The Bible and Capital Punishment

Exodus 21

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
January 2017

Last week, we began looking at a new section of Exodus that follows the Ten Commandments.  This section has different names.  The KJV calls it “the judgments.”  The NASB calls it “the ordinances.” The NIV calls it “the laws” that Moses is to set before the people (21:1).  These laws were not spoken audibly by God to the nation.  God gave them to Moses to give to his people.

Last week, we look at what the Bible says about slavery.  It is very different from slavery in American history.  That kind of slavery was racial.  It was involuntary.  It was permanent.  It was based on kidnapping.  It dehumanized people and gave slaves no rights. They were not considered people, just possessions.

Today, we want to look at the next section of the judgments.  They do not deal with CIVIL LAW.  They deal with CRIMINAL LAW.  They deal with crime and punishment.  They deal for the most part with crimes of violence.  It is not exhaustive.  It does not deal with every possible type of violent crime.

It doesn’t deal with sex crimes.  We will get one of those next week but it does list several different kinds of violent crimes.  Next week, we will look at what God says about a street fight.  Exodus 22 even deals with killing in self defense and what God says about that topic.  That sounds like a good chapter for the men’s conference.  Today, we will be looking at what the Law said about three main crimes: murder, accidental killing and crimes against parents.

Premeditated Murder

The first crime mentioned in premeditated murder.  It is intentional.  It is planned.  It is violent.  It is killing someone in cold blood.  It happens all of the time today. What is the punishment?  God’s method of punishment is very different from man’s method of punishment.

One method we have today is imprisonment.  You could be a serial killer and murder hundreds of people and molest children but, if you live in many states, you could not be put to death.

Monsters like Charles Manson are still alive in prison, even after committing horrible atrocities.  Nineteen states in our country plus the District of Columbia do NOT have the death penalty.  These states include New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and even West Virginia.  Thirty-one states do have it.[1] If you live in one of the other states, no matter what crime you commit, you cannot be put to death.

Death Penalty in the Bible

Liberals say that capital punishment is primitive.  It is barbaric.  It is cruel.  It is unchristian.  Some say that Jesus abolished the death penalty.  How would you answer some of these objections?  The simple answer is that the death penalty is not barbaric.  It is biblical.  This was God’s idea.

God says very clearly that murderers were to be executed. He did not say to lock them up in prison for a hundred years.  He said to execute them.  This was not my idea. God did not just allow the death penalty.  He commanded it.

1. Genesis teaches the death penalty

“And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. WHOEVER SHEDS THE BLOOD OF MAN by man SHALL HIS BLOOD BE SHED, for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:5-6 NIV).

Cain killed Abel, He was not put to death.  He did not just kill anyone; he killed his own brother and God did not require His lifeblood but after the Flood God said that he would require a reckoning for murder.  If you kill someone, you are to die and He gave a reason for it.  When you kill someone you destroy the image of God. When you kill someone, you are attacking the image of God. It is an indirect attack on God Himself.

2. Exodus teaches the death penalty

“Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death….  But if anyone schemes and kills someone deliberately, that person is to be taken from my altar and put to death” (21:12, 14 NIV).

If a slave master killed a slave, he was to die (21:20).  In fact, in this chapter, there are six crimes which are punishable by death (21:12, 14-17, 22-26, 28-29).  In the next chapter, three other crimes are punishable by death (22:18-20).

3. Leviticus teaches the death penalty

Leviticus 24:17, 21 says, “Anyone who takes the life of a human being is to be put to death… Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a human being is to be put to death” (NIV). It mentions the death penalty for many other crimes as well (e.g., 20:2, 9-13, 15-16, 27).

4. Numbers teaches the death penalty

If anyone strikes someone a fatal blow with an iron object, that person is a murderer; the murderer is to be put to death. 17 Or if anyone is holding a stone and strikes someone a fatal blow with it, that person is a murderer; the murderer is to be put to death.  Or if anyone is holding a wooden object and strikes someone a fatal blow with it, that person is a murderer; the murderer is to be put to death.” (Numbers 35:15-18 NIV)

5. Deuteronomy teaches the death penalty

Deuteronomy 21:22 talks about people who are guilty of capital offenses. We think that this punishment is primitive.  We have advanced as a society.  God says that murder pollutes the land (Numbers 35:33).  Evil must be purged from among us (Deuteronomy 21:21).  God said “no sacrifice except the execution of the murderer can purify the land from murder” (Numbers 35:33 NLT).

6. The NT teaches the death penalty

For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4 NIV).

Paul said that the state has the power of the sword and the sword was used to execute people.  That power comes from God.  He also said that the state functions as God’s servant. Many try to limit the death penalty to the Law of Moses but it is all throughout the Bible.  It goes back to Genesis.

