What about Capital Punishment?

In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins excoriates the notion of capital punishment in the OT law, when he writes,

The following offenses merit the death penalty… cursing your parents; committing adultery; making love to your stepmother or your daughter-in-law; homosexuality; marrying a woman and her daughter; bestiality (and, to add injury to insult, the unfortunate beast is to be killed too). You also get executed, of course, for working on the Sabbath: the point is made again and again through the Old Testament.[1]

Are these laws a little bit of overkill? (pun intended) Why did the OT law prescribe this?

First, remember principle number two. We should not feel committed to these laws absolutely. They were for a specific time and place. They are not transcultural or transtemporal. Moreover, this was God’s first law –not his final one.

Second, laws of capital punishment were given for damaging people, rather than things. If someone attacked the family or the faith of Israel, this usually called for capital punishment.[2] Crimes of theft or property damage were paid with fines. This was in direct contrast to the ancient Near East. Thieves would be killed, or they would have their hands chopped off. Not so in Israel. Copan writes,

The Code of Hammurabi insisted on death for a thief, whereas the Old Testament demanded only double compensation for the loss (Ex. 22:4).[3]

On top of all this, in Babylonian or Hittite law, for example, status or social rank determined the kind of sanctions for a particular crime. By contrast, biblical law held kings and priests and those of social rank to the same standards as the common person.[4]

Third, Numbers 35:31 implies that most of these capital crimes could be paid for. In Numbers 35:31, we read, “You shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death.” Murderers were killed. Period. However, there were 16 other crimes that call for capital punishment in the OT, and this is the only one that says cannot be compensated with a ransom (compare with Ex. 21:29-30). This might imply that the other crimes could be negotiated.

Fourth, justice is always messy in a fallen world. Which would you rather have: life in prison or the death penalty? You might choose one or the other, but I’m sure this wouldn’t be an easy decision to make. In our modern judicial system, many people are raped, abused, tortured, and murdered in prison. When they get out, they are stigmatized for life by our culture, and they often can’t get a job. Frequently, they fall right back into the vicious cycle of crime. In the 2001 movie Blow, after getting out of prison, Johnny Depp’s character says, “Danbury wasn’t a prison, it was a crime school. I went in with a Bachelor of marijuana, came out with a Doctorate of cocaine.” In our “civilized” system, prison usually isn’t a form of restoration. Often, criminals come out of prison more hardened and trained in crime. Let’s face it. We’re in a fallen world. No solution is good. It appears that we’re probably dealing with the lesser of two evils here. Do we really have crime and punishment figured out in our modern, civilized system? If our system is better than theirs, it isn’t much better.

(Deut. 13:5; 18:20; Lev. 19:26; Ex. 22:18) Why were false teachers put to death?

This is an example of capital punishment for the faith of Israel (see point 2 above). Atheist Christopher Hitchens objects to this, when he writes, “This was, for centuries, the warrant for the Christian torture and burning of women who did not conform.”[5] Clearly the Salem Witch Trials were a horrible act of religious fanaticism, where several people were grievously killed. However, as C.S. Lewis has pointed out, if someone actually was a true demonic witch, we would be morally mandated to kill them! Lewis writes,

Surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did –if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did. There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.[6]

If someone was actually bringing curses and death on a community by the power of Satan, what would you do? Killing fake witches is moral madness, but killing real witches would be morally mandatory. For instance, no one cringes at the end of Dracula, when the lead vampire is stabbed in the heart with a stake! If a demonic killing machine was let loose on a population, we would make it a priority to hunt it down and kill it.

False teaching in the ancient Near East was not similar to someone coming home from a Yoga class, as Sam Harris rhetorically argues.[7] Instead, false teaching in the ancient Near East was usually associated with child sacrifice and ritual prostitution (Deut. 18:10). God considered these types of actions to be forms of moral “rebellion” (Deut. 13:5). Moreover, historically, whenever Israel got involved with other gods, we see that this always turned out to have horrific moral consequences. This objection is hypocritical of the critics. They denounce the Bible for crass and evil practices, but then they refuse the solutions and prohibitions for these problems. They can’t have it both ways.

(Lev. 20:10) Why were adulterers put to death?

