was important enough to put this into print for a wider audience.
Is Justice a Duty?
The law is clear that judges have a duty under God to dispense justice. In other words, they must rule as the law of God prescribes. Once they have determined guilt or innocence, a judge does not have the discretion to deny the rights of either the victim or the guilty party.
We see this portrayed in Exodus 23:3 and 6,
3 nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his dispute.
6 You shall not pervert the justice due to the poor in his dispute.
On the one hand, a judge cannot pervert justice against a poor man in his dispute against the rich, but on the other hand, neither can a judge favor a poor man at the expense of a rich man who is innocent.
Regardless of the social or economic status of the disputing parties, the judge must remain impartial and impose justice according to God’s law. His only job is to determine guilt or innocence and to know the judgment that God has already established.
Justification and Grace
The party that is determined to be innocent or in the right is “justified,” while the guilty one is condemned. This is part of the concept of Grace in Scripture. The guilty party is sentenced to pay whatever penalty is necessary, and until that penalty is paid, he is said to be “under the law.” When the penalty is paid, however, the guilty man receives grace and forgiveness, because the full debt of his sin has been paid.
In the book of Romans, Paul explains that the whole world has been found guilty according to the law and is accountable and liable for whatever payment is demanded by the law (Rom. 3:19). However, Paul goes on to tell us that believers are justified by faith in the efficacy of Jesus Christ’s payment for sin that He made on the cross.
On account of this faith, believers “are not under the law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). Their sin is no longer held against them, because it has been paid in full by the blood of Christ. Paul also makes the point that this grace is not a license to continue in sin (lawless behavior). To continue violating the law only increases the burden that Jesus has suffered for us on the cross.
Grace is the Right of Victims
Once a judge has pronounced his sentence upon the guilty, the victim is given the right to demand restitution to the full extent of the judge’s verdict. In other words, the judge’s verdict determines the right of the victim to receive compensation. But the victim does not have the duty to receive full compensation. His compensation is a right, not a duty.
The victim may forgive part of the debt owed to him by the guilty party, or he may even forgive the entire debt. The duty of the judge has been completed, and now the victim must decide whether or not to forego a portion or even all of his rights.
There is no law that demands anything of the victim in this matter. It is purely at his discretion. This is where one must be led by the Spirit, for it goes beyond any legal prescription. If the victim is led by the Spirit, and is motivated by love, he will do what glorifies God the most.
In other words, he will not think only of himself and how much money he can extract from the guilty party. He will act according to the best interest of the Kingdom. If the guilty party is belligerent and unrepentant, it might be best to make him pay the full amount so that the judgment of the law teaches him righteousness (Isaiah 26:9). But if he is truly repentant and has nothing with which to repay, it may be best to extend forgiveness to him, knowing that he has indeed learned his lesson and is not likely to repeat his crime in the future.
It may be also that the guilty party remains rebellious in the face of judgment and that he is then “sold for his theft” (Exodus 22:3) in order to pay off the debt. In such a case, the redeemer of the debt purchases the thief, pays his debt to the victim, and takes home his slave, who must work for him until the time appointed by the judge.
It may be that after a year or two of labor, he truly repents. The victim, then, may wish to set him free. He would have no right to go to the slave master and demand that he set the slave free. But he could go to him and ask to buy the slave for the cost of the remaining debt. If the slave master agrees to this, the “redemption” takes place, and the slave now is owned by his ex-victim.
The new owner, the ex-victim, may then do as he wishes. He may set the slave free entirely, or he may exercise his lawful right to retain the slave as his own until the rest of the debt to the law has been paid in full. The law gives a redeemer the right to be served by the slave. We see this in Leviticus 25:53,
53 Like a man hired year by year he [the redeemed slave] shall be with him [his redeemer]; he shall not rule over him with severity in your sight.
A slave owner does not have the right to mistreat a slave, but he does have the right to be obeyed and served by the slave. Those rights end when the sentence to the law has been completed, or when the year of Jubilee arrives—whichever comes first.
Meanwhile, however, a slave owner has the right and lawful authority to set his slave free at his discretion. The law will never force him to retain a slave.
