Why would God establish stoning as a means of punishment?

My faith is in Christ and I believe in the authority and authenticity of Scripture. I recognize and value God’s intentionality in what He does. I am seeking to understand why He would establish stoning and then put the execution of this practice into the hands (literally) of the people. And why would such a task not be delegated to specific leaders? For example, only Levites were permitted to carry out priestly duties and make sacrifices for Israel. It would seem the horror of carrying out a stoning would be in itself a deterrent until, of course, there was an offense that hit close to home such as the rape or murder of a loved one. Thank you for offering this forum for our questions.

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Welcome, Mitzi!

Stoning was used as a means of punishment for several reasons:

  1. No bones were broken, as in hanging.
  2. There was minimal desecration of the body, as opposed to say, with burning or decapitation.
  3. Touching a corpse made one ceremonially unclean (Num. 19:11). Stoning does not require touching the body of the condemned.
  4. Stones were not formed by human hands. Altars to God were constructed from unrefined stones in the pre-Temple period. Stoning of a condemned individual was an act of obedience and worship. The land itself was defiled by certain kinds of heinous sin (Gen. 4:10; Numbers 35:33); the stones symbolized the judgment of God against the one who defiled it.
  5. Along the same line, the individual’s sin was considered so heinous that it defiled the entire community. When Achan defied God’s command to devote the spoils of the city of Ai as a burnt offering to Him and kept some of the gold and silver for himself, all of Israel suffered until Achan and his children were stoned and all his possessions were burned (Joshua 6:19-7:25). In a sense, God held all of Israel guilty (Joshua 7:1). Perhaps others knew of Achan’s sin and failed to report it: Scripture is silent on this point. In this special case, the bodies of Achan and his family were also burned after being stoned, symbolically correcting the failure of Achan to carry out the burnt offering by substituting his body, those of his family and all of his possessions. Because the entire community suffered (family members lost in battle), the entire community exacted the penalty, demonstrating agreement with God’s judgment.

Thank you for welcoming me to the forum and also for your response, Katherine. You have offered good information regarding the practice of stoning and the reason for it.

What I am trying to understand is God’s heart and purpose to institute this particular practice. In one instance of His judgement the earth opened and engulfed everyone and everything associated with the guilty party. In this and other cases, God carried out His judgement without involving other people. But stoning requires one’s fellow men to carry out God’s judgement. God simply must have a reason for involving people in this particular manner. Perhaps Scripture doesn’t speak to this and it belongs in the category of things we are unable to understand.

God could have selected any method, but HE chose stoning. It is a great challenge to imagine being on either end of such a scenario. God doesn’t just do good, He IS good. He is not just loving, He IS love. So I am seeking to understand His heart and His ways in this specific matter of stoning rather than knowing more about the practice itself.

Taking into account our fallen nature and reading stories of stonings carried out even presently in the realm of Islam, it leaves me in a quandary.

Thanks again.

Mitzi

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@MBrumley62 I agree that I cannot see myself casting a stone at someone even if they had committed a serious crime and we have the story of Jesus, though its authenticity is debated, intervening to save a woman who was going to be stoned for adultery (John 8). How do we make sense of this apparent contradiction?

A very important verse is John 1:17. In it, we see that the law had a purpose, but that Jesus is a greater revelation of God’s character. As it says in Galatians, the law was like a tutor that taught us the seriousness of sin and was intended to point us to our need for a Savior, Jesus.

To begin to understand the laws that seem so out of touch with grace to us in the OT, we first need to keep a few things in mind. I recommend watching the Bible Project videos for Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Galatians linked below to help you understand some of these issues.

  • we should not compare the OT laws to modern law, but to the laws of other ancient near eastern civilizations. God gave the law to Israel at a specific place and a specific time in history for a specific purpose—to set a people apart for Himself amidst a great deal of idolatry and evil.
  • for God to dwell among the Israelites, they had to be holy. Our culture downplays and denies the very existence of sin, making it very hard for us to understand how important it was for Israel to walk in obedience as God’s chosen people.
  • when we see how much grace God showed to Rahab the prostitute or to even the wicked king Ahab when he repented (1 Kings 21) even in the OT and how few actual stonings are recorded, I think we begin to realize that these punishments were not to be dealt out without any thought given to whether or not the offender was repentant and the circumstances.
  • The law was not meant to be just a list of rules—Jesus said the whole law came down to loving God and loving neighbor. To read the law as just a list of rules to be blindly applied is to misunderstand the entire Bible. Jesus made it quite clear that some of the Pharisees had made this very error.

John 1:17 - For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Galatians 3:23-25 - But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.

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Mitzi, as you rightly point out, God occasionally uses human beings to execute judgment. In the Old Testament, we have the examples of the Israelites taking Jericho and Ai, David’s slaying Goliath, Elijah and the Israelites slaying the prophets of Baal, and many others. Even in the New Testament, humans pronounce judgment, e.g., Paul condemning Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit and his ordering the man at Corinth sleeping with his father’s wife to be expelled from fellowship until he repented. Often the collective method seems to be employed when a sin is either communal (worshipping the golden calf) or clearly against the entire community (murder, stealing from God [Achan, Ananias and Sapphira] or shaming the Church [man sleeping with father’s wife]). The punishment is terrible because the crime is especially heinous, and compelling everyone in the community to participate in the punishment of the offender drives home just how seriously God takes the particular sin. God is good. God is loving. But God is also holy and despises sin so much that He allowed Himself to be tortured and killed in order to overcome it. In order to be perfectly good, He must hate evil. He is privy to the hearts and minds of human beings—we are not. I sometimes struggle with the fact that God ordered infants and animals to be slaughtered by the Israelites. How can that be good? We don’t know. God may have seen some horrible evil that would arise if the children were allowed to live—or some good that would not come to pass as He decreed. The children or the animals may have been demon possessed. At times, one must trust that God knows what He is doing, and that it is the right thing, even when it is perplexing to us and when He asks us to be involved in something we’d prefer not to do. We aren’t omniscient or holy and cannot fully comprehend the ways of a God who is. It can be (very!) frustrating at times, but that is when He expects us to trust Him not to abuse His sovereignty because He is good and loving. As sovereign creator, God has authority over all life and death, but because of His character He only uses that authority in certain ways. He will not ask us to participate in anything sinful, although it may be distasteful or even, in the case of capital punishment, horrifying. Fortunately, it is more common for God to use human beings (Noah, prophets, authors of Scripture, church leaders) to warn of coming judgment and to impose the sentence Himself, either directly or using angels as He did with the plagues of Egypt and with the Assyrian army. Like you, I would find it very difficult to obey a divine command to stone another person.

