Deuteronomy 17, Isaiah 44

Today’s OT18 readings are Deuteronomy 17 and Isaiah 44.

This devotional is about Deuteronomy 17:2-7.

Do you believe in the death penalty? I do; God established it as the first principle of human government in Genesis 9:6 which says, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.” Prior to this revelation, God dealt directly with human sin; he confronted Cain directly after Cain killed Abel and he send the flood during the days of Noah to punish the world for its wickedness--violence in particular (see Gen 6:11).

So, the death penalty, aka capital punishment, is a biblical method of dispensing justice. But is the way we practice capital punishment here in America biblical? If you think so, perhaps today’s scripture reading will be enlightening to you.

God’s law commanded death for a number of moral infractions. In this chapter it was for idolatry (vv. 2-4) but the conditions for imposing the death penalty spelled out in this chapter would apply in an death penalty case. And what were those conditions? They are simple:

  • There must be two or three witnesses who testify against the accused.
  • Those witnesses must be the first people to use the lethal weapons that would kill the person they accused.

Those are simple conditions but they require a very high standard of proof. Two or more witnesses to any crime would be extremely difficult to find. The judge who listened to the case against someone would question and cross-examine them to be sure that their story was consistent and, therefore, true. Any serious inconsistency would be a reason to acquit the accused. This two or three witness standard is higher than our nation’s “reasonable doubt.” It would be difficult to convict anyone except for the most unapologetic sinner.

Furthermore, those who accuse a person must be “the first in putting that person to death.” If you were called as a witness in such a case, would you think more carefully about your testimony if you had to be the person who threw the switch to the electric chair, or had to push the plunger on a needle administering lethal injection? What if we required the jury that convicted a person to administer the death penalty? What if we made the police officers who investigated and arrested a person be in a firing squad to kill that person when he was convicted? What if he had to be the first to fire?

In our country, people are sentenced to capital punishment often by circumstantial evidence only. DNA evidence and programs like The Innocence Project have demonstrated that some convicts on death row, and others who were already executed, are not guilty. These cases are a serious miscarriage of justice and offensive to God who made us in his image. So, yes, the Bible teaches the death penalty but it was to be used only in the clearest of cases and only after great care has been taken to ensure justice. As citizens, we should expect our lawmakers, law-enforcement officers, and the justice system to follow biblical protections when biblical capital punishment is in play. If you find yourself on a jury in a capital case, remember that God holds you to a greater standard of proof than the legal system does and act accordingly.