Even if Bowe Bergdahl is found guilty of desertion, it is unlikely he would be executed. But that has been the customary punishment for those who desert the military during war. Why such a tough punishment? Two reasons: In such dangerous and unpredictable conditions, without enforcing strict discipline, the disobedience of a few could threaten the survival of everyone else. Secondly, the stakes of failure are very high. In wartime, rules are strictly imposed and punishments for violating the rules are exceedingly tough.
Some people look at the strict rules and harsh penalties of the Old Testament and conclude that the Old Testament God is not the same as the God Who teaches forgiveness and love in the New Testament. Why, for example, does God require the death penalty for someone who curses his parents? Surely adultery is a serious offense and worthy of punishment – but death by stoning? How could these be the commands of the God of love, joy, peace, patience, etc.?
The answer lies in the dangerous conditions faced by the people to whom He gave those laws, and the extremely high stakes involved. What were the conditions?
Imagine a few hundred thousand people who had known only slavery for 400 years (as far back as the Mayflower!), people who had no need to govern themselves and had a resentment toward those who did. Take this people, release them suddenly from slavery, put them out into a desert wilderness without adequate food and water, and try to lead them toward a new homeland, passing through the territory of hostile tribes. Can you see the need for some pretty strict rules? Now, consider that this whole enterprise was God’s first step toward rescuing the whole world from destruction! (See Sourdough Theology) The stakes could not have been higher. Without severe penalties imposed, the laws would have been ignored. Rebellion would have been widespread.
But when you read through those tough laws, you can clearly see God’s deep desire to keep His people safe, well nourished, healthy and secure. To see this, zoom through the whole book of Leviticus at about the speed of a crop duster, just looking for broad sweeping themes. You will see laws pertaining to their health and safety and laws designed to keep order and laws to prevent disputes from getting out of hand. Many of the laws show this ignorant people how to relate to a God they did not know, how to worship Him and how to take care of the sins that would otherwise keep them separated. Are the laws tough? Yes they are. Are the punishments severe? Yes, that too. But the goal of them all is for God to get them safely settled in the Promised Land, and to bless them. He said:
“If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands,I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit.Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land.“ ‘I will grant peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid. I will remove savage beasts from the land, and the sword will not pass through your country.You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you.Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you.“ ‘I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you.You will still be eating last year’s harvest when you will have to move it out to make room for the new.I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you.I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.“ (Leviticus 26:3-12)