Let's say you wake up tomorrow morning and discover that some time in the night all of your valuables have been stolen. You call the police and fill out a report. Two days later, the cops catch the thief and are able to return some but not all of your things. At this point, what do you expect should happen to the thief? In most states, he will go to jail or prison, and the sentence length is based on what the value of the property stolen happened to be and whether his theft can be counted as a misdemeanor or a felony. But is this what should happen? In America, we witness so many cases where the punishment does not fit the crime that the grand majority of us don't even know that there might be a problem. We see it on the news when drug lords are put away for life. We see it in television shows like 24 when Jack Bauer does inhumane things in pursuit of the next lead - we even applaud it! We especially see it in the way that our laws have no punishments for evil acts like aborting unborn children, participating in homosexual acts, practicing witchcraft, or bowing down to false gods.
God's Law, as revealed in His Word, contains appropriate and fitting punishments for transgressions of that Law. The thief is not incarcerated; he is merely forced to either return what was stolen and/or pay back two to five times the value of what he took, depending on the circumstance (Exodus 22:1-4). That's a punishment that fits the crime. The victim actually ends up in a better place than he was before his property was stolen - something that never happens in our criminal justice system - and the thief has to do some hard work to make right his wrong, but he does not have years stolen from his life in incarceration. Both sides are "happy" with this outcome.
On the other end of the spectrum, if someone has committed murder or adultery or practiced witchcraft, that person's life is forfeit immediately on the testimony of two or more witnesses (Exodus 21:12, Deuteronomy 22:22, and Exodus 22:18 respectively). There are no life sentences or paroles. The punishment fits the crime. In our society, some crimes are punished far too harshly, and some abominable crimes are not punished at all, or else they receive such measly consequences that it becomes a joke.
I found myself recently swept up in the cultural delusion concerning just punishment when I read Genesis 34. In the story, Jacob's daughter, Dinah, is raped by Shechem the son of Hamor the Hittite. Dinah's brothers are, of course, furious over this, and so two of them, Simeon and Levi, concoct a very Jack Bauer-like plan to have every male in the town circumcised. Then, on the third day, when all of the men are so sore that they can't even get up, these two brothers come through and put the whole city to the sword. I've seen enough TV that I actually applaud this kind of commando behavior.
Jacob was not very impressed with his sons' vengeance, however. At first, he rebukes Simeon and Levi for causing him to "stink to the inhabitants of the land" (Genesis 34:30). He is concerned that the rest of the people of the surrounding area might attack him. But at the end of Jacob's life, he hands out an even sterner criticism of the boys' actions during the "blessing" of his twelve sons. He says in Genesis 49:5-7:
Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. Let my soul come not into their council; O my glory, be not joined to their company. For in their anger they killed men, and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.
This is how we ought to think about what the boys did. Killing an entire town was not a just punishment for the actions of one man - it was mass murder! In fact, not even the rapist should have been put to the sword; even that punishment would not have fit the crime. Later, the Law would say, "If a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged to be married and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins" (Exodus 22:16-17). This is exactly what Shechem tried to do (Genesis 34:12).
Our understanding of what punishment a crime ought to deserve needs to come from a reading of God's Law, not our own feelings. This is just one more place in our culture where we have replaced the Word of God with the whim of man.