It is even in the NT.  The Apostle Paul said, “If I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die” (Acts 25:11 NIV). The punishment was not only for people but animals.  If an animal kills you, it is to die.

“If an ox gores a man or woman to death, the ox must be stoned, and its flesh may not be eaten. In such a case, however, the owner will not be held liable” (21:28 NLT).

 The same regulation applies if the ox gores a boy or a girl. 32 But if the ox gores a slave, either male or female, the animal’s owner must pay the slave’s owner thirty silver coins, and the ox must be stoned” (21:31-32 NLT).

Exodus 12:14 says, “But if anyone schemes and kills someone deliberately, THAT PERSON IS TO BE TAKEN FROM MY ALTAR AND PUT TO DEATH” (NIV). You could not murder someone and seek refuge in church.  The altar could not protect you.  People still do this today.

They try to hide behind their religion to shield them from justice.  Many Muslims commit all kinds of atrocities and hide behind their religion to protect them.  If you commit murder, there should be nowhere for you to run to and no place to hide.

Objections to the Death Penalty

1. Jesus abolished the death penalty

Many people think that Jesus was against the death penalty.  That is a very common view in some circles.  Was He against it?  The passage that is always used is John 8.  There Jesus stopped an execution.  A woman was caught in adultery.  That was a crime punishable by death in the OT.  The Pharisees wanted to execute her but Jesus found a way to stop it.  Did it prove that He was against the death penalty?  No.

The death penalty was part of the Law of Moses.  No one disputes that.  No one also disputes that Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the Law or the prophets (Matthew 5:17).  He was the Jewish Messiah.  He was born under the Law (Galatians 4:4).  That proves conclusively that he could not possibly have been against the death penalty.

Why did he defend the woman in John 8?  He defended her, not because she was not guilty, but because the motives of her accusers were suspect.  They came to him wanted to enforce the Law when they were not even following the Law.

The Law did command death for adultery but is also commanded death for both parties.  Leviticus 20:10 says, “‘If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—BOTH the adulterer and the adulteress MUST be put to death.  They wanted to stone the woman but not the man.

If this woman was caught in the very act, as they say, they would have caught the man was well.  They knew exactly who he was.  Why didn’t they bring the man before Jesus and publicly humiliate him as well?  The reason is that he was either one of them or was one of their friends. Jesus was not part of this because it was NOT a legal execution but a lynching.

2.You cannot be pro-life and support the death penalty

How can you be pro-life and pro-death penalty?  How can we be pro-life on abortion and pro-death on the death penalty?  It seems like a contradiction but it is not really.   God is the one who created life but He is pro-death penalty. We are pro-life but the right to life is not absolute.  The right to life can be forfeited (like all of our rights).

We have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in our founding documents but all kinds of people are locked up for various crimes.  Actually, capital punishment does not undermine the sanctity of human life; it upholds it in two ways.  It affirms the value of life by protecting society from dangerous individuals. It saves lives.

It also affirms the value of life by imposing the maximum penalty for taking innocent life.  When society gives criminals a light sentence for taking someone’s life, it shows a lack of respect for human life.  By imposing the ultimate penalty that society can give for murder, it shows the value it places on innocent human life.

Accidental Killing

Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death. However, if it is not done intentionally, but God lets it happen, they are to flee to a place I will designate. (21:12-13 NIV).

Accidental killing takes place today (e.g., car crashes). God makes an important distinction here.  Killing someone on purpose because you don’t like him is one thing.  Killing someone by accident is something else.  It has a completely different punishment.  The punishment was fleeing to a city of refuge (21:13) or what we call a sanctuary city today.  The punishment was not death.

This distinction between intentional and accidental killing was years ahead of its time.  It is a distinction we still have today.  We make a clear difference today between first degree murder and second or third degree murder.  The thousand years ago, people did not make this distinction.  If someone killed a member of your family, you could kill a member of that person’s family.  It didn’t matter if it was an accident.

Crimes against Parents

Two crimes against parents are mentioned in this chapter.  One involves violence; the other does not but BOTH result in the death penalty.  Anyone who attacks their father or mother is to be put to death” (21:15 NIV).  “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death” (21:17 NIV).

This does NOT say that the child kills their parents.  It just says if they physically assault their parents and attack them, they are to be put to death.  They are also to be put to death just for cursing their parents. They do not even lay a hand on them.  They strike them with their tongue, not their hand.  They are not physically violent but they are still to be put to death.

This shows what God thinks of parents.  If you hit them, you die.  If you curse them, you die.  Normal assault on someone was not punished by death but it was if you assaulted a parent.  They are a God-given authority.  If people who do this to parents should die, what about people today who curse or hit teachers or police officers?