Jesus is the Ultimate Victim
When Jesus Christ redeemed us from the curse (i.e., verdict or judgment) of the law, he followed the laws of redemption. The world had been “sold” under sin, on account of Adam’s inability to pay restitution to restore himself to paradise. So Jesus came to redeem all that Adam had lost—i.e., the entire creation that had been under his authority.
Thus, Jesus paid the penalty not only for our sins (as believers) but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). In other words, He purchased (redeemed) the entire creation that Adam had lost through his sin. Jesus, then, has the right as a redeemer to be served by all of His newly-purchased slaves, according to the law.
More than this, He also has the right of forgiveness. Hence, when He said at the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), He was exercising His lawful right as a victim to forgive all those who were victimizing Him. And because He was paying the penalty for the sin of the whole world, this gave Him the right to forgive all men, no questions asked.
Those sins included many crimes which the law says are punishable by death.
This leads us to a very important question: Is it lawful for a victim to forgive a capital crime? The answer is clear when we look at Jesus’ example. Did He forgive capital crimes on the cross? Was His blood insufficient to cover such things as murder, kidnapping, and adultery? The answer is clear from the New Testament that His blood was more than sufficient to cover the sins of the whole world.
Can a Victim Forgive Kidnapping?
The law says that kidnapping is a capital crime. Exodus 21:16 says,
16 And he who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.
Deuteronomy 24:7 says,
7 If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently, or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from among you.
This judgment sounds final, until we realize that it is a command to judges to render a just verdict in such a case. It is not meant to restrict the rights of the victim in any way. How do we know? We have a clear precedent in the story of Joseph who was kidnapped by his brothers and sold to Midianites who sold him as a slave in Egypt.
Later, Joseph found himself in prison, where he told Pharaoh’s butler in Genesis 40:15,
15 For I was in fact kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing that they should have put me in the dungeon.
Joseph eventually interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, and for this feat he was made second ruler of Egypt under Pharaoh himself. Then during the famine that Joseph had predicted, his brothers came to Egypt to buy grain. Joseph did not reveal his identity to them immediately, for he wanted to see if they had repented of their evil deed.
Eventually, his brother Judah confessed the sin of the brothers and took full responsibility for their treatment of Joseph (Genesis 44:18-34). Judah resigned himself to becoming a slave in Egypt to pay for his evil deed. This is what Joseph had been hoping to hear, for apparently, he was not led to forgive them openly until he knew that they had repented. We read then in Genesis 45:4, 5,
4 … I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God has sent me before you to preserve life.
Seventeen years later, when their father Jacob died, the brothers again feared for their lives, thinking that Joseph might have concealed his anger while their father was alive. However, Genesis 50:19-21 says,
19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? 20 And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. 21 So therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.” So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
So we know that Joseph’s forgiveness was genuine. And as a victim, he had the full right to forgive his brothers for kidnapping him and selling him into slavery. We might add that he also had the right to put them to death, if that had been his desire. The law of God gave him the right to impose the death penalty upon them, but that same law also fully backed his right to forgive.
He was, after all, the victim.
Can a Victim Forgive Adultery?
To answer this question, we turn to the book of Hosea. The prophet Hosea was told by God to marry Gomer, “a wife of harlotry” (1:2). The prophet was an intercessor, in this case representing God to the people. His failed marriage was to allow him to experience the pain that God felt over His failed marriage with the house of Israel.
Gomer bore Hosea a son named Jezreel, then a daughter named Lo-ruhamah, and then another son named Lo-ammi. These were named in order to prophesy to the house of Israel.
Gomer then left Hosea and committed adultery with other lovers (2:5), but she soon found herself in slavery to those other lovers who had promised her the good life. So the prophet was told in 3:1,
1 Then the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the sons of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.” 2 So I bought her for myself for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a half of barley. 3 Then I said to her, “You shall stay with me for many days. You shall not play the harlot, nor shall you have a man; so I will also be toward you.
Because a homer of barley was valued at 50 shekels of silver (Lev. 27:16), the value of 1½ homers of barley alone came to 75 shekels. Adding this to the 15 shekels of actual silver shows that her price tag was 90 shekels of silver.
Ninety is primarily established upon the number nine, which is the number of Visitation. This is a Hebraism that pictures an investigator, who is sent to determine guilt or innocence before the judge renders a verdict. In Gomer’s case, Hosea himself represented God as the Investigator, but he redeemed her both from slavery and adultery.
