Capital Punishment in the Bible: God Was Just Kidding?

[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 an adapted version of my latest entry on the Bible blog.]

I recently wrote that the harshness of Biblical death penalties suggests that those who wrote the Bible were limited by “personal and cultural biases.” One reader replied that this statement actually shows my cultural bias, because it is unclear “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.” This commentator also referred me to a helpful web page called The Death Penalty in Jewish Tradition:

So was I showing cultural bias? I admit it may have sounded as if I was showing ignorance about Hebrew culture, by assuming that the ancient Hebrews always carried out the letter of their law. I’m sorry to have given that impression, so let me emphasize that I was not trying to focus on what the Hebrews did or did not do. Instead I was commenting on a list of plain and blunt statements in the Bible, and asking whether these reflect a supreme intelligence.

For example: I am not saying that every time a child impulsively smacked one of its parents they called the village together and stoned the little tyke. That seems most unlikely. As Paul H. Jones writes in The Fourth R, Nov./Dec. 2012, “If parents executed their rebellious children according to the directive of Deuteronomy 21:18-21, none of us would be alive!” (Actually I doubt that all of us were as rebellious as the “glutton and drunkard” described in that passage, but I’m sure you get Jones’ point.)

I will, however, stand by my statement that these passages reflect personal and cultural biases – although “opinions” would have been a better word than biases. Those who wrote these verses believed that imposing (or at least threatening) extreme penalties was a good idea, either because that was their personal opinion or because they were reflecting the opinions of their culture.

These passages sound quite human to me, rather than divine. I cannot imagine that a supreme being, knowing exactly how the human mind works, would prescribe death for a wide range of offenses, assuming that fallible men and women would soften these commandments appropriately. That assumption certainly didn’t turn out well for the fellow mentioned in Numbers 15:32-36. God supposedly commanded Moses to have him slain, merely because he gathered sticks on the Sabbath.

Furthermore, an all-knowing deity would have been able to predict the terrible damage that certain verses would cause when people took them literally. Witch-hunters down through the ages have justified their murders by quoting Exodus 22:18: “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.”

Remember, the focus of this blog is on whether every verse of the Bible was “written” by God. And even though the verses I’ve been discussing are from the Jewish Torah (which became part of the Christian Old Testament), Jews have not typically embraced scriptural literalism. Saying that God inspired every word of the Bible is much more common in conservative Christian churches than in Jewish synagogues.

I don’t think it works to say that God commanded these punishments, thinking, “These rules are so harsh that people will know I’m just kidding.” So what are some other ways that a literalist could deal with these Biblical penalties? I welcome further comments.

Roger Christan Schriner

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14 thoughts on “Capital Punishment in the Bible: God Was Just Kidding?

  1. I’m not sure a literalist can deal with the various penalties described in the bible [or other religious books]. Either they believe in the literal words of the bible or they seek to apply another or adjusted set of morals whilst seeking justification based on their own moral perceptions. The existence of these other moral views undermines the literalist position and so the moral questions and rules have to be ignored or described in other ways.

    The same problem is found, particularly in the bible but possibly elsewhere, where some books are selected for inclusion in the bible and some are not. On what and whose grounds were these books selected or discarded?

    I find myself thinking that there is a significant gulf between the religious and the theists. A theist believes in the existence of a supreme power / entity / being. The religious develop this position through social and moral books and codes that are allegedly ordained or produced by the god and / or the god’s prophets. The adherence to these books introduces, in my view, significant philosophical problems which you are exploring here.

    • Re: “I’m not sure a literalist can deal with the various penalties described in the bible”

      I don’t think it’s possible to reconcile these penalties with the idea that God intended people to obey every commandment in the Bible. What I’m hoping is that when literalists explore this question, they will see that they have been unconsciously making “exceptions,” automatically assuming that certain Biblical rules can be ignored. Otherwise all Christians would still be considering shellfish an abomination.

      • And that’s where the problem lies and it makes the literalist position untenable. If the literalist decides, as you suggest, that God or god or whoever didn’t intend people to follow these rules exactly, then each literalist must decide for themselves which laws are to be followed and how they are to be followed. The moral judgement falls back on the person and the god element becomes less relevant. Of course the theist assumes that they want to keep on the right side of the god in question but is obliged to decide for themselves as to how best to do that. What guides their decision making if the god given code is wilfully flawed but their own moral judgement?

