A friend who taught a survey course on the Bible at a community college mentioned that the students were surprised at “how bloody” the Old Testament is. In addition to Israel’s frequent wars, the death penalty was apparently required for several crimes. Hostile critics of faith see this as incredibly barbaric, while enthusiasts for capital punishment see it as a divine mandate. Both fail to read the Bible historically. A historical reading would reveal several facts:

1) Capital punishment was widespread in the ancient world for a variety of crimes including religious offenses and insults to kings and governments. It was a bloody, cruel world. When all the facts are considered, the laws in the Old Testament represent a great restraint on death and cruelty. Death, for example, is never the penalty for property crimes or insulting a king; as it was in other nations. Bodily mutilations are common penalties in the laws of Hammurabi but (with one rare exception) are not prescribed in the Torah.

2) The rhetoric of the Middle East is considerably more uninhibited than that used by English speaking politicians. For example, when David heard of a man who murdered his neighbor’s pet lamb, he cried out, “The man deserves to die!” Then he adds the strangely anticlimactic “moreover, he shall repay fourfold.” David could not literally execute the man; the law only provided for a monetary fine–but he could express his outrage in angry rhetoric. Our national leaders might express outrage at an NFL football player arranging dogfights, but they wouldn’t say, “he deserves to die.” That kind of language is reserved for talk radio.

3) In many of the passages that say someone guilty of a sin, such as blasphemy, “shall surely die,” God is the presumed enforcer of the law. In other words, the commandment is a warning, “God will get you.” If blasphemers do not in fact drop dead, it is to be taken as a sign of God’s mercy, not a call for human intervention. Joe Sprinkle has shown that such commandments are a vivid way of teaching morality, appropriate to the ancient culture of the Bible. (see here)

4) In other cases, such as negligent homicide, a ransom was allowed in lieu of death.

5) In ancient Israel, capital punishment for murder was administered by the next of kin of the victim. The case was tried before a court. If the accused was found guilty, he was turned over to the “avenger of blood,” i.e., the next of kin who had the social obligation to kill the murderer.

6) The testimony of two eyewitnesses was required before any capital sentence was given.

7) In historic Judaism, the courts were extremely reluctant to order execution. The Talmud declares a Sanhedrin that hands down a verdict of death once in seventy years is a bloody court.

If we understand capital punishment in the Torah historically, two conclusions become clear. First, from a redemptive movement perspective, there is clearly a move away from automatic instantaneous retaliatory violence. Compared to neighboring civilizations, the number of cases in which capital punishment was applied was clearly restricted. Further, precautions were taken to assure that the penalty was not applied to an innocent person.

The second conclusion that becomes clear is that the law of capital punishment places a high value on human life. Because a human life is valuable, because human beings are created in the image of God, nothing can substitute in value for a human life. As a moral principle, “a life for a life” is still valid.

In applying capital punishment today, we still need to be guided by two facts.

First, Christ taught us to seek reconciliation rather than vengeance. He himself paid the debt that murderers and all sinners owed. He offered his life in exchange for the guilt of the world. The early Christians in the first three centuries were opposed to capital punishment.

Second, we do need to remember practical factors. Our legal system is imperfect, and the state cannot give back a life wrongly taken. The fact that several death-row inmates have been exonerated by DNA evidence should be a sober reminder. The fact that capital punishments places us in league with “Axis of Evil” nations like North Korea and Iran, should also be a sober warning.

Giving the state the power of life and death is giving it too much power.

Opinion polls show that American citizens deeply distrust the officials they have elected. Why would we grant these same politicians the power to take life?

7 Responses

  1. I think that we get a different picture of capital punishment when read what Noah was told by God. The point is made that when someone takes the life of another human being he/she has forfeited their own life because they damaged/killed someone who bore the image of God.

    We always want to blame the system for capital punishment. No one takes time to discuss the responsibility of the individual for the crime committed.

    More concern is expressed over Michael Vick killing dogs than most people show over someone who kills other people.

    Instead we want to protect the killers. In the Old Testament killers were to be punished not exhonerated.

    Another factor: Until we deal equally with the rich and famous as we do with the poor and lowly our system will be out of whack. A poor black person steals something and winds up in prison for years. A rich white movie star does much worse and gets 83 minutes punishment. Not exactly fair.

  2. Hey, Dr. Alterman! I finally got around to updating my blog. It’s been quite awhile. I wrote about Yeats and politics–what a combination! I don’t think my thoughts are as deep or connected as they could be, but I’ll blame that on a long day of work and summer rust. =P I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let me know what’s going on with the honor society! God bless!

  3. Tragically, not only death row inmates have been exonerated but so have many already executed by DNA evidence

  4. When I was a potential juror on a murder case, I was asked how I felt about the death penalty.
    I replied. ‘We are ALL under the penalty of death. You, the judge will die, as will the attorneys, the defendant, and all present in the courtroom. I know people who are so ill, and in pain, that they long for their suffering to be over.
    Yes, murderers kill and cause suffering… but I will never agree to kill a human being as punishment. Capital Punishment has never been an effective deterrent to murder.”

    I was not selected as a juror.

  5. Hey BerkelyScot,

    You’ve had some interesting experiences.

    The system is skewed, isn’t it, if they won’t accept as a juror someone who is opposed to capital punishment.

    In my recent travels in Europe, the people I met were interested in three things: What do we Americans do without universal healthcare? Are we really enough past racism that we could elect Barack Obama as president? And, how can you (Americans) still practice capital punishment.

  6. I actually think I wasn’t selected as a juror because I spoke too much!!!
    I went on and on and on…
    I somehow got my cat involved and his humane euthanasia, when at age 18, he was suffering from kidney failure…
    I was about to start on Portia’s ‘The Quality of Mercy is not strained…” And then I was told I was excused!

  7. I had an interesting experience with Jury duty once–but it’s late and it will take a while to tell the stories. Maybe in the next couple of weeks I will write about it.

    Thanks again for sharing an experience.

    We’ve never had a pet who lived long enough to need euthanasia. We do have a dog now who is getting very old, and we lost his companion a year ago to a sad accident. But that’s another story too.

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