If we want to follow the biblical law for capital punishment of murderers, the execution must be carried out by the victim’s next of kin.
The murderer shall be put to death . . . The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death (Numbers 35:16-19).
In the ancient world, to avenge a murdered relative was considered a sacred duty and honor. In Rome, young Octavian had the obligation to avenge his uncle Caesar’s death–he was Caesaris ultor. In Hebrew the word was goel. The goel had other roles as well, but that of avenging murder was considered an essential service.
The laws in the Torah brought due process io an ancient social reality. Previously the goel would take vengeance summarily; but the Mosaic regulations required a trial, and there could be no conviction without two or more witnesses. Further, capital punishment could be avoided if there was not proof of premeditation. But if premeditated murder was established, there was no substitute for execution at the hands of the goel.
The Torah provisions of due process stopped the cycle of bloody vengeance. They were a great advance over the practices of the ancient world. But I don’t think we want to copy the Torah provisions for capital punishment exactly in our world. Those provisions were given to Israel as part of her civil law while living in the promised land.
The laws were based on important principles and the principles have value for us. Life is sacred and there is no substitute for a human life except another life. Vengeance is dangerous and the impulse to vengeance must be brought under control through a fair legal process.
I have no bleeding heart for murderers. I pray for God’s grace, to help me resist my desire for vengeance, but compassion for vicious criminals does not come natural to me. I understand the impulse toward vengeance. But I cannot support capital punishment.
I wouldn’t really want to go back to the principle of direct vengeance by the next of kin. But I also realize that state sponsored execution is a totally different thing. Three simple reasons convince me to support life in prison without parole for murderers, rather than execution:
- Under the best of circumstances, our legal system makes mistakes. Recently in Kansas a man was exonerated nearly thirty years after being convicted of rape. He was awarded over 7 million dollars to compensate for the mistake. The money might be some consolation for the lost years, and the state has given him back the rest of his life; but there is no giving back a life wrongly taken.
- Under normal circumstances, the government is run by politicians and the legal system is run by politicians. Prosecuting attorneys are either elected or appointed by elected officials. Attorneys play to win, and if that means suppressing evidence or coercing confessions, that sometimes happen.
- Under the worst circumstances, politicians use the power of death to silence their enemies. I don’t know that it has ever happened here, but I know it is happening in Iran today. Why would we want to be associated with governments like that? Why would we want to give our government that kind of power?