"God's Love in the Old Testament" - Chapter 25



Chapter 25: "And More - the Death Penalty"




Chapter 25– And More - the Death Penalty


“You must not do as they do in Egypt , where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan , where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.” (Lev 18:3)



Contents of Chapter 25

25.1 Introduction

25.2 The Causes for the Death Penalty Given in the Old Testament

25.3 General Thoughts about Capital Punishment

25.4 The Background & Environment for the Giving of the Law

25.5 Reviewing the Laws

25.6 And to Conclude



25.1 Introduction


Since originally completing the first layout of this book, I have received questions on my blog that made me rrealise there was yet more to be added. This is the first of those additions. More will follow.

One of the subjects raised by those who would deride a God of love in the Old Testament is that of the death penalty. Surely, says our modern interrogator, a God of love would not condemn people to death for some of the mundane things that appear in the Old Testament?

If we are to give this more than a cursory shallow thought, we need to consider the following in some depth:

1. The Causes for the Death Penalty given in the Old Testament

2. General Thoughts about Capital Punishment

3. The Background and Environment for the Giving of the Law

4. Reviewing the Laws

It is possible that you may wish to scroll down to the end to see conclusions, but if you do, please go back and see the detail on which the conclusions are built, for perhaps, this subject more than most has a number of underlying premises that need to be understood. Without them, you will simply make baseless accusations founded on ignorance. Please don't.


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25.2 The Causes for the Death Penalty given in the Old Testament


We need to identify the exact commands that are being referred to that are found in the Law of Moses. Here is a list from Exodus through to Deuteronomy, which we will categorise later on:


1. Ex 21:12 “Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death.”

i.e. murder


2. Ex 21:15 "Anyone who attacks his father or his mother must be put to death .”

NB. ‘attacks' implies kills parents


3. Ex 21:16 "Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death.”

i.e. for kidnap (also Deut 24:7)


4. Ex 21:17 "Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.

i.e. for bringing destruction on parents (also Lev 20:9)


5. Ex 21:29 If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull must be stoned and the owner also must be put to death.

i.e. Strict liability law


6. Ex 22:18 "Do not allow a sorceress to live .

i.e. witchcraft


7. Ex 22:19 "Anyone who has sexual relations with an animal must be put to death.

i.e. bestiality


8. Ex 22:20 "Whoever sacrifices to any god other than the LORD must be destroyed

i.e. idolatry


9. Ex 22:22 -24 Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. 23 If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.

i.e. God's vengeance on the heartless


10. Lev 20:1,2 `Any Israelite or any alien living in Israel who gives (sacrifices) any of his children to Molech must be put to death. The people of the community are to stone him.

i.e. child sacrifice


11. Lev 20:10 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.

i.e. adultery (also Deut 22:22 ,23)


12. Lev 20:11 `If a man sleeps with his father's wife, he has dishonored his father. Both the man and the woman must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

i.e. incest


13. Lev 20:12 ` If a man sleeps with his daughter-in-law, both of them must be put to death. What they have done is a perversion; their blood will be on their own heads.

i.e. extension of adultery


14. Lev 20:13 If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

i.e. homosexual practice


15. Lev 20:14 If a man marries both a woman and her mother, it is wicked. Both he and they must be burned in the fire, so that no wickedness will be among you.

i.e. wrongful bigamy


16. Lev 20:15 `If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he must be put to death, and you must kill the animal.

i.e. bestiality


17. Lev 20:16 `If a woman approaches an animal to have sexual relations with it, kill both the woman and the animal. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

i.e. bestiality


18. Lev 20:27 A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads.'

i.e. mediums


19. Deut 13:1-6 If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, 2 and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, "Let us follow other gods" (gods you have not known) "and let us worship them," 3 you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. 4 It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. 5 That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the LORD

i.e. false prophecy leading away . (also 18:20)


20. Deut 13:6-11 6 If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, "Let us go and worship other gods" (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, 7 gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), 8 do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. 9 You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. 10 Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 11 Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.

i.e. rebels leading away from God


21. Deut 13:12-15 12 If you hear it said about one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you to live in 13 that wicked men have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, "Let us go and worship other gods" (gods you have not known), 14 then you must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. And if it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done among you, 15 you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. Destroy it completely, A both its people and its livestock

i.e. corporate rebellion


22. Deut 17:2-7 2 If a man or woman living among you in one of the towns the LORD gives you is found doing evil in the eyes of the LORD your God in violation of his covenant, 3 and contrary to my command has worshiped other gods, bowing down to them or to the sun or the moon or the stars of the sky, 4 and this has been brought to your attention, then you must investigate it thoroughly. If it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done in Israel , 5 take the man or woman who has done this evil deed to your city gate and stone that person to death. 6 On the testimony of two or three witnesses a man shall be put to death, but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. 7 The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. You must purge the evil from among you.