        The theist, like the atheist, must decide on their own philosophy for life.

      • It all goes back to a simple principle. Each of us must take responsibility for our own moral judgments, and the things we do based upon those judgments.

  2. I see the need for ongoing questions and revelations. By revelations, I mean what is uncovered by both reason and insight. They correct what was in error or mistranslated across changing languages and cultures. Commentary on how these verses were applied should be with the text. We need to avoid future witch burnings. I accept scripture beyond the Bible and a wide library of revelations.

    I hope that we can recognize that shunning is literally a death of spirit and communication. I would add commentary to religious texts that verses of death penalties should be reformed accordingly and proper respect given to laws of the land. We can repent of unrighteous shunning, but only G_d can ressurect the dead.

  3. A few of the Biblical rules had perpetrators and victims (e.g. “Thou shall not steal”).

    However, most of the Biblical rules were “victimless crimes” (e.g. blasphemy, ritual purity rules, etc).

    Maybe they served the same purpose that our present-day “war on drugs” serves. Through selective enforcement of “victimless crime” rules where everybody breaks the law, one can ensure that some are marginalized and some are not.

    • To Steve, re victimless crimes. Interesting. One could make a case for saying that the Bible emphasizes the importance of what are sometimes called victimless crimes. I’m not going to get into debating whether that’s a good or bad thing in this blog. I want to mainly make points that virtually everyone will agree with — we shouldn’t kill kids for cursing, execute guys because they gather sticks on the sabbath, or burn people we think might be witches. I’ll leave the subtleties for other venues.

      • I’m sure that Mary Douglas’ book on ritual purity and anthropology is very interesting.

        But that overlooks the question surrounding many of the “purity” rules found in various religious traditions. For example, Leviticus 15:16-18 provides some very serious ritual cleansing procedures after male ejaculation. However, we know today that there is no medical/scientific issue with male ejaculation that would require any special hygiene precautions.

        Furthermore, one example of a “victimless crime” that would earn one a Biblical death sentence is blasphemy. Basically, this is a death penalty over a difference in religious opinion.

  4. Steve,
    Ritual purity has nothing to do with hygiene. Ritual purity laws were not justified in terms of being necessary for purposes of health; although people sometimes discuss them in those terms, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding. A ritual purity scheme is a social regulation mechanism. All societies have such mechanisms, and they generally look weird and nonsensical to outsiders.

    So a ritual purity violation, while it may not harm a particular other person, does cause harm to the social order. That’s why I think it’s a bit too facile to categorize it as a “victimless crime”, because that phrase normally connotes something that doesn’t cause any harm.

    • I’m sorry but the “social order” argument is very old and tired. It’s been used to argue against interracial marriage, marriage equality for same-sex couples, prohibitions on female clergy and other forms of gender equality, accurate and age-appropriate sexuality education, etc.

      Basically, “social order” is just another form of oppression and injustice from where I sit. If a “ritual purity” or “social order” rule cannot be defended on secular non-religious grounds, it’s probably just another form of oppression and injustice for somebody in a society. And a real flesh-and-blood person is more deserving of our consideration than an abstraction like the “social order.”

      • I am not defending these laws on the grounds of social order. I’m simply observing that if you want to criticize ritual purity laws, you should do so from an informed awareness of what they actually are.

        If you define “social order” *inherently* as “just another form of injustice or oppression”, does this mean that you are an anarchist and believe there should be no laws or social norms whatsoever? I don’t think the human animal makes societies like that.

        Some forms of social order are, agreed, forms of injustice or oppression. Any particular form of social order can and should be scrutinized with justice concerns in mind. Ritual purity isn’t inherently any weirder than etiquette.

        And no, I’m not suggesting that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for persons who fail to say “Excuse me” when they push past you in a crowd. I might wonder, however, whether such a severe penalty might be considered legitimate in a society in which it was a commonly accepted fact that failing to say “excuse me” would very likely set off a brawl in which people were killed. (And no, I’m not suggesting that the ancient Israelite society was such a society: although it might have been, I don’t really know. My point is that customs have to be considered in context, not in isolation.)

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