Death Penalty in the Bible

Hey everyone. This is something I’ve been struggling with; why were there so many death penalties in the Old Testament, for homosexuality and enticing to worship other gods for example? I understand certain Old Testament laws do not apply to us anymore. However, in the New Testament we see Jesus introduce the theme of love, repentance, and forgiveness, for example when he forgives the woman caught in adultery and instead tells off the men who were going to stone her.

So this just doesn’t sit well with me. What if someone caught acting in homosexuality or adultery were sincerely sorry for what they had done, not because they were caught, but because of a troubling conscience? Would they still be stoned?

And what if someone involved in those things wasn’t caught, but they were genuinely sorry and fearful of God, how would they repent of their sins, since I believe the concept of personal prayer was introduced by Jesus. Would they have to confess it to a priest who might order stoning them?

And would these rulings also apply to someone who enticed someone to worship other gods, but then felt guilt and regret. The Bible doesn’t mention what would happen if he repents after, only that his punishment for enticing someone is death.

Sorry if I’m being ignorant of certain OT doctrines, and thank you in advance!

Good questions, @AazerAllen.

Several thoughts on this:

First, it is true that there were many things in the Old Testament for which we see a death penalty - things which the New Testament appears to deal with more “charitably”. For example, I Corinthians 6:9-11 lists adulterers and homosexuals as people who have been transformed by the spiritual birth - which the OT lists as capital crimes.

But every person who experiences New Testament salvation actually does experience an internal death, burial and resurrection. The former adulterer can truly say, “The man I used to be is now dead and buried - there’s a new man looking out through my eyes, sitting at the controls of my life - there’s a new ‘Spiritual DNA’ calling the shots inside me now.”

That did not exist in the OT. A man who had corrupted himself into an adulterer or a homosexual or a rapist or a kidnapper had no “miraculous spiritual new birth” available to him. Therefore, society was either stuck with a menace or they could execute him. And having that provision was intended to be the legal deterrent to people starting down that dangerous path.

Second, the death penalty appears to have been a maximum penalty according to the discretion of the local judges who would often have known the actual parties involved.

The reason I say that is because the death penalty does not appear to be enacted as frequently as the capital crimes that occur in the OT. For example, David committed murder and adultery, and even unwittingly sentenced himself to death in the hearing of the prophet Nathan. But God spared him, because his repentance was genuine - yet he certainly reaped bitter fruit from his crimes for years thereafter.

On the other hand, Ahab and Jezebel were executed by God for their many impenitent rebellions.

But I have a question about something you said in passing. You seemed to say that personal prayers did not appear before Jesus. In light of the numerous prayers of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Hannah, Samson, David, Solomon and on and on, why would you wonder if OT characters had to confess to a priest in order to repent before God? It appears that a part of your problem understanding this issue arises from a curious doctrine that you’ve attached to. Can you explain your interest in such an unusual view on OT prayer?

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@jlyons

Well, I see I might be wrong on that now, but the reason is that all the people that prayed like that were “chosen” by God, so I thought maybe only the important people had the privilege. Also, in the OT God basically lived in the Temple, and the priest was in-charge of the Temple, so it just seemed logical. But like I said, I admit I might be wrong.

This was exactly what was bothering me. David repented too, so why couldn’t anyone else repent? If someone did something punishable by death, but later repented, would they still be punished? I’m trying to make sense of this because of the teachings of Jesus to love and forgive.

Regarding other people repenting besides David, yes - that was the point I was trying to make. David was an example of what was apparently going on throughout Israel - there are actually very few cases of people being stoned to death recorded in the Bible. I can only think of four - the unnamed blasphemer in Leviticus 24:14; Achan in Joshua 7:19-26; Naboth in I Kings 21; Stephen in Acts 7:54-60 - and it’s clear that those last two were actually martyrs who were wrongly killed by wicked leaders who abused their power.

So the judges who knew the people involved in those cases apparently did not execute their neighbors very often. It seems the Israelites were not as quick to execute one another as critics often assume they were.

