The search for a “perfect moral system” to live one’s life by is a question that has baffled philosophers since the beginning of time, and the question of how to create a set of laws to bind a just society often follows.
Throughout history religious texts have acted as moral codes and stand-in legal systems, the Bible is no exception. Its stories and messages have been used as a set of laws essentially since its inception. The bible strives to achieve a perfect morality by aiming to please its God. The American legal system however strives for perfect morality through replicability and the granting of rights. By adhering to precedent and existing within a multifaceted governmental body it ensures that no individual’s agenda can differentially shape judgments and outcomes. The same case tried twice in front of different judges and with different juries should not yield different results. These two moral codes both aim for justice but approach it in two different ways, so in what ways do their outcomes differ and how are they similar?
The poem Daniel offers a series of biblical trials that while unorthodox in a myriad of ways represent stories of applied justice through a biblical lens and raises a lot of important questions and concepts. All of these trials, however, share God as a driving force for justice, he is the tribunal before which each issue is examined, he is the one who assigns punishment.
The first trial found in Daniel is that of the sinful Israelites who appear to spend their entire existences under examination before god. Their actions are referenced as “affliction[s] to God!” while also being understood as the abandonment of the “power of the Law” this clear reference to God as a single being legal system is indicative of a greater trend that continues through the rest of the trials of Daniel. Also worth noting is that the most significant description of the crime of the Israelites is that they failed to love God and “chose the craft of the devil”. The use of an otherwise unrelated third party to imprison and inflict extrajudicial “cruel slaughter” is also indicative of the theocentric perception of justice in Daniel.
In many ways the modern American legal system is focused on the granting of rights and the accountability of all tribunals to external, documented, replicable codes specifically to avoid this scenario. It grants the freedom to practice religion as a right so that the failure to adhere to the expectations of one all powerful being does not constitute a punishable crime. It also uses the eighth amendment to limit punishment, ensure that the connection in the defendant’s mind between the crime and it’s punishment is made extremely clear, and ensure that punishment not be “cruel”. The differences between the two outcomes can be traced back to the driving principles of each system; the will of God as a driving principle yields unpredictably cruel punishments for loosely defined crimes while replicability and rights yield predictable and limited punishments for clearly stated crimes.
The next trial of Daniel is that of the three youths by fire, this trial is more complicated as it repurposes a punishment from a previous judgment as a retrial of the youths and a trial of the servants who stroked the fire as well as those around. It fits less cleanly into a one trial, one judgment, one punishment model but still carries a number of worthwhile teachings. The protection of the youths in some sense could be viewed as an enforcement of the right to fair trial and just uncruel punishment were it not so completely conditional upon their obedience of God. The punishment and also trial is carried out by fire that, while inherently a deeply entropic force, is also behaving under the influence of a being with their own agenda, rendering it doubly unpredictable. This trial also inadvertently presents the question of vicarious liability, the servants are gruesomely punished for actions they performed under orders from a superior. They are cruelly punished here and appear to bear the full brunt of this punishment. American law recognizes a number of forms of vicarious liability employers are liable for harm done by employees within the scope of their employees, accomplices who encourage or provide materials to commit crimes are treated the same way they would if they had committed the crime themselves and duress functions as a defense for many crimes committed under threat.
This trend towards conditional protection and trial and punishment by increasingly entropic means is characteristic of this theocentric legal system. The unpredictable, case by case adjudication relies on the supernatural knowledge and control of a benevolent deity in a way that would make it difficult to apply in the absence of an active God. It relies wholly upon the perfect benevolence and constant intervention of the deity to generate just outcomes.
The ordeal of the dreams and the writing on the wall in some ways serves as a trial of the people by themselves with God as the prosecution and the people of Babylon as the defendants, the judge and the jury. A number of questions arise naturally that relate to the competency of witnesses and the admissibility of evidence. In a modern American legal system Nebuchadnezzar’s inability to express in words his understanding of the evidence or events would legally render him an incompetent witness and in the story of Daniel this inability results in a failure to communicate in any way that renders his witnessing useful. Daniel is then provided with the information and left to interpret the contents of the dream though he himself is not exactly on trial here and doesn’t exactly serve as a firsthand witness he does play the part of the expert witness in this trial. He uses reliable methods beyond the ken of the average layman to explain and interpret evidence that has been presented.
This in turn reveals an interesting facet of the biblical trial process, in the event that humans are the tribunal before which a case is evaluated the role of human witnesses becomes exponentially more important. In trials before God supernatural knowledge and understanding replace a complex legal process based on evidence proof and reason. This brings the ideas full circle, how does the use of a theocentric justice system differ from one based on replicability and rights. One could argue that the difference lies in the acknowledgment of human imperfection. A theocentric justice system can afford to adjudicate based on a “black box” of justice and reevaluate for every case so long as the tribunal deity is trusted to be a moral and just being and is trusted to intervene wherever necessary. A justice system imposed by humans however is limited by the understanding that no one human will ever be perfectly just by the standards of a society. This persistent human flaw thus must be circumvented by distributing judicial power thinly enough that no one person’s morality can differentially shape the outcome of a case. Unconditional rights are granted to all (ideally) so that individuals are protected from flaws in the justice system. Accountability of tribunals to precedent, codes and society is used in place of supernatural understanding of morality. The justice decided by one is replaced by a justice decided by many.