Sin and Crime

A sin is any thought or action that is prohibited by God. A crime is defined as a breach of a rule or law for which a punishment may be prescribed by a governing authority. The English word crime comes from the Latin word "crimen" and the Greek word "krino" meaning judge. In this article, I use the word crime for any breach of a law that is punishable by judges.

Biblical law distinguishes between crime and sin. Judges do not deal with all sin. They are limited to dealing with crimes.

According to the Old Testament, only a few sins are also crimes. For example, coveting is listed as a sin in the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:17), but there is no punishment specified for coveting. Although coveting is a sin, it is not a crime. The obvious reason for this is that it would be impossible to prove to a judge that a person is coveting. No one can testify that another person is coveting, because we cannot see into another person's mind.

This places a clear limit on the power of judges. They can only punish actions. They must not attempt to control our thoughts. Judges are not required to eliminate all sin, as this would be impossible. Their role is limited to punishing the few sins that really disrupt the functioning of society.

Theft is specified as a sin in the Ten Commandments, but in this case, the bible also specifies a punishment. This means that theft is both a sin and a crime (Ex 22:1-4). Once a man acts on his coveting and steals from his neighbour, judges have authority to act against him. His actions are visible, so witnesses can observe and testify against him. This provides judges with a basis for dealing with theft.

Crimes are a small subset of all of sins. They can be identified by determining whether biblical law specifies a remedy or penalty. If a sanction is specified, the sin is the crime. If there is no sanction, the sin is not a crime.

Human judges have no authority to deal with sins that are not specified to be a crime, because God has reserved them for himself. He can see into people's hearts, so he is best placed to deal with them.

The surprising truth is that God has specified only two types of sin for which remedy or punishment can be imposed by a human court.

In a biblical system of justice, judges are limited to dealing with the two types of activity.

Penalties for Crime

The Bible specifies the penalties that judges must apply for each crime. These penalties are still relevant in the modern world. The most surprising thing is that there are not prisons are not mentioned.

Prisons have no place in God's justice system. There are no prisons in biblical law, so it is not surprising that prisons do not work. They put criminals together in one place and cut them off from the rest of society for long periods of time. Prisoners will learn to hate society, so they are unlikely to be reformed. There is no biblical basis for locking people up as a punishment for crime.

Sometimes a person accused of murder may need to be kept safe from people seeking revenge. The leaders of a community are required to protect the accused person until a fair trial can be held.

They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that a person accused of murder may not die before he stands trial before the assembly (Num 35:12).

Innocent blood puts a curse on the land. A person accused of murder should be kept safe until they have received a fair trial.


The basic principle in biblical law is that a person who is convicted of a crime must make restitution to the victim of their crime. For example, the penalty for theft is four or fivefold restitution to the victim.

If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep (Ex 22:1).

The thief must pay his victim four times the value of what he has sold. The compensation beyond the value of what was stolen makes up for the cost of tracking down the thief. It also acts as a deterrent against theft. A thief will not get caught every time, so if he only had to pay back what was stolen, he might decide to risk the crime, knowing that when if he gets caught, he can just give back the stolen goods. The fourfold repayment reduces the economic benefits of theft.

An ox gets additional restitution because it can be used to pull a heavy load. It is a capital good that can be used to produce a stream of income into the future, so it is more valuable to its owner than a sheep. Stealing an ox makes the owner less productive for the lifetime of the oxen. Using a modern example, the theft of a carpenter's tools (his capital goods) costs him more than the theft of something he has made. This is why additional restitution is required. Biblical law requires fivefold restitution for any capital goods that are stolen.

This is very different from the modern system of fines and imprisonment. All fines get paid to the state, so the victim gets nothing. If the criminal is sent to prison, innocent citizens pay the cost and the victim still misses out, which is very unfair. In the biblical system, the victim gets compensated for their loss.


The compensation a victim of crimes receives will be sufficient to pay for the cost of tracking down the criminal. This gives power to the victim. In the modern system, the victim of theft has to rely on the police to track down the criminal. If theft is not a priority for the police, nothing will happen. Under the Old Testament system, the victim can pay someone to track down the criminal knowing that his compensation will pay the cost. The victim can decide what action should be taken.

People with detective skills could track down criminals on the condition that they only get paid if they get a conviction. Provided they get a conviction for about half of the crimes they investigate, they will be able to recover their costs from their clients.