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I see what you mean about all the important people in the OT being chosen by God - not just anybody could pray and expect an answer. And that is very true. But it’s also true that every believer in either testament is a part of God’s Chosen People. Every believer is important to God.

Hannah was a barren housewife - a position of no real status in their culture. In the eyes of Eli, the high priest (a position of great status), she was a “nobody”. But her faith made her a great woman in the eyes of God. She did not become a woman of faith because she was a great person - she became a great person because of her faith.

Ruth, a cursed Moabite, did not become a woman of faith because she was one of the Chosen People - she became one of the Chosen People because of her faith.

God transforms the lowliest into the holiest - He saves outcasts from the guttermost to the uttermost. In His eyes, no believer is of minor status - all His followers are heroes of faith of whom the world was not worthy - Hebrews 11:38.

Including you…and me…and every unknown penitent throughout the Bible who deserved death, but whose neighbors were not willing to cast the first stone.

I hope this helps you.

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I like how you stated this, so simply, yet so explicitly.

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Hi Anna @AnnaLinzey: Pastor Jim @jlyons has done a wonderful job of explaining and answering your question. I’d like to add a couple of thoughts.

As Pastor Jim indicated, we don’t see in the OT all that was followed through when it came to Law. Those that are recorded, 1Cor.10:11 says were done so to be a warning and example to us today…not that we will necessarily die, but that we won’t commit the same disobedient behavior the Israelites did. It think that was the purpose of the many laws requiring the death penalty. It was not so much punishment as it was meant to be a deterrent.

When it came to sins committed by individuals who were not killed for their crimes, such as David, what we also may not see recorded are the sin sacrifices they were to bring to the priests to offer on the altar. So, while there may have been private prayers of repentance, they also needed to offer sin sacrifices.

Another example of God not allowing one to be killed after he committed murder is Cain, the first murderer. God protected him from being slain.(Gen.4:14-15) This was prior to the Law, of course. However, God told Noah, prior to the Law, that anyone who killed the image of God, was to be killed. (Gen.9:6).

When the Israelites made the golden calf while Moses was receiving the commandments, God was so angry He wanted to wipe them all out, but only killed 3000. Because of Moses’ intercession, He later punished the rest with a plague. (Ex. 32)

In the New Testament, the woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus for judgment. She, by law, was to be stoned. Yet, Jesus spared her life because He knew the evil intent of her accusers. It was not to pass judgment on her, but on Jesus. (John 8:1-11)

The Apostle Paul certainly was worthy of death for all the murder of the saints and followers of Christ he had ordered. Yet, Paul wrote the bulk of the New Testament.

Interestingly, in Matthew 5:38, Jesus left out “life for life” when He quoted Exodus 21:23-24 that also includes tooth for tooth, eye for eye, etc… So, the question can be asked if Jesus abolished the death penalty through His death on the cross, or is it still valid because it is taking the image of God?

In our times, on February, 3,1998, the first woman was executed in Texas for her crime of drug-induced mass murder. During her incarceration, she accepted Christ and became a model of a beautiful, transformed life. While she pleaded for the state to have mercy, she also humbled herself to the will of the state.

Tom Terrants was a former KKK member who should be dead today after a shoot-out with police that left him riddled with bullets. He had been instrumental in killing many during his years with the KKK. Yet, he lives today and was the former Director of the C.S.Lewis Institute, stepping down to further the call of God on his life. Why was he allowed to live?

I think the answer lies in Romans 9:14 which repeats what God told Moses in Ex.33:19 when He caused His Presence to pass before Moses:
"I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion."
Because God looks on the heart, as He knew David’s, it may also be that His mercy extends to others who violate(d) His Law. It is also that His purposes might be fulfilled, as Romans 9:11 indicates. So, there are various reasons why we read of some being killed for their sins and some not in the Old Testament on through to today. Ultimately, it is the mercy and purposes of God that decide.

