On Crime and Punishment—Biblical Style

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 sins 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 was sleeping with his stepmother (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. This 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.


The Death Penalty

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 the U.S. That’s right… there are none (with the exception of incest with one’s minor children)! Not only that, most of these sins are tolerated (bestiality, incest, adultery, sex during menstruation), but many of these abominable practices are 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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_in_the_United_States). Yet ancient Israel had no prison system whatsoever. Criminals were either banished from society, killed, or had to pay the victim restitution for their crimes.

From this brief discussion, several realizations 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 did YHVH.
  • 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?

In this context, 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)