“He will bring forth justice for truth. He will not fail or be discouraged, till He has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands shall wait for His law” (Is. 42: 3-4).
In every heart there is initially a longing for justice, the recognition of God’s law. This forms the basis for conscience. Standards of morality may differ from one society to the next. Sensitivity of the conscience will differ from one individual to another. But from the start, we bear the handprint of our Maker.
This does not imply that we will never sin. To the contrary, conscience is intended to warn us against sin. It points even those entirely unacquainted with Jewish or Christian Scripture toward God.
The Code of Lipit-Ishtar has been dated to approximately 1863 BC. Translated from the Sumerian, it reads in part:
“If a man entered the orchard of [another] man and was seized there for stealing, he shall pay ten shekels of silver…
If a man’s wife has not borne him children but a harlot [from] the public square has borne him children, he shall provide grain, oil and clothing for that harlot; the children which the harlot has borne him shall be his heirs, and as long as his wife lives the harlot shall not live in the house with the wife…”
Almost 4000 years old, these precepts seem strangely familiar. This is not an aberration. Compare excerpts from the Code of Hammurabi, compiled about 100 years later:
“If a man accuse a man, and charge him with murder, but cannot convict him, the accuser shall be put to death…
If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye…
If he break a man’s bone, they shall break his bone…
If a man hire an ox and cause its death through neglect or abuse, he shall restore ox for ox to the owner of the ox…”
Modern sensibilities cause us to shrink from punishments this severe. But the harsh equity imposed for such offenses actually reduced the possibility of family feuds to the death over honor.
Allow another 400 years or so to pass, and we encounter depictions of Maat, the goddess of justice, in Egyptian tombs. The rogue pharaoh, Akhenaten (father of “King Tut”) is sometimes credited for monotheism, because he attempted to break the power of the Egyptian priesthood by focusing worship exclusively on the god Aten. However, monotheistic Israelites would already have been slaves in pluralistic Egypt for over 350 years[i] when Akhenaten assumed the throne c. 1353 BC.
Scroll forward in time to early criminal law by Drakon (c. 621 BC) for the city state of Athens:
“Even if a man not intentionally kills another, he is exiled…A proclamation is to be made against the killer in the agora by the victim’s relatives…It is allowed to kill or arrest killers if they are caught in the territory…starting a fight…[A free man] if he defending himself straightway kills someone forcibly and unjustly plundering or seizing him, the victim shall die without the killer paying a penalty.”
Murder was distinguished from involuntary homicide. Penalties were, however, harsh. For instance, debtors whose status was lower than that of their creditors could be forced into slavery.
These “draconian” measures were tempered by Drakon’s successor Solon, chosen as Chief Magistrate in 594 BC. A reformer, Solon put laws in place which enlarged the electorate. While he did not abolish debt or slavery, Solon did reduce oppression of the poor.
The renowned philosopher, Socrates, was condemned to death in 399 BC for impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates is quoted in Crito by his illustrious student, Plato, as having this to say about his trial and execution. For rhetorical purposes, Socrates speaks in the third person, as if relaying advice from the laws and government:
“ ‘Listen, then, Socrates, to us [the laws and government] who have brought you up. Think not of life and children first, and of justice afterwards, but of justice first, that you may be justified before the princes of the world below. For neither will you nor that belong to you be happier or holier or juster in this life, or happier in another, if you do as Crito bids [flee]. Now you depart in innocence, a sufferer and not a doer of evil; a victim, not of the laws, but of men. But if you go forth, returning evil for evil, and injury for injury, breaking the covenants and agreements which you have made with us [the laws and government], and wronging those whom you ought least of all to wrong, that is to say, yourself, your friends, your country, and us, we shall be angry with you while you live, and our brethren, the laws in the world below, will receive you as an enemy; for they will know that you have done your best to destroy us…’ ”
Socrates concludes, “Leave me then, Crito, to fulfill the will of God, and follow wither He leads.”
Paul declared “… [W]hen Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these…show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness…” (Rom. 2: 14-15). He added that “…God has dealt to each one a measure of faith” (Rom. 12: 3).
We will be held accountable by God to the degree that truth was revealed to us.
[i] The date for the Israelite Exodus from Egypt is disputed. Even the fact that the Exodus occurred has been disputed, although the event is referred to in extra-Biblical accounts. This calculation was made using the traditional date of 1313 BC accepted by Rabbinic Judaism.