It is a frequent complaint in polite society that the Torah's laws are harsh and archaic, perhaps appropriate for the barely civilized people of 3500 years ago, but certainly not for today. If you speak of Torah in secular company you'll quickly get some variant of the dismissive question, "So you want to stone gays, cut off hands for theft and pluck people's eyes out?"
Leaving aside the confusion between Torah and Islamic law and ignoring the fact that a 'barely civilized people' wrote books of literature, poetry and wisdom that are the source of life and peace for billions today, just what is going on with the criminal punishment standards as given in the Torah?
The laws of the cities of refuge, besides being a rich source of Messianic symbolism, give us a perfect vehicle to explore the topic. Numbers 35 has it all, murder, the avenger of blood, capital punishment, banishment and redemption. Among those churches today that even touch on the subject, this section of Scripture is sometimes presented as Moses' way of preventing blood feuds and vendettas among a hot-blooded tribal people.
On one level, that analysis is sound, a cooling off period after a violent death gives the community time to determine whether the death is murder or a tragic accident and to judge the intent of the killer. On another level, the Scripture's insistence that some deaths are murder and that the avenger of blood must execute the murderer says something far deeper. It says that God regards murder as being so wrong that only the death of the murderer will make things right (Numbers 35:33), that is in God's economy, things must balance. (This concept of balance or measure--for--measure is central to understanding the Scriptures. Nothing that God does is arbitrary or capricious.)
This concept of balance also communicates a message to society about values. It states that a society under Torah values life; that human life is so valuable that its destruction can only be redressed by the forfeiture of the murder's life. In the case of manslaughter (what we would call negligent homicide), the killer does not die, but he must leave his home and livelihood and live in a city of refuge for an indefinite period of time.
As a practical matter, stonings were rare in Israel, but the clear value statements in the Torah were vital to holding the society together. There was a clear statement that murder, adultery, sodomy, sorcery, etc. were repulsive and not to be condoned. Were there murderers, adulterers, sodomites and witches in Israel? Of course. Were they all stoned? No.
So what's the point? The point is that children were taught that such things are vile and those who practice them were forced to the fringes of society. Compare this with what we have today in our 'advanced' society. Adultery will get you 15 minutes on any daytime TV show, murder is excused and thus is common and sodomites sue in court to be allowed to recruit among our youth organizations. All of this and more because we who claim to worship the god of the Bible have been intimidated into silence about His values.
I ask you, which society is primitive?
The ideas presented here are a loose adaptation of Kol Yaakov, Capital Punishment and Curbing Crime on aish.com.