Three Puzzles about Biblical Death Penalties

[For the next few weeks this site will include items from my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. About once a week I will also post an entry that deals specifically with theism and atheism. Here’s most of my latest entry on the Bible blog.]

The Christian Old Testament prescribes punishments for lots of banned behaviors, including execution by being burned or stoned to death. Oddly, even though the Bible often spells out ceremonial regulations in meticulous detail, death-penalty commandments are tossed off almost casually, with little or no wiggle-room for unusual or extenuating circumstances. This tends to confirm the idea that even though the Bible’s human writers tried to accurately express the will of God, they were limited by their personal and cultural biases.

Here are a few examples, beginning with those found in Exodus 20-22, which begins: “And God spoke all these words, saying, …” (Exodus 20:1)

“Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:15)

“For every one who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood is upon him.” (That’s Leviticus 20:9, which I mentioned in an earlier entry.)

“You shall not permit a sorceress to live.” (Exodus 22:18)

“Whoever lies with a beast shall be put to death.” (Exodus 22:19)

“Whoever sacrifices to any god, save to the Lord only, shall be utterly destroyed.” (Exodus 22:20)

And from a list of regulations in Leviticus 20-21:

“For every one who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood is upon him.” (Leviticus 20:9)

“If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall be put to death, their blood is upon them. If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death; they have committed incest, their blood is upon them. If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them. If a man takes a wife and her mother also, it is wickedness; they shall be burned with fire, both he and they, that there may be no wickedness among you. If a man lies with a beast, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the beast. If a woman approaches any beast and lies with it, you shall kill the woman and the beast; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.” (Leviticus 20:10-16)

“A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned with stones, their blood shall be upon them.’” (Leviticus 20:27)

“And the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the harlot, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.” (Leviticus 21:9) (I guess it’s always been tough to be a preacher’s kid!)

And here’s one I’ll discuss in a later entry: Whoever does any work on the Sabbath, even kindling a fire, “shall be put to death.” (Exodus 35:3) A strict Biblical literalist might have found it hard to live in Medieval Scandinavia during the winter.

Obviously some of these verses don’t sound like higher guidance. Here are three puzzles about these passages.

1. Many punishments seem absurdly extreme. If a child kicks Daddy or curses Mommy, that would seem to suggest a time-out rather than capital punishment.

2. A supreme divine intelligence would realize that offenders can be reformed. For example, those who engage in peculiar sexual practices might learn to obey social norms. How about giving first offenders a second chance?

3. As noted above, lists of rules in the Bible seldom allow for extenuating circumstances. If one actually thinks parent-strikers should be killed, the regulation should say something like, “You must kill a child who strikes a parent, unless the child is very young, or was drunk with wine, or is mentally incompetent, or unless the parent has done something terrible to the child, or unless there is some other reason that this penalty should obviously not be applied.” (And even that greatly-softened rule still sounds horrible!)

How should a Biblical literalist deal with these three puzzles? Literalism accepts every bit of the Bible as true. Is it possible to do that with these passages? I’ll comment further in my next post.

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6 thoughts on “Three Puzzles about Biblical Death Penalties

  1. I can admire what you’re trying to do here, but how many believers do think will read it, and why you think rationality will alter their thinking? Do you recall the study from three or five years back in which black and white thinkers (fundamentalist Christians in this case) tend to believe something more strongly after it is demonstrated that they are wrong? Whichever way the argument goes, they come out with their prior opinion re-inforced.

    • Hi Snowbrush. Last summer in a post called The “Backfire” Paradox I discussed research showing that people clung to erroneous political opinions even more tightly after receiving corrective information. I’d be very interested in learning about the data on theological backfiring. I am indeed concerned that those who read my Bible blog may become even more firmly committed to Biblical literalism.

      Even so, when I talk with actual Biblical literalists I find that many of them are more open-minded than the stereotypes about fundamentalism would suggest. And with 1/3 of Americans stating that all of the Bible is divinely inspired, I only need to reach a tiny percentage of literalists to make this project worth my time.

      Roger Christan Schriner

      • I wrote bluntly, and I respect you for not taking it personally (it’s good to rarely if ever take anything personally).

        “I discussed research showing that people clung to erroneous political opinions even more tightly after receiving corrective information. I’d be very interested in learning about the data on theological backfiring.”

        I have none, but my understanding of the research was that it concerned a literalistic, black and white, no ambiguities, mindset, and the same people who have this mindset in politics would also tend toward religions that are the same way.

        “I only need to reach a tiny percentage of literalists to make this project worth my time.”

        I’ve written about religion for years, but don’t know how many I’ve reached. One woman credited me for her decision to call herself an atheist, but she wasn’t religious anyway. I just posted an account of my own current effort to reach out to Christians by attending a Bible study (as an open atheist) at a church. So far, I don’t think it’s going too well.

      • Snowbrush, I’d be interested in finding out more about your writings, and reading the account of your experience in the Bible Study group. – Roger

  2. You write, “Oddly, even though the Bible often spells out ceremonial regulations in meticulous detail, death-penalty commandments are tossed off almost casually, with little or no wiggle-room for unusual or extenuating circumstances. This tends to confirm the idea that even though the Bible’s human writers tried to accurately express the will of God, they were limited by their personal and cultural biases.”

    Actually, to say that “this tends to confirm X” is full of cultural bias. It is not sure at all is whether the Torah death penalties were ever regularly observed as written. Some scholars suggest that the very extremity of the stated punishment suggests it was never intended as the actual punishment but as a statement about the seriousness with which the matter touched society. What is certain, though, is that the rabbis of the Talmud were not at all easy with the idea of capital punishment and built complicated prescriptions for assuring its use was at least rare. (See: The Death Penalty in Jewish Tradition)

    • Thank you, Sabin, for those comments on Hebrew culture and the helpful link. Your remarks helped me see that I had not made myself clear. I was not commenting on what people in Biblical times did or did not do. I was asking whether God had inspired these passages word for word. I’ve just posted a new blog entry which I hope explains my position more accurately.

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