Michael Lefebvre on the Old Testament’s Word to Police: You Answer to God’s Higher Court

Michael LeFebvre is pastor of Christ Church Reformed Presbyterian (Indianapolis) and a fellow with the Center for Pastor Theologians. He is the author of The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context.

Years ago, my family lived in a small house outside of Glasgow, Scotland. I was completing postgraduate work, so most of my time was spent with my family or my books. But as occasion would allow, I also enjoyed hiking with friends in the nearby hills.

On one such outing, two neighbors took me to the Campsie Fells. One of my guides was a university professor; the other was a retired police officer. During our excursion, the retired officer reminisced on his years with the Scottish police force. One question that he posed has stuck with me.

“Why do American police all carry guns?” he asked. After my attempted answer, he offered his own perspective: “We would never consider arming ourselves when I was a police officer. To do so would undermine our role and would jeopardize the relationship we wanted to build with the public.”

I am not suggesting that American police should or should not carry sidearms. But in a moment when cries to reform (or abolish or “defund”) the police have reached a historic volume, this outsider’s perspective reminds us that the American policing paradigm is not the only possible model. Nor is our current system sacrosanct.

Christians should not hastily dismiss calls for change—even calls to “defund” and redesign policing from scratch. Our faith teaches that the kingdoms of this world are broken. We should not be surprised, therefore, if American policing needs transformation. But if Christians intend to contribute to this debate, they should first revisit the Bible’s lessons on policing—beginning in the Old Testament Law. (Read Esau McCaulley’s companion essay about New Testament perspectives on policing, also in CT’s September issue.)

God gave Israel his laws to teach them how to flourish as a community of love (Mark 12:28–34). Biblical laws are framed in the terms of an ancient society. They are not composed for direct implementation in this New Testament age. But we can still learn from their wisdom. That includes their wisdom on policing.

Strictly speaking, there was no police force in biblical Israel; but there were systems for community policing. Two institutions are particularly noteworthy. First, emergencies were handled with the hue and cry. Second, non-emergency crises were handled by a kinsman redeemer.

The Hue and Cry

The phrase hue and cry refers to a practice observed in many ancient societies, including Israel. Under this custom, a witness or victim of crime was expected to cry out, and all within earshot were obligated to assist. The entire community was a “police force reserve,” activated by the alarm.

One example is found in Deuteronomy’s law concerning rape (Deut. 22:23–27). Under this law, a victim was expected, if at all possible, to raise an alarm. Those who heard would rush to help. Without any professional police to call upon, the community itself enforced the law. The passage also addresses an acknowledged weakness of this custom: A victim might be accosted where no one could hear the cry. Despite this gap (the solution to which will be noted later), the hue and cry was Israel’s method for confronting crime as it was happening.

This practice might seem quaint and unsophisticated by modern standards. But it is also refreshingly authentic. The Law’s use of the hue and cry teaches us that public security is the duty of all members of the community. We might hire professionals to police for us. (And with the heightened dangers of modern weapons and technology, having trained police at some level seems very desirable!) But fundamentally, the responsibility to keep the peace lies with the whole community.

In fact, the professionalization of policing is a relatively recent innovation. The hue and cry remained the norm in most societies into Medieval years and until the modern age. London’s Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 is generally regarded as the birth of the modern police force.

In many respects, professionalized policing has been vital to the growth of cities since the Industrial Revolution. But policing systems have changed many times in different societies. We ought to stand ready to critique, overhaul, or even replace our own system as needed. The Old Testament hue and cry reminds us that we are all our “brother’s keeper[s]” (Gen. 4:9).

The Kinsman Redeemer

The hue and cry provided help the moment a crime took place. But another institution, the kinsman redeemer, provided help after the fact.

Every adult male in Israel might fulfill the role of a kinsman redeemer at one time or another. A kinsman redeemer was the nearest male relative to any person who needed help. When petitioned, this kinsman would investigate his relative’s trouble and take steps to restore peace on the sufferer’s behalf.

The Law teaches this office through the example of crimes of bloodshed. But the kinsman redeemer took interest in other matters, like theft, as well (Num. 5:8). In the example of bloodshed, the nearest kin of the deceased was assigned the role. As the kinsman redeemer (or “avenger of blood,” as Numbers 35:19 puts it), it was his duty to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death. If he identified a killer, he was further empowered to arrest and execute the guilty person. But he could only do so when there was sufficient evidence, especially in the form of witnesses (Num. 35:16–30). When guilt was in question, a trial was required before a jury of local residents (v. 24). If they handed down a guilty verdict, the murderer was turned over to the redeemer for execution (Deut. 19:12).

Through these processes, the kinsman redeemer served as the investigator, the arresting officer, the prosecutor at trial, and potentially the executioner. In fact, his role also encompassed resolving matters of economic distress, such as indebtedness (Lev. 25:25). The kinsman redeemer’s role, then, was much broader than what constitutes policing today.

That God’s Law gives this office the title of “redeemer” is no coincidence, since God calls himself Israel’s Redeemer (Ps. 78:35). By orchestrating the Exodus, he redeemed Israel from its slavery, poverty, and oppression, as well as from the diseases of Egypt (Deut. 7:15) and the sins and idols of that land. Scripture teaches that God redeems his people from all their troubles (Ps. 103:1–5), and the Exodus was the quintessential example of this redemption.

When God gave the title “redeemer” to Israel’s kinsmen, he charged them with delivering their relatives from injustice and oppression on a smaller scale. God desires this work of civic redemption to reflect his own divine redemption (Lev. 25:23–24, 47–55).

Today, we might devise different methods to redeem the impoverished and the victims of injustice. But the Law teaches that all such work is ultimately God’s work. Justice must be pursued in harmony with heaven’s redemptive purposes.

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Source: Christianity Today