The Bible on Capital Punishment

Leviticus 20 (entire chapter), The death penalty. In this chapter, YHVH lists the penalty for the sins that he considers to be the most abominable, grievous and ruinous to a society. He then prescribes the punishment for these sins—usually the death penalty.

As you read through this chapter, consider the penalties for these sins in our society. That’s right…there are none (with the exception of incest with one’s minor children)! Additionally, not only are most of these sins tolerated (bestiality, incest, adultery, sex during menstruation), but many of these abominable practices promoted and even celebrated (e.g. homosexuality, abortion, witchcraft, necromancy).

In our society, there is punishment for animal neglect, failing to pay taxes, or violating a building code,while there is no penalty for the sins of abortion, witchcraft, homosexuality, etc. What’s wrong here?

Notice that the punishments that YHVH prescribes for these crimes would, in most cases, in our society be considered uncivil, barbaric, or cruel and unusual (e.g. banishment, stoning, burning by fire).

The question must be asked, if we accept the Bible as the revealed truth of Elohim, then who knows best what punishment fits a crime—man or the Creator?

Interestingly, the U.S. has the highest criminal incarceration rate of any nation in the world (743 adults per 100,000 people). By year end 2010, the U.S. had 2,266,800 people incarcerated in its prisons and jails ( Yet ancient Israel had no prison system whatsoever. Criminals were either banished from society, were publicly punished, killed, or had to pay the victim restitution for their crimes.

From this brief discussion, several realization should come to light:

What YHVH considers to be sin, man often either tolerates or celebrates.

  • Men’s order of priorities when it comes to the level of sin and the penalties that meet those crimes is different from that of YHVH.
  • Men’s justice systems deal with criminals very differently than does YHVH’s Torah.
  • What divine judgments must be meted out on a society that tolerates or revels in the sins that YHVH calls abominable, unclean, abhorrent and perverse?

The following scripture passage comes to my mind:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith YHVH. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:8–9)

Leviticus 20:1, On capital crimes. This chapter contains a number of Torah laws that when violated carry capital punishment. In 1 Corinthians 6:9–11, several of the same crimes are mentioned (i.e. adultery, fornication, homosexuality, idolatry), but the violators were forgiven and received salvation (verse 11). Why were these sins punishable by death in ancient Israel, but not later on? The Leviticus 20 directives apply to Israelites or those from foreign nations who had attached themselves to Israel (verse 2) who are held to a higher accountability and thus should know better not to commit these sins in the first place. On the other hand, the believers in Corinth had practiced these sin before they came to a knowledge of the truth, and were thus held to a lower level of accountability because of their ignorance.

What about the Corinthian believer who that was sleeping with step mother (1 Cor 5:1–5)? In Leviticus, in the nation of Israel, this sin would have been punishable by death. In the first century, the Jews didn’t have their own nation, but were under Roman law and were thus not able to execute people for capital crimes. The next best thing to do apart from capital punishment was to put the sinning man out of the congregation, which is what Paul did, which was tantamount to spiritual death. These are the exact discipline protocols Yeshua advised be carried out within the body of believers (Matt 18:15–20). Such an individual was to be excommunicated and treated as a heathen and sinner (verse 17). And how are heathens and sinners to be treated? They are to be evangelized and brought to repentance, which is what happened to the sinner in Corinth (2 Cor 2:5–8).

Now David committed adultery and murder in his affair with Bathsheba, but was not sentenced to death. Why? Why was the Torah not carried out fully in David’s case? Surely he knew that he was sinning beforehand. For one thing, he repented bitterly (see Ps 51) and was forgiven. He never again committed these sins. In his case, mercy of Elohim rejoiced over or trumped his judgment (Jas 2:13 cp. Ps 85:10; Jer 9:24; Ezek 33:11; Mic 7:18; Exod 34:6–7).

Though Leviticus 20 records capital punishment for a variety of crimes, in Israel’s long history, the Jewish sages inform us that very few executions ever occurred for violating these laws. Mercy and grace seemed to be more the rule than the exception, and this modus operandi carried over into the era of the New Covenant as well.


3 thoughts on “The Bible on Capital Punishment

  1. Dear Natan

    it is just wonderful to know death can mean life when we repent & Abba’s mercy is so deep that such great misdeeds against the Word that Brings Life, can truly be overcome with the blood of the Lamb.

    I am so encouraged by this to love abundantly with mercy when my eyes see such an example from on High of the depths love will go to in recovering not only the body of the sinner but giving us the embrace of Life in the Spirit so we can go on again in Life to aim to sin no more even after our failure. Praise our King!!

    Truly who can snatch us out of His Hand?….we must consciously jump and then not ask to be restored in humility when we know better.

    Only the proud could ignore humanities’ state of separation from the offer of salvation so as to never trust His Hand and so inherit the kingdom of the deprived mind….
    Our God blesses the humble.

    Our King is the True Winner of Hearts through this wondrous love!!
    Praise His Glory!
    Shalom Shalom
    Shavua Tov

  2. Shalom Again

    Natan I wondered if you have the tractate listings about the infrequent use of the death penalty in Judaism. I have heard of it and used that to show the aim is for a last boundary marker for repentance to hopefully come forth & mercy to be given to a right hearted individual who deeply regrets and turns back to right living so that the Glory for El is gathered in death being turned to Life for the Praises of Our Abba.

    Just in thinking of the ‘son who is a worthless drunkard’. Not just a big drinker but a lazy non contributor as well.

    I come across folk who hate God for being harsh on children. People don’t think deeply.

    I use the argument that such a law would very infrequently if at all be enforced. It was not for minor children either.
    It was for an adult son who would not turn away from such a lifestyle and must have hurt his parents so much in this that they both would be willing to testify against him as even parental mercy had comes to its end for his life but perhaps they would perceive it as a mercy killing instead of their son dying of the result of alcoholism too. ( I have an alcoholic brother of who has drunk for over 40 years and it is SO PAINFUL for all our family. We wonder who is going to find him dead………….

    It would have been that adult child’s own parent’s hands to cast the first stones too…..after a unanimous decision by the leaders………all stones for death and no mercy shown in the court for it to occur as well. Just imagine a couple in their 40’s or 70’s doing this. How difficult, just as it is for us to wait for my brother to die, wasted and lost in Satan’s hands by choice refusing the gospel.

    I had come across somewhere, a link that stated (if I remember correctly) there were only 7 judicially lawful correctly authorised executions in the 300 year period prior to Yeshua recorded. Of course there may have been some summary executions that were done unlawfully but it seems that matters of such enormity were treated with great reverence before the Creator of Life.

    Another thing that comes to mind is the apocrypha writing where the high standing men who tried to seduce/rape Suzannah accused her of adulterous behaviour in the courtyard to cover their lusting for her. Daniel shows God’s wisdom in interviewing the accusers independently to ascertain their collusion to corrupt the truth and they received the death penalty.
    Blessings to all.
    Love in Messiah our Saviour from daily death and eternal separation.

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