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@sgewehr

Thank you so much for your answer! Why did the woman’s accusers have an evil intent, though? To my understanding, they hadn’t brought the man along with her for the stoning, and also, Jesus wanted to condemn the stoning practice and emphasize forgiveness.

Also, would the woman being stoned have been given a chance for repentance? Like you said, would she have been given a chance to make a sin offering?
And was maybe being stoned since she didn’t feel guilty and was repeating her actions?

I find this particular OT theme hard to digest; it seems like something Jesus would be against.

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@jlyons

Thank you! That verse is a top one. I appreciate you answering my questions, thank you again for your time and effort! I see now that the stoning was more of a warning. God is still the same in the OT and the NT, but in the OT the people abused His mercy and forgiveness, even going as far to making the Golden Calf.

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@AazerAllen: Good questions. I’ll try to answer one at a time.

This particular incident can be found in John 8:1-11. You caught that they didn’t bring the man with the woman. This could have been a set-up for her (how did the Pharisees know about what she was doing at the time?) Or, it showed the hypocrisy of the Pharisees because the Law said BOTH were to be stoned (Lev.20:10).
Secondly, verse 6 says that the Pharisees were laying a trap for Jesus. If He let the woman go, He could have been charged with disobeying the Law. If He allowed her to be stoned, the people would have turned on Him. That was the problem the Pharisees had with Jesus: the people supported Jesus, so the Pharisee’s feared upsetting the people. They wanted the people to turn on Jesus by His own actions, not their own. (e.g. Matt.21:46)

If Jesus were to condemn stoning at the time, He would have been violating the Law which He had not fulfilled yet because He hadn’t been sacrificed on the cross. While He was alive, He was showing the new way, but His blood of the New Covenant hadn’t been shed yet, so the Law still was valid. (Matt.26:28. Also see Exodus 24:1-8)

Because Jesus turned the tables on the Pharisees and invited them to cast the first stone, they had to back away. Casting the first stone would have meant admitting they had no sin. They knew they couldn’t do that. So, Jesus was not negating the Law, but pointing to their hypocrisy. Consequently, the woman had no accusers. Therefore, how could she be stoned? In fact, Jesus was the only one qualified to stone her.
Technically, Jesus had not caught her in the act, so how could He accuse her? With no one to accuse her, she left untouched by stones. But, Jesus didn’t let her off the hook, either. His last words to her were,“Go, now and leave your life of sin.” He knew she was a sinful woman, just as He knew the Samaritan woman was sinful (John 4:17-18). By pointing out this woman’s sin, she may very well have gone to the temple to offer a sin offering. We aren’t told that part. One thing we know is that she left being touched by Jesus who gave her a second chance.

At this particular scene, I don’t think feelings of guilt or not entered the picture. It was simply an opportune time for the Pharisees to lay a trap for Jesus.
Also, the Law didn’t apply to people not feeling guilty but who were guilty. It was a matter of actually being guilty that they were stoned for. The other aspect of one being guilty is that they had to have two-three witnesses before being stoned:
" [Deuteronomy 19:15]
“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established."

You are right. Jesus came to do away with all the OT Laws requiring sacrifices for atonement, or, in this case, stoning. That is what is so wonderful about Christ. He took upon Himself all the sin and offered Himself as the sacrifice to atone for the sin.
He was also against hypocrisy. On earth, guilt for crimes must still be punished. For those who’ve accepted Christ’s substitutionary death for our forgiveness, we have the assurance of a clean heart and that we are forgiven in heaven, guaranteeing eternity in heaven.
I hope this answers your concerns. Feel free to ask more good questions.

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@sgewehr Thanks again for the answer!

Interesting, so that means that if He didn’t stone her, He was disobeying the Law, but if He did, then the people would turn on Him since the man wasn’t there with the woman?