i.e. established idolatry 


23. Deut 17:11,12 Act according to the law they teach you and the decisions they give you. Do not turn aside from what they tell you, to the right or to the left. The man who shows contempt for the judge or for the priest who stands ministering there to the LORD your God must be put to death. You must purge the evil from Israel .

i.e. abusing court authority


24. Deut 21:18-21 If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, "This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a profligate and a drunkard." Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.

i.e. ongoing, unrepentant, rebellious son


25. Deut 22:20:21 If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl's virginity can be found, 21 she shall be brought to the door of her father's house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father's house.

i.e. Promiscuity before marriage


26. Deut 22:25 But if out in the country a man happens to meet a girl pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die.

i.e. rape 


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25.3 General Thoughts about Capital Punishment


Without realising it most of the time, many of us have a slightly hypocritical view of capital punishment. To be liberal, reasonable, caring Westerners we haven't arrived at our feelings about capital punishment by careful, logical and well thought through ideology. We have simply taken on board what has been fed us by the media and political leaders.


According to one well known and respected web-site, there were 757 murders in the UK in 2008, down from 1200 in 2002. Graphs for the decade or so before then indicate a steadily rising number of deaths each year.


On a debate Internet site we find, “The rate for unlawful killings in Britain has more than doubled since abolition of capital punishment in 1964, from 0.68 per 100,000 population, to 1.42 per 100,000. Home office figures show around 300 unlawful killings in 1964, which rose to 565 in 1994 and 833 in 2004.” .


All of this becomes academic when we have our home broken into, our daughter raped infront of us, and our son and partner shot dead infront of us. At that point, most people change very rapidly from anti-death penalty to pro-death penalty. This suggests that our views are more likely formed one way or the other depending on how close to violent crime we have been. This moves us from thoughts of deterrent to thoughts of either revenge or justice. Sometimes the two can be very close together.


Whereas the death penalty may not be a deterrent for a minority, we would suggest it is for the majority.

I have sometimes thought that we will only appreciate the deterrent factor if we take on board some of the key instructions given to bring about capital punishment in Israel through the Law. Although it is only spelled out once or twice, it would appear that for these laws to be applied they required:

•  at least two trustworthy witnesses to be able to testify to a misdemeanour,

•  an investigation by local leaders to confirm without doubt that this was the case, and

•  the local people to be the ones who carried out the execution by stoning.


I would suggest that if or when it did happen, it would be very rare because:

  • the act of stoning someone until they fall down totally bloodied and to finally have their skull crushed by stones,
  • would create such terrible nightmares for weeks to come,
  • that everyone involved would determine they would be vigilant and work to ever prevent such a cause for an execution to occur again in their village. 


Indeed some of the laws speak of the very fear of this created by this form of execution. It is probable, that mostly virtually never happened and that life in the Israelite society was typified by peace and harmony. When some course of behaviour has such horrifying consequences, you don't even think about going there and life is better for it. Our danger in reflecting on these things is to consider them the norm. They would not be. The norm would be the opposite – peace and harmony and real community, things that are sadly lacking in today's modern western world.


When it comes to criticism about the reasons for capital punishment as seen in the Law of Moses, some critics would concede that death for murder and maybe even rape would be acceptable. The points of debate therefore come down to the remaining reasons for these laws, and to discuss these intelligently and without emotional knee-jerk reactions, it is necessary to study

a) the period in which these laws were instituted,

b) the unique position of Israel ,

c) God's role and God's intention for Israel and for the world.


These things we will study in the next section, and they really are important to understand if we are to understand the Law given through Moses by God.


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25.4 The Background and Environment for the Giving of the Law


a) The period in which these laws were instituted


In many ways the period of history during which Israel came into existence could be characterized by:

  i) ‘dog eat dog'

  ii) superstitious, occultic, pagan idolatrous worship.


To illustrate “dog eat dog” we only have to read the first twelve verses of Genesis 14 to see the tribal kingdoms fighting each other. ‘Might is right' often ruled. This was especially seen in the first twelve chapters of Exodus when Pharaoh shows us the power and authority given to kings of large countries in those days. The warlike nature of many nations is revealed in the book of Judges when, time after time when Israel drifted away from the Lord and He left them to their own devices, they immediately became vulnerable to attacks by their neighbours who were out to destroy them.


