Monday, July 16, 2012

Leviticus and Extortion

Leviticus 6:1-7 “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘When a person sins and acts unfaithfully against the Lord, and deceives his companion in regard to a deposit or a security entrusted to him, or through robbery, or if he has extorted from his companion, or has found what was lost and lied about it and sworn falsely, so that he sins in regard to any one of the things a man may do; then it shall be, when he sins and becomes guilty, that he shall restore what he took by robbery or what he got by extortion, or the deposit which was entrusted to him or the lost thing which he found, or anything about which he swore falsely; he shall make restitution for it in full and add to it one-fifth more.  He shall give it to the one to whom it belongs on the day he presents his guilt offering.   Then he shall  bring to the priest his guilt offering to the Lord, a ram without defect from the flock according to your valuation, for a guilt offering, and the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord, and he will be forgiven for any one of the things which he may have done to incur guilt.’”

Some interesting thought came to me over this set of verses; the first was the explanation of how to obtain forgiveness for deliberate, planned sin. This is the sin of stealing from a business partner or extortion.

The Hebrew word transliterated is ‘osheq’ and is most often represented in the Bible as the English word “oppression.”  But in this passage the word used is “extortion.”

What is extortion?  My 1957 Webster’s Dictionary defines extort as “…to get (money, etc.) by violence, threats, misuse of authority…” and further the word extortion as “…sometimes applied to the exaction of too high a price.”

Now when you understand a little of the ancient Near East laws, this would fall under the heading of theft, and thieves were executed or mutilated (hands cut off), or if you were from the privileged class (not a peasant) you did have to pay restitution many times the cost of the stolen item.  But if you were rich enough, what real punishment could that be?

The passage in Leviticus seems to be a teaching moment for the nation of Israel if you consider their background.  This to me sounds like behavior modification, if you can highlight the idea of misuse of authority.

In Egypt, these former slaves (the children of Israel) would have been surrounded by the privileged they served getting away with murder, literally!   Officials who misused power would have been normal for them to see.  But God was teaching them a better way.

The person guilty of theft by misuse of power, and misuse of authority was found out and disciplined.  He had to return the money overcharged, or bullied from ( this is far more serious than “Give me your milk money or I’ll beat you up!”) and a penalty of cash (one-fifth over value added on) and he publicly had to give an offering to the priest for his guilt as an atonement, then “…he will be forgiven for any one of the things which he may have done to incur guilt.” (v. 7)

So how would we apply this to today?  Is there justice for all regardless of the size of your bank account? And as Christians, what is our responsibility to be just, stand up for justice, and speak out against injustice and oppression (extortion) today? 

And if the guilty makes restitution, do we forgive them?

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