It is a similar type of crime.  How do we know?  In the very next chapter, we are told that we are not supposed to curse our rulers (22:28).  This applies to others in authority and not just parents.  We should respect everyone in authority (parents, teachers, church elders, police officers). These two verses raise an important question.

Was Jesus Against Children?

Why is striking a parent and cursing a parent a capital offense in the Law of Moses? It sounds barbaric. Why was God so mean in the OT?  This sounds like something that the Taliban would do – stone children to death.  It is even stranger that Jesus approved of it.  Jesus quotes Exodus 21:17 in the NT.

He said, “For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death‘” (Matthew 15:4 NIV).  Whatever happened to Jesus being meek and mild?  Whatever happened to Jesus loving all of the children, red and yellow black and white?  Here He calls for the execution of children.  Critics love this.  Let’s try to put it in perspective.  We have to understand the context.

While there is some grace in the OT, there is a big difference between the period of law and the period of grace.  John 1:17 says, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (NIV).  Jesus was born under the law but we are NOT under law but under grace (Romans 6:14).

When God created the world, he created man perfect.  He created the world perfect.  Man sinned and became fallen.  The law was given to reveal sin (Romans 3:20; 7:7-13).  The law is strict.  It demands perfection and the punishment for breaking it is harsh.  It brought death.

The Apostle Paul said that it had a ministry of death (II Corinthians 3:9).  It is not talking about the Bible.  It is not saying that the Bible will kill you.  It is talking about the Law of Moses and specifically the Ten Commandments which was written in stone (II Corinthians 3:7).  It had a ministry of death because if you broke it, the punishment was death.

The whole point of the Law was to reveal sin and show people their need of a Savior. Paul called it a “schoolmaster” (KJV) or “tutor” (NASB) to bring people to Christ (Galatians 3:24).  The first thing we need to keep in mind is that this is part of the system of law, not of grace.  By definition, it is strict and harsh.

The second thing to keep in mind is that this law was given in the context of a theocracy.  The Jews at this time lived in a theocracy.  God was physically present among them in a way that he is not today.  We do not have a pillar of fire and cloud today.  We do not live by the same set of rules today but one day Jesus will return to earth and it will be a theocracy again.

Having said that, we need to point a few things out about this crime. First, this rule did NOT give parents the authority to kill their children.  This was not an “honor killing.”  In this case, the parents (both of the parents) were to take their child to the elders of the city (Deuteronomy 21:18-19).

They were taken before judges.  This was a legal proceeding.  Parents are not told in the Bible to stone their children when they need to be disciplined.  They are to use the rod and reproof to discipline them (Proverbs 13:24; 29:15)

Second, this is not necessarily talking about little children.  When we read this passage, we think of little children. When we read the parallel passage in Deuteronomy, we see that big children are addressed, adults and it does not describe a child who did not take out the trash.  It describes someone who is completely incorrigible.  It was an extreme case.

In fact, there is no record in Scripture in which this penalty was ever carried out.  Death was not always required in this situation.  About twenty-four different offenses called for the death penalty in the OT but in only one case was death required and that was murder.  We know that from Numbers 35.  

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. 31 “‘Do not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. They are to be put to death” (35:30-31 NIV).

That is interesting.  You could not save your life by making a financial payment to people.  If you commit murder, you were to die but this is not said about other capital crimes, only premeditated murder.  Death for cursing parents was the maximum punishment but not the mandatory punishment.



[2] Everyone has a different number of capital crimes in the Law, based on the way they are grouped.  Some say that there are sixteen capital crimes.  Some say eighteen or twenty.  I counted twenty-four different capital crimes in the Law of Moses: murder (Ex. 21:12-14; Num. 35:16-18), accidentally causing the death of a pregnant woman and/or her child (Ex. 21:22-25), allowing a proven dangerous animal to kill a person (Ex. 21:28-20), striking a parent (Ex. 21:15), cursing a parent (Ex. 21:17), rebellion to parents (Ex. 21:18-21), kidnapping (Ex. 21:16), sorceress or witch (Ex. 22:18), mediums or psychics (Lev. 20:27), adultery (Lev. 20:10), incest (Lev. 20:11-12,14), homosexuality (Lev. 20:13), sex with animals (Lev. 20:15-16), prostitution (Leviticus 21:9), lying about virginity (Dt. 22:13-21), rape of a married woman (Dt. 22:25-29), defiance to the God-ordained legal system (Deuteronomy 17:12), blatant disobedience and defiance to God’s Law (Numbers 15:30-31), bearing false witness in a capital case (Dt. 19:16-20), breaking the Sabbath (Ex. 31:14-15; 35:2; Num. 15:32-36), blasphemy (Lev. 24:16, 23), idolatry (Ex. 22:20; Deut. 13:1-11), child sacrifice (Lev. 20:2) and false prophecy (Deut. 18:20).


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