Superstitious, occultic, pagan, idolatrous worship prevailed in one form or another in most countries 1300 years before Christ. While we may be casual about such things, that is probably only because of our ignorance of them. Fear predominated and it wasn't unusual to sacrifice children to appease the ‘gods'.


It is into this environment that Abram comes, followed by Isaac and Jacob (Israel), men who find themselves having a living relationship with Almighty God, described as the Creator of all things (see Gen 14:18-22). In previous chapters we have gone to some lengths to show how He was revealed in the Old Testament and then the New – a God who is love. To see something of His objectives, we need to examine what the Old Testament reveals of Israel at this time.


b) The Unique Position of Israel


The uniqueness of Israel has already been hinted at. Genesis chapter 12 onwards show us God entering into a relationship with Abram, Isaac and Jacob. Exodus shows us how that relationship was developed in a corporate sense to include the whole of what became the nation of Israel .


Until the time of the Exodus, God had imposed no rules upon them, but had simply encouraged them as individuals and individual families by promising them His blessing. Good would come to them because they were relating to Him. While in Egypt they grew in excess of a million people (possibly double that) and so when He delivered them from Pharaoh's slavery, they were more of a nation than a bunch of families and it was on this basis that the Lord dealt with them, and this was unique in the world.


As they come out of Egypt and prepare to enter into their new land ( Canaan ), Moses explains something of their uniqueness. Read though the following verses carefully and see his structured argument:


Deut 4:32-37 Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created man on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by miraculous signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? You were shown these things so that you might know that the LORD is God; besides him there is no other. From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you. On earth he showed you his great fire, and you heard his words from out of the fire. Because he loved your forefathers and chose their descendants after them, he brought you out of Egypt by his Presence and his great strength, to drive out before you nations greater and stronger than you and to bring you into their land to give it to you for your inheritance, as it is today.


He asks:

•  has any other nation had this experience of God?

•  has any other nation heard from God like they had?

•  has any other nation been delivered from slavery in the way they had?


And the reason for it? So that:

•  they might learn who God was,

•  they might realise they have been called by Him with a purpose, and

•  all that had happened so far was just the early part of that purpose.


c) God's role and God's intention for Israel and for the world.


In chapter 9 we went to some lengths to show some (not all) of the indications in the Old Testament that God wanted Israel to be a light to the rest of the world, to reveal Him to His world. Now that purpose had some very clear specifics what come out in the text. We start with what happened at Sinai as they are being constituted a nation with God. Note the details:


Ex 34:10-16 Then the LORD said: "I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the LORD, will do for you. Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. "Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same.



  1. God is entering into an agreement (covenant) with them. For it to work, He will do some things and they need to do some things.
  2. He is going to give them the land of Canaan , but as with so many other places, as we noted above, it is inhabited by a people who are warlike and who have superstitious, occultic, pagan, idolatrous worship which means fear, child sacrifice and many other things that were far from God's design for mankind.
  3. Whatever else happens, Israel are NOT to take on board any of the practices of that land, they are to be quite different for, as we've noted, they are to reveal another way to the world (which is why Chapter 9 is so important – if you haven't read it, go back and take it all in.)
  4. In addition to that they must not marry their girls because they will only persuade the Israelite men to follow their pagan practices and Israel 's uniqueness will soon be evaporated and they will no longer reveal God and His goodness to the rest of the world. This is critical to much of the thinking behind the Law of Moses we are considering.

Perhaps we need to paint a little of the bigger picture at this point, and for ease of understanding put it as key points:


1. God is Designer-Creator of all things.

  • The Bible clearly shows Him as this and if it is so then He would know how He has designed us and the world to work and would know how we ‘work' best.

2. The ‘Fall' necessitated a ‘rescue plan'

  • Having given us free will He knew we would exercise it and basically reject His guidance of our lives, and become godless and self-centred.
  • His plan, before even the Creation, the Bible tells us, involved drawing Abram etc. into a relationship with Him and showing them a better way, the right way, the way according to His design, to live.
  • All along the way was God's recognition that we would still get things wrong and so He incorporated ways for reconciliation with Him after failure (the sacrificial system).


A new way of life involving relationship with God, guidance and help along the way , and a means of dealing with failure , are all the key elements of what we find in those early books of the Bible.


We must emphasise that He is creating a different people who live in a different way from the war-mongering, superstitious occultic ways of other nations. Thus we find the warning coming through Moses:


Lev 18:3 “You must not do as they do in Egypt , where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan , where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.”


But the encouragements that came from the Lord as Israel prepared to enter the new land, weren't merely negative warnings , they also encouraged by the promise of the goodness of the land they were about to enter, for example:


Deut 6:10,11 a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, 11 houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant--then when you eat and are satisfied


Deut 8:7-9 For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land--a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.