State Monopoly

God's law gives judges responsibility for punishing crime. The modern state has rebelled against God's law. It demands a monopoly over justice, but refuses to provide justice for its citizens. Taxpayer money is spent on a variety of causes that buy popularity, but justice is neglected. The police refuse to investigate many thefts, because the amount stolen is too small. The state knows what it should do, but refuses to do it. It knows what is should not do, and does that (shades of Romans 7:21-24). Biblical law gives citizens control over justice.

Petty crime is a serious problem in many societies, because most police forces do not have the resources to investigate minor crimes. The problem with this is that most criminals start off small when they are young, and then move on to more serious crimes as they get away with it. Petty crime needs to be "nipped in the bud" to prevent an escalating cycle of crime.

The biblical restitution model provides a good solution to this problem. Young people convicted of petty theft could have a compulsory automatic payment attached to their bank account for the fourfold restitution. They would quickly learn that crime does not pay.

Bonded Employment

For the biblical system of restitution to function effectively, a process will be needed for people who cannot afford to pay the required restitution. If poor people are not required to make restitution, they could commit crime with impunity. The biblical solution to the problem of the poor thief is the "restitution loan". If the convicted thief owns property, they would probably need to sell something to make restitution. If the person does not own property, they would have to find someone, hopefully a family member or neighbour from their Ten or Hundred, who will lend them the money to make restitution.

In exchange for this loan, the criminal would become a "bonded employee" of the lender. While under the bond, the criminal would be provided money to cover food and shelter, but the rest of their earnings would go towards repaying the loan (Ex 22:3). The bonded employee would be under travel restrictions and would not be able to travel far from their place of work. An electronic tracking device may be needed to ensure that they do not escape to avoid payment. The criminal would probably have to promise good behaviour to the person making the loan. This should assist with the rehabilitation of the criminal.

Strict rules would apply to the treatment of "bonded employees". If they are mistreated, they could go before a judge and claim their freedom as compensation (Ex 21:26,27; Deut 15:12-18).

The length of the bond would depend on the amount stolen and the size of the restitution. If the items stolen were valuable, the restitution might be quite a large amount, so the criminal might lose their freedom for several years. The thief would be giving the lender a mortgage over their life. The Bible teaches that "a borrower is a slave of the lender" (Prov 22:7), so the penalty for theft will be a slave-like life.

The length of the bond would also depend on the productive capacity of the criminal. Unlike a charity loan to someone who falls into poverty, the debt would not be cancelled after seven years (Ex 21:2), so a thief with a bad attitude might be under bond for a long time.

The thief would have an incentive to work hard and increase his skills. By becoming more productive to his employer, he might be able to negotiate an earlier release from the bond. Developing good work habits and increasing his earning power would make the thief less likely to offend in the future.

Bonded employment is a new concept for many Christians, but it is very similar to modern social welfare systems. The state gives poor people sufficient money for food and shelter, but in return, it takes control over its beneficiaries and puts limits on their lives. It can make them go to work, and if they earn more than a certain amount, it can take it off them. This is a form of "state slavery". Under the biblical system of justice, convicted thieves will face a similar lack of freedom, but they will be bonded to relatives or people from their local community who know them, rather than an impersonal government department.


The restitution principle also applies to assault. The person who assaults another must pay compensation to his victim for any injuries or damage to property caused by the assault. A practical example is given in the following verses.

If men quarrel and one hits the other with a stone or with his fist and he does not die but is confined to bed, the one who struck the blow will not be held responsible, if the other gets up and walks around outside with his staff; however, he must pay the injured man for the loss of his time and see that he is completely healed (Ex 21:18-19).

The person who assaults another must compensate his victim for any income lost as a result of the crime. If the violent man refuses to pay, the victim could also claim the cost of obtaining compensation. The fairness of this solution contrasts dramatically with our modern system, where victims of assault get very little help and if they try to get financial compensation most of the benefit goes to their lawyers.

An Eye for an Eye

The expression "an eye for an eye" is well known, but it is totally misunderstood. Almost everyone assumes that the law requires physical vengeance for personal injuries. Even Christians assume that the Old Testament literally requires "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth", because they have never bothered to check what the law actually requires. An examination of Exodus 21:23-25 shows that its purpose is almost totally opposite to this popular view.

If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise (Ex 21:22-25).

The passage specifies financial compensation for the loss of the baby and not physical vengeance. The context is a situation where two men fighting have hit a pregnant woman and she gives premature birth. The mother is entitled to the financial compensation demanded by her husband and approved by the court. "An eye for an eye" is nothing more than a principle for deciding the value of the economic restitution a criminal should make to their victim of an assault.

