death-penalty

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.

Deuteronomy 22, Psalms 110–111, Isaiah 49, Revelation 19

If you’re following the schedule, you should read these chapters today: Deuteronomy 22, Psalms 110–111, Isaiah 49, Revelation 19. 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 Deuteronomy 22.

Critics of the Bible often point to the punishments spelled out in a passage like today’s to show that the Bible is harsh, unreasonable, and unloving. Cross-dressers (v. 5), promiscuous single women (vv. 13-21), and people who commit adultery (v. 22-24) all get the death penalty for their sins, even though they were all “consenting adults.” Rapists also were to receive the death penalty (vv. 25-27) which maybe harsh by today’s standards of punishment but probably not an example critics would bring up. These punishments seem harsh only because of how comfortable we are with sin; in God’s sight, every sin is an eternal offense, so these punishments should teach us something about how our sins—and the desires that compel them—look to the holy eyes of God.

This passage is also a favorite of critics because some of these laws seem arbitrary (vv. 9-12). 

But notice the other case laws in this passage. If someone else—whether you know him or not—is about to suffer the loss of his valuable property, you are supposed do what you can to prevent that loss (vv. 1-5). “Do not ignore it,” the scripture says in verse 1, verse 3, and verse 4.

More interestingly, you’re allowed to take a mother bird’s eggs but not her (vv. 6-7). The promise of obedience to this passage is “so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life” (v. 7b). But this act of conservation doesn’t benefit any Israelite person; it’s just good management of God’s creation. It teaches us not to be destructive just because we could be. 

Verse 8 of our passage tells God’s people to make sure that they build reasonable safety precautions into their homes. Since people in these desert cultures used their roof to entertain in the evenings when the weather is more comfortable, God’s word commanded them to be careful to protect human life by putting appropriate fencing around the roof. 

These laws show that God was not harsh or arbitrary at all toward people in general. He wanted to protect his nation from becoming a lawless culture full of promiscuity. The penalties spelled out in these passages were to protect the importance of the Jewish family and to emphasize important God’s holiness is to him. The laws against abusing birds and requiring Israel to watch out for each other’s property and protect each other’s lives show how much God values human life. They teach us not to be so self-centered that we look the other way when someone is about to lose their valuable property. Instead, we should watch out for others, showing them the kind of kindness and compassion that we would want others to show to us and that God himself does show for us. If we find a lost wallet or purse, a lost smartphone, or see a wandering child, God wants us to do what we can to help. We may not have a flat roof that needs to be fenced in but are we careful to clear our sidewalks of snow and ice? As people who belong to God, we should be conscientious and kind toward everyone, not just conscious of our own stuff.

Finally, the harsh punishments in this chapter remind us of the deep grace of God toward us. God hates sin and is uncompromising in how he wants sin to be punished. He is so uncompromising that he demands that every sin should be punished to the fullest extent of justice. Yet, because he loves his creation and is compassionate toward us, he did not look the other way when we wandered from his commands. Instead, he came in the person of Christ both to look for and find us when we were lost AND to bear the just punishment that our sins deserve. No sin is trivial in the sight of God but none is putrid enough that Christ’s death cannot cover it. The cross-dresser, the adulterer, the promiscuous, the self-centered one who never helps another in trouble are all savable, if God wills, through the atonement of Christ. The same goes for those who speak lies, who gossip, who break things and hit people in uncontrolled rage, who lust but don’t touch, who take the eggs AND the mother bird. No sinner is beyond the saving grace of God; if you’ve been redeemed from one of these sins—or from any sin at all—give thanks that God is uncompromisingly holy but also incredibly compassionate, loving, and gracious toward all of us who are unholy.

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.