To summarise these things, and they are vital to understanding the severity of these particular laws, note the following:  

1. God has a plan to reveal Himself to the world through Israel.

2. Key things He needs to reveal are His love and His goodness.

3. Those will be revealed by the nature of the life of Israel which will be as different from the surrounding nations as chalk is from cheese.

4. It is thus vital that they:

  • reveal His design for us to ‘work properly' and
  • do not diverge by becoming like the surrounding peoples.


We cannot over-emphasise the importance of these things.


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25.5 Reviewing the Laws


Very well, the ‘capital punishment laws' indicate the extreme importance that God gives to the above items. Thus we will categorise them as bringing the greatest awareness possible to the two things in the fourth point in the Summary above.


a) His Design for Mankind to ‘work properly'.


This is indicated in the greatest deterrent possible being applied in respect of:


•  Respect for human life

•  no murder Ex 21:12

•  no kidnapping Ex 21:16 (& Deut 24:7)

•  no rape Deut 22:25

•  no carelessness resulting in loss of life Ex 21:19

•  no heartless disregard for the weak Ex 22:22-24

•  no disregarding authority Deut 17:11,12


What is God's alternative, His original ‘design' for us? It is respect, love and acceptance of every person, never harming them by word or deed, but being caring, compassionate and considerate.


•  Respect for God's design for family life at the heart of society life

•  no threats to parents Ex 21:15 ,17 (Deut 21:18 -21)

•  no degenerating into mere sexual animals Ex 22:19 (& Lev 20:15 ,16)

•  no adultery Lev 20:12 , 19 (& Deut 22:22 ,23)

•  no incest Lev 20:11

•  no homosexual practice Lev 20:13

•  no wrongful bigamy Lev 20:14

•  no promiscuity before marriage Deut 22:20,21


What is God's alternative, His original design? It is for stable, loyal, harmonious family life (who could want anything other than that????) where sex is an expression of love between members of the opposite sex within a committed, loving, lifelong relationship which creates a stable and secure environment in which to raise a family.  


b) His Intent for Israel not to degenerate to the level of surrounding pagan nations.


This is indicated in the greatest deterrent possible being applied in respect of:


•  Maintaining their relationship with Him

•  no false prophets enticing them away Deut 13:1-6 (& 18:20 )

•  no influential person to you enticing you away Deut 13:6-11

•  no group making a breakaway that might influence the rest Deut 13:12-16

•  no tolerating idolatry springing up Deut 17:2-7


What was God's alternative, His intent in establishing a relationship with Israel ? It was to be available to them to bless them and guide them, provide for them and protect them, so that they may reveal His love and goodness to the rest of the world.


Did it happen? On rare occasions! In reality they showed that even with all these advantages, sin within them led them into self-centred godlessness which weakened them and made them vulnerable to surrounding enemies. Only God's help, time and again, saved them.


•  Avoiding copying the practices of other nations and becoming like them

•  no witchcraft Ex 22:18

•  no mediums Lev 20:27

•  no idol worship Ex 22:20

•  no child sacrifice Lev 20:1,2 


What was God's alternative, His means of communicating with His people to help achieve all the above things? He would speak through His prophets or His leaders – which is how the Law came to be in the first place – and would encourage or correct them as necessary, to help them stay on track.



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25.6 And to Conclude


If we hold a godless, self-centred attitude then nothing on this page will mean anything to us. If we are seeking truth and are open to consider the possibilities then I believe the content here is logical and straight forward.


For us to grasp the full significance of it we will need to see:  

  • the importance of adhering to the design and plan of God revealed here,
  • the threat of the pressures to conform to the ways of other nations that Israel had to resist.


Again we might suggest the full import of it can only be grasped in the light of the times when Israel were in a good relationship with the Lord, especially in the reigns of King David and then King Solomon. At those times we see the fullness of God's plan for them producing great prosperity and well-being.


A concluding observation that perhaps we should make is that these particular laws were given to a particular nation who lived in relationship with God. In modern Western society the majority are godless (God just doesn't feature in their lives) and self-centred (that's all you are left with). Social commentators often bewail the breakdown of society.


Few recognise that an underlying cause is because we have abandoned God and His design for mankind and so have no absolutes by which to judge what is right or wrong. We thus have flexible ethics. It is for this reason that even within the police force, the media are often reporting less than ethical behaviour, and with that loss of trust, seeking to apply capital punishment laws today, for whatever cause, would be questionable; the number of ‘unsafe' court decisions in recent years affirms this. Tragic!


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