I’d like to emphasize on this part. It seems like we have slightly different interpretations of this event. Jesus saying this means that the woman was indeed an adulteress, and had been rightly accused of adultery by the Pharisees. The witnesses in the scenario aren’t mentioned, but it could be assumed that they were unimportant; the story wasn’t about them. The man isn’t mentioned either, and that could be hypocrisy on the Pharisee’s part, to not bring the man.
However, my point begins here. To escape the Pharisee’s trap, Jesus could’ve simply said that the man wasn’t there, so the stoning wasn’t okay. But He doesn’t do this, which I think (to my understanding) suggests that the stoning still would’ve been fine without the man. They could stone the woman now, and then stone the man later. She was an adulteress after all, and was to be stoned for her own individual sin not the man’s.

This woman was very will guilty. Jesus hadn’t caught her in the act, like you said, but He was God and He knew exactly what she had done. But Jesus instead tells the one without sin to cast the first stone.
Jesus was not keeping with the Law here, He was changing it, to fit the New Covenant. If He kept the Law, He would’ve cast the first stone since He was without sin, and He knew He was without sin. Instead, Jesus tells the woman that He wouldn’t condemn her either, even though He could have, He was literally God! Instead, He tells her to go and sin no more. This seems like Jesus hinting at the New Law, which stoning would not be a part of.
Obviously we can’t say Jesus was disobeying the Law, as that would be a moral argument; God is the ontological standard of morals, and it’s not logically possible for God to be immoral, as He is where we get our morals from in the first place.

What do you think of what I think?

Sorry if I’m being ignorant to Biblical doctrines, I’m 15, and haven’t read the Bible fully yet.
Thank you again!

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@AazerAllen: You’re 15 and asking such perceptive questions!!

Almost. The goal of the Pharisees was to charge Him with not agreeing with the Law so they would have something against Him. But if He agreed with the Pharisees, the people would go against Him. They thought they had a win/win situation. Jesus was a thorn in their flesh, so they wanted some way to discredit His claimed authority.

All Jesus needed to say was that she should be stoned, if, indeed, she was guilty. He didn’t need to be the one to stone her. Just agree with the Law. In this case, because it was a trap, which Jesus perceived, the Pharisees didn’t need the man. He would have been superfluous for the trap. But, as you say, to be right, the man needed to be there, too. The Pharisees and teachers of the Law were a corrupt group of leaders that preyed on the poor, the downtrodden, and those unable to defend themselves. Jesus knew this quite well.
The people would turn on Him if He didn’t show mercy, because that was what drew the people to Him: His mercy and grace, compassionate teaching, and His miracles. For Him to agree to stone her (including not having the man there) would have gone against all they believed Him to be. The fact that Jesus perceived the trap and worked around it only served to further awe the people. So, the trap failed miserably.

Jesus was all about hating injustice and forgiving sin. That was a lot of what the Pharisees had against Him. He was forgiving sin. If you read the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-50), you will see the Pharisee’s attitude toward Him.
You are absolutely correct. However, they did have “witnesses”, if you consider it was the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees who brought her. Yes, Jesus knew she was guilty, but He also knew she was being used. All through the New Testament, Jesus forgave sin. It was His kindness and compassion in forgiving them that freed the people from their guilt. John 3:17 ff says:
"For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him."
John the Baptist came into the world to prepare the hearts of the people for the coming Christ. Christ’s forgiveness of these people, prepared them for His work on the cross.

You are right that Jesus could have said, “The man isn’t here”. Let’s bring the man into the picture. The question would have remained. “Should they be stoned, as the Law says?” Because of His mission of forgiveness, but still needing to obey the Law, by His saying, “The one without guilt, be the first to throw the stone,” He doesn’t negate the Law and remains true to His mission to forgive sin. Of course, He was the only one qualified to throw the stone, but the Pharisees didn’t consider Him sinless. If He cast the stone, He was saying He was sinless, which He wasn’t prepared to reveal to the Pharisees because they didn’t believe He was the Messiah. What we are also leaving out is what Jesus was writing on the ground. We aren’t told and there is a lot of speculation about what He wrote. Maybe He wrote the law that required the man to be there??? If that is the case, then the Pharisee’s were caught violating the law they were trying to use to accuse Jesus.

