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PERJURY AMONG THE JEWS.
How far, in practice, the Jews considered the falseswearer amenable to human punishment, is a ques tion of much uncertainty. That the law of Moses provided no specific penalty for that exact offence, merely as a breach of oath and as a substantive crime, may, I think, be reasonably maintained. In one case, indeed, involving the happiness or misery of families, an oath of purgation is prescribed, with all the impressive details of its administration,—and a punishment is threatened to be miraculously and visibly inflicted on the offender, who should be hardened enough to defy Jehovah by perjury, as she had already by adultery broken his sacred law* But this provision (of which it is probable that the mass of expurgatory oaths which once overspread Christendom with impiety, were, in their origin, the corrupt and perverted imitation), was solitary: and, as far as it goes, instead of sanctioning the Jewish people in taking into their own hands the punishment of perjury, should seem rather to intimate, that the Almighty would reserve to himself and his own immediate act the just visitation of the guilty soul. On the legendary traditions
* Numbers v., 11, to the end.
respecting this ordeal, and its awful consequences, with which Jewish writers abound (and among the rest Josephus himself), we need not dwell. It is a subject at once. which requires much delicacy in its discussion; and of which any further examination into the details would be superfluous here.
I am not aware that in the Mosaic code any specific punishment to be inflicted by the hand of man is assigned to perjury, as such and in itself, independently of other circumstances. The perjured soul exposed itself to the full vengeance of heaven, and except in those most absurd and wicked distinctions, by which in this, as in other parts of the divine law, the Jews would make the word of God of none effect by their traditions," the fear of the penalty of perjury at the hand of heaven seems to have taken fast hold upon their minds. But when I venture to say, that no punishment appears to have been awarded against perjury, as such, and as in itself a substantive crime I am aware of the exemplary penalty assigned to false accusation. The law is written in Deuteronomy xix. 19: “ If a false witness rise up against any man, to testify against him that WHICH IS WRONG, then both the men between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the Lord, before the priests, and the judges which shall be in those days; and the judges shall make diligent inquisition, and behold if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against
his brother, then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother.” Now we need not here stay, to examine whether in this passage the expression that which is wrong, implies the falsehood of the testimony of the accuser, or the nature of the offence imputed to the defendant. Though, perhaps, the most correct interpretation is, that those words actually imply " the guilt of apostasy,” as the crime with which the innocent defendant is charged. The word in the Hebrew, Tod, means, a falling away, or a turning aside, the very same word which is used a few chapters only before, where there can be no doubt of its meaning. (Deut. xiii. 5.) “ And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he hath spoken to TURN YOU AWAY from the Lord your God.” But be this as it may, I · think it is quite clear that not the guilt of perjury, but the malicious offence of false accusation is here provided against. Had it been perjury, it would have required the penalty, in the case of false-witness in behalf of another, or in the case of property in dispute, to be inflicted just as certainly as in the case here specified. But that is not so. A similar remark will apply to some enactments in the ancient Roman code.
“ The Mosaic Law,” (1 quote the words of a celebrated writer,) “ prohibits perjury most peremptorily, as a heinous sin against God, but still leaves to God himself the punishment of the offence, without ordaining any punishment to be inflicted by the temporal magistrate.
« This view of God being the sole, but the infallible avenger of false-swearing, is an awful view of perjury, but it is a philosophically just one; and in this view did the Israelites actually regard it—a sin which stained the soul, but no crime for which they were responsible to their fellow-creatures *."
While contemplating the state of things when a whole people regarded with abhorrence false-swearing, as a sin which stains the soul, but saw in it no crime for which they were responsible to their fellow-creatures, can we avoid contrasting it with the frightful state of things among us now ? A living witness (a gentleman of high legal station and character whose duties give him ample room for induction,) has lately assured me that experience, has compelled him t to infer, that in the large majority of cases, the fear of the temporal conse
* I had written the above opinion, before the dissertation of Michaëlis fell into my hands. It gives me great satisfaction to find my views in this point confirmed by such high authority, though I am compelled, at the same time, to acknowledge the surprise with which I found him so inaccurate in some of his facts, and so imprudent in some of his opinions. Michaëlis, Art. 256.
of This opinion may probably be considered as too strong and sweeping. And certainly it must be confessed that the quences of perjury detected, is the only feeling which operates upon men, in their estimate of an oath. It is a painful and melancholy reflection. But let us not stop short at our regrets, without putting this question,--Has not the unprecedented frequency of oaths in our country, and the lamentable absence of religious solemnity in their administration, led to this sad result ?
very evasions by which some witnesses, as I have elsewhere observed, attempt to deceive their own consciences, if they can avoid kissing the book, with other similar kinds of subterfuge, show that even these infatuated persons, how. ever criminal in the eye of God, attach some sanctity to an oath, if accompanied with the solemnity which they thus endeavour to evade.