This is an example of capital punishment for the family of Israel (again, see point two above). Why was adultery treated so severely? Moderners are often shocked at this command, but we need to remember that these ancient people would probably be shocked by our standards. In our culture, you can get five years in jail for going into someone’s house and stealing their television, but you get no punishment for going into someone’s house and stealing their wife! John Wenham writes,

When a man steals another’s valuable property, he is severely dealt with by the law. But when a man deliberately seduces and steals another man’s wife and robs his children of their mother, he probably gets off scot free. Yet in terms of the harm done and the destruction of human happiness the first crime is venial in comparison with the second.[8]

While this punishment is severe, it shows that God values people more than he values things. In our culture, these two priorities are often switched.

(Deut. 21:18-21; Lev. 20:9) Why were disobedient kids killed?

We read about this command in Deuteronomy 21:18-21:

If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, 19 then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his hometown. 20 They shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear of it and fear.

We can make a number of observations about this passage. First, he doesn’t listen to correction (v.18). Second, he is stubborn and rebellious (v.20). This implies that people in the society have made a repeated effort to plead with this person. Third, he is a glutton and drunkard (v.20). This wasn’t an innocent little child, who made a mistake. He was a mature adult, who was damaging people around him with his lifestyle. Fourth, the parents don’t take justice into their own hands. They confer with the authorities. The community exercises the punishment –not the individuals.

(Num. 15:32-36; Ex. 31:14-15) Why were people killed for working on the Sabbath?

This is recorded in Numbers 15:32-36:

Now while the sons of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering wood on the sabbath day. 33 Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation; 34 and they put him in custody because it had not been declared what should be done to him. 35 Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 So all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.

Atheist Richard Dawkins rhetorically comments, “Did this harmless gatherer of firewood have a wife and children to grieve for him? Did he whimper with fear as the first stones flew, and scream with pain as the fusillade crashed into his head?”[9]

This is another example of laws that attack the faith of Israel. By disobeying the Sabbath, this man was denying the provision of God, and he was putting the nation in jeopardy of being exiled from the land. God protected the nation of Israel on the basis that they would obey him. If they didn’t obey, then God wouldn’t supernaturally protect them from the barbarism of the ancient Near Eastern countries. In this case, this man was intentionally and immediately defying this command. We know that this was intentional, when we read the beginning of this chapter. Just before this narrative, we read instructions for “unintentional” and “intentional” sins (v.27-31). This man was not guilty of the former, but the latter.

(Deut. 25:1-3) Why were men flogged?

This is recorded in Deuteronomy 25:1-3:

If there is a dispute between men and they go to court, and the judges decide their case, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked, 2 then it shall be if the wicked man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall then make him lie down and be beaten in his presence with the number of stripes according to his guilt. 3 He may beat him forty times but no more, so that he does not beat him with many more stripes than these and your brother is not degraded in your eyes.

A few observations can be made about this passage. First, there was a trial. This was not a lynch mob. It was civilized and supervised by a judge. Second, this was a maximum penalty –not the minimum penalty. For maximum offenders, men could get 40 lashes, but no more. Third, there was a limit on the lashes, so that “your brother is not degraded in your eyes.” Even in judgment, there is a concern for “over doing it.” Fourth, when we compare this with the ancient Near East, we find considerable differences. Copan writes,

For certain crimes, Hammurabi’s code insisted that the tongue, breast, hand, or ear be cut off. One severe punishment involved the accused being dragged around a field by cattle. In ancient Egyptian law, punishments included cutting off the nose and the ear.[10]

Besides punishments such as cutting off noses and ears, ancient Egyptian law permitted the beating of criminals (for, say, perjury or libel) with between one hundred and two hun­dred strokes. In fact, a one-hundred-stroke beating was the “mildest form of punishment.[11]

[1] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 281.

[2] We observe this principle in the 10 commandments, which begin by emphasizing God, society, and family, and they end with the individual and their property.

[3] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 93.

[4] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 93.

[5] Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2007. 101.

[6] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York, NY: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1952. 26.

[7] Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2005. 18.

[8] Wenham, John William. The Goodness of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974. 109.

[9] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 275.

[10] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 93.

[11] Paul Copan Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? From Philosophia Christi (p.21) Vol. 10, No. 1 © 2008.