I think my answer above and yours here are in agreement, except He didn’t change the law. I think Matt. 5:17 might best explain what Jesus was doing.

"Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose".

The purpose of the Law, was to purge sin though human means. But, what the Law couldn’t do was cleanse by divine means. It required a sinless being. Jesus death fulfilled that need.
"For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh." (Romans 8:3)

If you have more questions, please continue to ask.

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@sgewehr Thank you so much again! However, I took Matthew 5:17 to mean that Jesus abolished the law in some aspects while accomplishing their purpose, for example, didn’t Jesus abolish the law in some aspects like polygamy?

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@AazerAllen; More good questions:

There is nothing in Scripture that indicates that Jesus abolished some of the Law and Prophets but not others. He is the fulfillment of the Law in that He accomplished their intent and still embodies their intent. Yet, some prophesies are yet to be fulfilled.

I think this link will help further your understanding of what Christ did (or didn’t do) in fulfilling the Law and Prophets. You are right in that some things in the Prophets have yet to be fulfilled. But Christ was the embodiment of the intent of the Law, and proof (or promise) that the Prophets were in the process of being fulfilled. For example, Daniel and Isaiah go into detail about the end times of this world. Those have yet to be accomplished. But, because Christ fulfilled the prophesies of His first coming, we can be assured those prophesies yet to be fulfilled will happen as told in the Old Testament.

In regard to polygamy, it’s important to understand that the Law did not establish polygamy. In Matthew 19:4, Jesus restates monogamous marriage as it was intended to be from Creation. Concerning divorce, He emphasizes why God allowed certain practices: because of the hardness of the Israelite’s hearts. That principle can be carried over to polygamy as well.
I have copied this link concerning the issue of polygamy in the OT that goes into greater depth. I think it will help your understanding of the issue of polygamy in the Old and New Testaments. Mainly, Jesus reestablished monogamy, but polygamy was not a law. Behavior in polygamous situations was addressed. But polygamy was never intended for marriage.

You are asking very good questions. In fact, they are helping me to examine Scripture
more closely. Thank you.

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Thanks again! So Jesus simply changed the laws that were against God’s will but which He allowed in the OT due to the Israelite’s demonstration of incapability to keep basic commandments.

Perhaps it is good to remember at this point that in a broader sense, the death penalty of God is still in force - even today. All of us are born under it.

The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus, our Lord. (Rom 6:23)

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@AazerAllen: I guess I’m still having a problem with the word “change” that you are using. When Jesus said He didn’t come to abolish the Law (which would indicate a change) but to fulfill it, there is a difference. To abolish it would mean that it was an ongoing Law, but Jesus was making it invalid. Instead, what Jesus did was to complete the Law’s physical requirements…to finish its requirements…by His death on the cross. Christ took on the death penalty for all the sins requiring such when He died on the cross. His death also meant that the physical practices of other sacrifices were finished, completed, when He died. All those death penalties and other sacrifices were a foreshadowing of what Christ would do.

So, Jesus’ death for our sins, satisfied (completed) the requirements of the Law. It didn’t change the Law. His new covenant established grace. Sin still exists. So, nothing changed there. By Jesus completing the punishments required by the Law, His death meant were no further sacrifices or death penalties to be performed, but forgiveness by grace for those who accept His substitutionary death. He died once for all. A sinner now coming to Christ, looks on the cross as his punishment and receives forgiveness through grace instead. The old way has passed away (not changed), and the new way has been established.

Numbers 23:19 says that God is not a man that He should change His mind. What God has declared sin, will remain. That sin has to be punished still remains. Sin’s punishment took place on the cross for sinners who repent. For those who don’t, the death penalty still exists. The Law of sin and death, just like the Law of Gravity, still exists. It hasn’t changed.
The mercy God extended in the Old Testament and while Jesus walked the earth was because of His sovereignty. The mercy God extends through the cross is because of His grace.

I hope this helps. Perhaps, others might have something more to contribute to our discussion to help you understand this subtle but definite difference between “change” and “fulfill”.

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Great conversation