In Israelite tribal culture, the patriarch (generally the eldest male) was responsible for the actions of his entire family or tribe. If a member of the family/tribe sinned and the leader of the tribe failed to deal with it, the whole tribe/family could face judgment. When David failed to punish his son who raped Tamar, and when he took a census in an act that showed lack of faith in God’s protection, all of Israel was punished. Biblical doctrine matured on this issue as the Israelites became less barbaric and less tribal during the Babylonian Exile. The entire chapter of Ezekiel 18 teaches that the person who sins will be held culpable, not his father or his son. That doesn’t mean that children always escape the fallout from their parents’ sins, only that God doesn’t blame them or hold them accountable for it. This really wasn’t a new doctrine—it first appears in Scripture in the Torah: Deut. 24:16 states "Fathers are not to be put to death for their children or children for their fathers; each person will be put to death for his own sin.” The change in Ezekiel is that turning away from sin is rewarded with forgiveness, perhaps to offer believers a foretaste of the radical forgiveness that would be offered through Christ a few centuries later.

It may be comforting to remember that we don’t know the fate of the “innocents.” Perhaps the slain children of Ai and Jericho and of Achan’s family went to heaven and were spared the trials of living in a pagan stronghold or in a rebellious chosen nation, respectively. While from our human perspective it seems a tragedy that they were killed, perhaps from theirs, or from God’s, it was an act of mercy and kindness.

Thank you for this interesting (and challenging) question, Mitzi.

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Hi, @MBrumley62. @SeanO gave a great response, but I have something to add in regard to some of what you wrote:

So often we link God’s goodness to His love and forget His other attributes. God is love but He is also just. Goodness and love require justice. An unjust God would also be an unloving God. His justice and love must go together hand in hand. The carrying out of whatever sentence was to be passed was to show that God cannot just let sin go.

And, yes, he involved people–just like He also involves and uses people in witnessing to others. People were supposed to bring glory to God by ruling over the earth as His representatives. A part of ruling is to carry out consequences. It happens with our government today. After a trial, if someone is found guilty, a sentence is passed up to and including the death penalty. It isn’t pleasant at all, and it isn’t meant to be, especially not for the one carrying the sentencing out. I think God may have wanted the people to feel the heaviness of carrying something like that out. I don’t know…if I had been there and had to do that, I think I would have thought more about the heartache it caused God to carry out people’s death sentences because of sin. I would have thought to care more about being watchful over my neighbors, to help them if they were struggling with temptation. This may not be a concrete answer, and I don’t think we will get one because the intention of the text is focused on sin, its wages, and the fact that we cannot save ourselves in order to point us to our need for a Savior. But…I am hoping these thoughts can help in at least some small way.

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Hi @MBrumley62. I admire your intention for asking this challenging question.

As usual, @SeanO has given a solid answer. I hope my comments here will also help.

God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked. He is not sadistic, therefore you are correct to search for his purpose for prescribing this punishment. I think it helps to remember that he also commanded Israel to put all the inhabitants in Canaan to the sword. Stoning was punishment for the Israelites and the sword was for their enemies. I don’t know why God chose different methods, but the reasons were the same. Death is the only way to kill sin. God was clear: Israel could not compromise, make treaties or show mercy to their Canaanite neighbors because their wicked practices would ensnare Israel. God is holy, he chose Israel to be his holy people and they therefore had to learn to regard sin as God does. Sin is deadly and malignant and can only be put to death — the wages of sin is death.

God does not delight in death, but some do, such as the Pharisees who dragged a woman caught in adultery to Jesus. They were testing Jesus’ judgment, but reminded him that the law decreed she be stoned. Jesus deftly handled their test and showed that God has a solution better than sword or stone. He did not forbid her stoning, and thereby he upheld the law that sin must die, but as the only one in the group who had the right to throw the first stone, Jesus instead showed mercy and did not condemn her. His actions demonstrated that sin must die, but the sinner doesn’t have to. Instead of stoning, Jesus set her free.

Significantly, Jesus released her with the command, “Go and sin no more.” The intent of God’s laws about stonings and swords was to put an end to sin. We don’t hear of this woman again, but personally I think that sin indeed died that day — not by stones, but by the word of Jesus. Because of Jesus, she did not die in sin, she died to her sin. The Son had set her free, and the one the Son sets free is free indeed.

@MBrumley62, rest assured God will answer your desire to understand his heart and ways. Jesus promises: Seek, and you shall find. May the Lord bless you on your journey.

“I think God may have wanted the people to feel the heaviness of carrying something like that out.” I agree with this statement @psalm151Is. With all d good intentions and plans He had for them, anybody who participated or watched d act took home a lesson (not a nice one to say d least) as to stay away from such sin.

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