As the victim, Hosea had the right to have his adulterous wife stoned, for that would have been the sentence of the law. Deut. 22:22 says,
22 If a man is found lying with a married woman, then both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel.
Yet Hosea was the victim, and the victim has the lawful right to forgive sin committed against him. Thus, he chose to forgive and to redeem her. In doing so, he became a type of Christ who came to redeem the harlot Israel from the house of bondage.
Hosea was the victim of Gomer’s harlotry. Jesus Christ, the God of Israel, was the victim of Israel’s harlotry. Both victims chose to forgive, and this was their right.
The Case of Joseph and Mary
Matthew 1:18 and 19 says,
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous [just] man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly.
When Joseph first heard that his betrothed wife was pregnant outside of marriage, it naturally disturbed him. Most translations, however, do not reveal his true state of mind. The KJV renders verse 20, “But while he thought on these things…” It is as if Joseph said, “Hmm, that is odd. I wonder what I should do about this.”
The NASB renders it, “But when he had considered this…” The Jerusalem Bible says, “But he had made up his mind to do this…”
None of these translations seem to adequately express the natural feelings and thoughts that Joseph would have felt under such circumstances. Keep in mind that it was only afterward that the angel of the Lord appeared to him and revealed the truth to him.
The Greek word used in these verses is enthymeomai. It has a double meaning. One meaning is “to consider or ponder,” and this is how most translators have rendered it. However, the second meaning is “to become angry or very upset.” Is it not more credible to render the word by this meaning?
Here is what Kenneth Bailey says about it. For sixty years his home was in the Middle East, having been born in Egypt in 1935. For many years he taught the New Testament in seminaries in order to portray its account more accurately in the light of Middle Eastern culture. He wrote this:
The root of the Greek verb used here is thymos, which occurs once in the Gospels where it is used to describe the “wrath” of the congregation in the synagogue when it rose up to stone Jesus (Lk 4:28). The only verbal use of this same term in the entire New Testament is found in the story of the wise men, where Herod is in a “rage” on discovering that the wise men left Bethlehem without reporting back to him regarding the whereabouts of the young child (Mt 2:16)….
The oldest Arabic translation of this text, which dates from the eighth century or earlier, translates this phrase, “While he was disturbed over this matter…” The unknown translator of this early, important Arabic version knew that Joseph was upset. Putting all of this together, perhaps “while he fumed over this matter” is a more accurate translation of the original Greek and better captures the authenticity of the human scene.
(Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 45-46.)
Joseph was “a just man” and understood the law very well. He knew that adultery was punishable by death and that Mary’s condition was a very serious matter. No doubt the neighbors had already begun to gather stones for her execution. Why, then, did Joseph intend to put her away privately or secretly? What gave him the right to do so? More importantly, why did Joseph believe that he—a just man—had the right to put her away without having her stoned?
The answer lies in the simple fact that he was the victim, and the victim had the right to forgive her or to stone her or to do something in between, like putting her away. We are told what he intended to do, and we are then told what he actually did after the angelic revelation.
The angel in his dream told him of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 that “a virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son.” Mary was to fulfill this prophecy, the angel said. When Joseph awoke from his dream, he understood the meaning of that verse, “and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus” (Matt. 1:25).
Even so, when Joseph was constrained to go to Bethlehem to ratify the Roman Senate’s bill making Augustus Caesar Pater Patria, “Father of the Country,” he did not leave Mary behind. He could have represented the family in Bethlehem, but instead, he brought her along. Perhaps he knew the prophecy of Micah 5:2 that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. But perhaps there was another reason to take Mary on such a grueling trip so late in her pregnancy.
Perhaps some of the towns people did not understand the law of victim’s rights. Legalism was common in those days as it is today. Legalism does not truly understand the law, but applies it according to the traditions of men. If Mary had been left at home, would she have been under threat of stoning from some of the towns people?
We are not told. But Joseph knew the law, and he understood his rights under God.
Can a Victim Forgive Murder?
We have already seen how Jesus forgave those who murdered Him. We have another example, in case someone thinks that Jesus’ example was exceptional. When Stephen gave testimony of Jesus Christ in Acts 7, the people became very angry and took him out to stone him. Verse 60 says he claimed the law of victim’s rights,
60 And falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And having said this, he fell asleep.