Unlike in most ancient societies, the ancient Israelites believed in only one God who oversaw all of humanity’s actions, whether for good or for evil. For the first time in history, Israel’s kings didn’t see themselves as above the law as kings of other ancient societies did, but rather followers of the law just like everyone else. God’s law was transcribed onto the Old Testament by the prophet Moses. The first laws of Israel were created during the reign of King Saul in 1035 B.C., with professional judges and court officials subsequently appointed to manage the justice system.

Diagram showing the evolution of Israelite's thinking as pertaining to their criminal code of conduct
Diagram showing the evolution of Israelite’s thinking as pertaining to their criminal code of conduct

                                          EVOLUTION OF ISRAEL’S JUSTICE SYSTEM 

There seems to be an evolution in how the ancient Israelite justice system approached different cases. In the early years, it appears that if the accused was unsuccessful in committing a crime, he intended he would be acquitted of all charges. The reason being he didn’t accomplish what he set out to do. Deuteronomy 24:7 states: “When a man is found to have kidnapped a fellow country-man, an Israelite, and to have treated him harshly and sold him, the kidnapper shall die.”

 Rape in the early years was also not considered a serious crime as it would be later on. Deuteronomy 22 discloses if a rapist who committed rape on a virgin with no future suitor he would’ve had to financially compensate with 50 pieces of silver given to the woman’s father. He was also strictly mandated by law to marry her, never having the option of divorcing her for the remainder of his days. The 50 pieces of silver would have had to be paid in any case by the potential groom to his future in-laws. Thus, if an Israeli girl did not have a partner at the time of her rape her rapist would automatically become her suitor and thereby be required to pay the dowry. In contrast, a rapist who rapes a married woman would not have to marry her, but he would still be punished with a fine paid directly to his victim’s family. In the latter part of Israel’s history corresponding with the 1st century A.D., both rapists would not get off so easily, rather they would automatically be eligible for the death penalty.

Other crimes, besides rape, that rose to the top of the list of most serious in the first millennium Israel were revolts against the Devine, premeditated murder, adultery, assault, and kidnapping. In this period we also see a shift whereby those who attempted but were unsuccessful in committing a crime, such as kidnapping, were just as guilty as those who successfully carried out their crime. Exodus 21:16 illustrates this fact clearly: “whoever kidnaps a person and sells them or the victim is found in his possession, shall he be put to death.” In this case, if the accused kidnapped a person and was unsuccessful in selling that person into slavery, he would, nevertheless, be just as guilty of kidnapping for profit as a man who successfully sold his victim into slavery.  

Judge laying down the law (Derek Hough GIF)


In the earlier half of ancient Israelite society, based on the recordings of the Old Testament, scholars can surmise that villages most likely elected a set of elders to oversee justice within their communities. These village elders were not necessarily the biologically oldest people in the village, but rather those recognized as the wisest and most experienced in certain legal matters, and to whom the surrounding community would look to for advice. Later on, one court of appeals in Jerusalem would be added onto the existing system to help resolve the most difficult of cases. 

In the court of appeals, there were three judges, mainly Levitical priests, sitting in court. Several court officials acted as secretaries, scribes, or messengers who helped the judges out. Scribes documented court proceedings and outcomes, secretaries filed all the court-issued paperwork in one place, while messengers rendered the court services that it needed, like finding the location of the defendant and bringing him in. As in Babylonian society, the accused would have to be brought by his accusers for his crimes to be legitimized. However, the date the accused is brought in could not fall on either one of the Jewish holidays, especially the Sabbath, as the courts would not be open. Even in lengthy trials courts would not set an upcoming trial date that would fall on a particular holiday as the occasion was much too important to miss for the ancient Israelites.


As you’ll find in the article “The Old Testament’s Word to Police: You Answer to God’s Higher Court” published by Christianity Today it clearly states that there was no professional police agency appointed to enforce the laws of ancient Israel. However, people were encouraged to follow the law, even without police presence through other means. A common means was through festivals. Every 7 years a festival was held in the town centre where the laws of Israel were read aloud to the masses. Additionally, public officials were frequently sent out to all corners of the nation to instruct the people of the law.

Crime, itself, rarely happened. If it did, because people lived in small, compact village communities where everyone knew everybody else, if someone within that community decided to commit a criminal act he wouldn’t be able to keep his offence a secret for too long. Word would spread like wildfire within the community. And, if a fellow citizen wanted to convict the offender he could technically play the role of a policeman, prosecutor, and judge simultaneously during his off times and be a regular farmer or workman the rest of the week.