capital-punishment

Deuteronomy 21, Isaiah 48

Today, read Deuteronomy 21 and Isaiah 48.

This devotional is about Deuteronomy 21.

Earlier this week I wrote about the death penalty and the very high standards that had to be met before it could be used. Today’s chapter touches again on the death penalty in a couple of different ways:

  • An animal was to be executed as a substitute for the unknown murderer in an unsolved murder according to verses 1-9. The purpose of this law was to uphold the value of human life by making sure that there was some kind of life-for-life exchange if the killer could not be found.
  • A rebellious son could be executed if his parents charged him in the presence of the elders of the town in verses 18-21.
  • Verses 22-23 regulated the public display of someone who was executed. God’s law required burial for anyone who was displayed in this way “because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.”

Let’s consider that last instruction in verses 22-23 today. In each of the death penalty cases we’ve come across so far, God’s word commanded the method by which the death penalty must be... um... executed. In every case that I can remember, God’s law required the method of execution to be stoning. Verse 21 of this very chapter, for example, commands, “...all the men of his town are to stone him to death.”

Stoning someone to death required binding that person’s hands and feet so that he couldn’t run away. Once bound, the person was thrown into a pit and the witnesses or the elders would throw large rocks at him until he died. Usually the first stone thrown would be a very large rock that would be dropped on the person’s head so that he lost consciousness immediately and possibly would even die from that strike. It is not the most humane way to die, but it was the only way available in their society that multiple people--representing the entire community--could take part together in the execution.

Now, since God’s word prescribed the use of stoning as the method of execution, why did God include these verses about someone who is executed and hung on a pole? This law did not require that the dead body be hung on a pole this way; it only regulated such a pole-hanging if it ever were to occur.

Also, why would the law say, “anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse” but not anyone “guilty of a capital offense” (v. 22a) is under God’s curse? In other words, why does the curse apply only to the one executed if he is hung on a pole?

One reason that the Israelites might hang someone on a pole is to publicly display the dead body. The purpose here would be to display God’s curse on the man who was executed and hopefully to deter others who might be tempted to commit the same offense. We don’t know enough about daily life in Israel to know if this was ever used but there is certainly no instance of it in the Old Testament historical books that I can think of.

The New Testament, of course, does provide an example that would fit this description which is our Lord Jesus himself. Although he was not “guilty of a capital offense” (v. 22) personally, he came to serve as a substitute for our capital offenses against God. As our substitute, he was cursed by God (Isa 53:4c-d, Gal 3:13 so that we could be blessed with eternal life.

These two simple verses in Moses’s law, verses that may never have been relevant to any situation that Israel ever faced before Jesus’s death, remind us of the blessing of forgiveness we have in Christ. But they also show us how God foreshadowed the atonement of Christ for us in his word, thousands of years before Jesus was even born. This is one of many reasons why we can believe the Bible and know that it is God’s word.

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.

Numbers 35, Psalm 79, Isaiah 27, 1 John 5

If you’re following the schedule, you should read these chapters today: Numbers 35, Psalm 79, Isaiah 27, 1 John 5. Click on any of those references to see all the passages in one long page on BibleGateway. If you can't do all the readings today, read Numbers 35.

Murder is one of the world’s oldest sins and, despite its antiquity, it remains as gruesome and painful for the survivors as it was when Cain killed Abel. Revenge is a natural reaction for the survivors of the one who was murdered, but sometimes people die due to accidents or negligence. What is the just response in these cases? On one hand, the family of the one who died is still deprived of his or her life, so does it really matter whether their loved one was killed intentionally or unintentionally?

God says yes, it does matter. He designated cities of refuge for those who killed someone unintentionally (vv. 6-13). This would keep the land of Israel from being dominated by violence and bloodshed anytime someone died under suspicious circumstances. But for those who committed murder—they killed because they intended to kill (v. 20: “with malice aforethought”)—the Bible prescribes capital punishment as the appropriate means of justice (v. 16b, 17b, 18b, 19b, 21b: “the murderer is to be put to death”). 

Although many Christians are proponents of capital punishment, too many of us miss the limits the Bible puts on it. Verse 30 of our text says, “Anyone who kills a person is to be put to death as a murderer only on the testimony of witnesses. But no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness.” This is a very high standard of proof. Often there are no witnesses at all to murder. If one person witnessed the murder, Moses’ law did not permit him to be executed. A situation where two or more people witnessed a murder is highly unusual, yet that’s the standard of evidence the Old Testament law required before capital punishment could be administered. This is because human life is special; as people, we bear the image of God and have eternal souls. It is deeply evil to take another person’s life but to do it as punishment without a strong standard of proof is reckless and often unjust. The Innocence Project has exonerated many people who were unjustly executed or wrongly convicted of murder. This, as well as today’s passage here in Numbers 35, should teach us that capital punishment needs to be reformed here in America. While I believe that modern evidence like DNA matching or video surveillance can and should replace the standard 2 or more eyewitnesses required in this passage, the point of the eyewitnesses was to establish absolute proof of guilt before taking a man’s life. If you support the death penalty from biblical conviction—and I do—your biblical conviction should also insist that anyone who is executed must have been convicted based on near certainty, not just “beyond a reasonable doubt.” To take an innocent human life in punishment is just as murderous and evil in God’s sight as first degree murder is.

Now for your thoughts: What stood out in your Bible reading for today? What questions do you have about what you read? What are your thoughts about what I wrote above? Post them in the comments below or on our Facebook page. And, feel free to answer and interact with the questions and comments of others. Have a great day; we'll talk scripture again tomorrow.