To Israel, God said:
“… I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed” (Deuteronomy 30:19, ASV).
“Choose life”. Why? Because human life matters to God.
There are several principles that come into play when we read the covenant of God with Israel, and sometimes we get lost in the details – or perhaps, more accurately, the lack of details in the covenant. Besides the ten commandments, we find another 613 laws in the covenant. Not all that many when you consider we have more than that in our tax code alone. Sometimes the details of the law seem to be in opposition to one another, or don’t make sense to our modern sensibilities. Sometimes the details of the law seem to violate God’s interest in life. But consider the principle God laid out for Israel …
“Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people; but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am Jehovah” (Leviticus 19:18).
When wronged, did the letter of the law have to be carried out, regardless of the will of the victim? Or, could the victim (or his or her family) decide they would not press their rights and refuse to carry a grudge? The principle of not taking vengeance may override the sentence to be carried out in that particular case. Can the victim choose mercy over justice?
Exodus 21:23–25 teaches: “But if any harm follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” But does that leave no room for loving “thy neighbor as thyself”? Could the victim not say, “This is my neighbor whom I love as a brother; his apology is enough.”?
Consider: Deuteronomy 22:22 and Leviticus 20:10 call for adulterers to be stoned to death. Yet divorce was permitted on the grounds of adultery (consider Matthew 19:3-9 with Deuteronomy 24:1-4). Keep in mind that Joseph was intending to put Mary away quietly when she came up pregnant with Jesus (Matthew 1:18–19). The death penalty was not practiced in every case of adultery, or there could be no divorce on account of it. The victim could choose not to invoke the death penalty. [Note: there is no record of a stoning for adultery recorded in the Bible.]
“Choose Life,” says God to Israel and enter into covenant with him. The covenant called for the death penalty in some cases, because life is precious and the victim is beloved of God. But, the victim (or their family) did not have to insist on the penalty, and could practice God-like loving kindness and choose not to press their rights. Mercy could be granted on the principles of the value of life, and loving thy neighbor as thy self.
Under the new covenant of Christ we see this as well. In 1 Corinthian 8 we are taught not to press our rights and/or liberties to the detriment of a brother. We are not to sacrifice the faith of another on the altar of our liberties. Sometimes choosing life with God, and with our neighbor whom we are to love as we love our own selves, calls to us to not press our rights. Principled living within the covenant may call us to set our rights aside for the sake of another.