Courts will decide compensation to be paid, by determining the economic value of an eye. It would try to assess the value of the income and enjoyment lost through the lack of an eye. This is a bit like the lump-sum compensation provided by some accident insurance schemes, where the loss of an arm was worth more than the loss of an eye. An "eye for an eye" means that a person who loses an eye will receive compensation for the loss of an eye. If the victim loses the use of their leg, the criminal will have to pay compensation for the loss of that limb.

Most English translations put the word "but" at the beginning of Exodus 21:23 to make it sound like a different principle from what precedes it, but there is no "but" in the original Hebrew. The verse refers to financial compensation. Using it to justify physical revenge is only possible if Moses' words are taken out of context.


Jesus also dealt with this issue in the Sermon on the Mount. In his time, the "eye for an eye" principle was being used as an excuse for physical revenge. Jesus made a twofold response. First, he reminded the people that the common understanding was different from what God had said. The popular meaning was a distortion of God's words to Moses (Matt 5:38). Secondly, Jesus raised the standard required for his disciples. He reminded them that the common saying that you should "love your neighbour and hate your enemy" was also twisting God's standards (Matt 5:43, Lev 19:18). We must bless those who harm us.

"An eye for an eye" is not a rule for personal behaviour, but a principle to be applied in a court of law. If someone gives me a black eye, I should not immediately hit him back, but should "turn the other cheek". However, if a person is assaulted and loses their eye, they are entitled to compensation for that loss. The court should use the principle of an "eye for an eye" to determine the amount of economic compensation that the violent person should pay to the person that injured them. A Christian might choose not to take the compensation, but sometimes they might need it to live on.


The worst crime is murder. The Laws for Society specifies "life for life" as the penalty for it (Ex 21:23) but we must be careful about assuming that we know what it means. "Life for life" is God's judgment on murder. Humans were created in the image of God, so killing a person is like striking at the image of God. Human life is so valuable that the person who deliberately destroys a human life deserves death.

A murderer deserves to die, but that does not settle the matter. God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness (Psalm 86:15) so his justice is always merciful. He showed how to be merciful towards those who deserve to die in the Garden of Eden. God had warned Adam that he would die if he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will die death (Gen 2:17).

The word die is doubled in the Hebrew, as "die death". However, God did not put Adam and Eve to death when they ate the fruit. That is what they deserved, but he is merciful, so he excluded them from the garden instead. Adam lived on for hundreds of years, but he was shut out from the presence of God.

God implemented his penalty of "die death" as "exclusion". In a sense, Adam and Eve were dead. Their relationship with God had died. They lost their place of safety and were thrust into a dangerous world dominated by the spiritual powers of evil.

The same doubling of the word death (die death) is used in Exodus 21:12 to describe the penalty for murder.

Anyone who fatally strikes a person shall die death.

Excellent judges should not apply this expression more literally than God does. If he implemented Adam and Eve's penalty as exclusion, the same penalty should apply for murder.

Exodus 21:12 is a statement of about what murder deserves, not a penalty that judges should implement. A murderer deserves death, but they should not be killed, as that would be doing evil to achieve good. Instead, the murderer should be excluded from their community. Their relationship with the community that had sustained them would be dead. They would be cut off from the people they trusted for protection and exposed to spiritual attack.

A person found guilty of murder will be excluded from the community. They will be allowed to escape, provided they agree not to return. Most will have fled immediately after committing their crime.

More on Exclusion at Restitution and Exclusion

Two Parties

An injustice has two parties: the victim and the perpetrator.

When dealing with injustice, the church too often assumes that it has to go after the perpetrator and require them to make restitution to the victim. That often does not work, because perpetrators are full of excuses and not yet convicted by the Holy Spirit.

The church should remember that it can provide justice for victims of injustice, even if the perpetrators are unwilling. When followers of Jesus recognise that a person has experienced an injustice, they can make restitution to them by giving income and resources to the victim to compensate them for their loss. God’s people can provide restitution to victims of injustice by blessing them through giving and sharing of their resources (and from the unrighteous wealth).

In many situations, the best remedy for injustice is giving and sharing, because it works for the victim, even if the perpetrator of the injustice refuses to buy in to the process.

That leaves the perpetrator owing a debt to God, which is not ideal for them.

This material is developed further in a book called Government of God.

Return to Judges.