The Layperson’s Bible: Crime and Punishment Part I – Capital Punishment

Is The Bible a religious text or a codebook of law? Read the following, and judge for yourself.

We all know about The Ten Commandments, of course, but a rather large portion of the first several books of the Old Testament goes further than merely “Thou shalt not.” In fact, it not only differentiates right from wrong, but also prescribes sentences for wrongdoers, and it is difficult not to admire the simplicity with which it addresses the issue of crime and punishment, particularly when one calculates the legal expenses which might be saved if our courts abided by a more Biblically-styled system. Unfortunately, it appears that the writers of The Bible lacked the foresight to divine that in two thousand years few human legal disputes would revolve around oxen, sheep, and the treatment of slaves. And so we have been left to derive our own applicable punishments for modern crimes which are entirely absent from the code of Moses’ time, perhaps the most conspicuous of which is fraud, that bane of contemporary society which is either incredibly profitable or incredibly expensive, depending upon whether you are its perpetrator or its victim, and what degree of success you enjoy as either.  

But, concerning the major crimes, Biblical law, which, no doubt, itself carries forward from more ancient traditions, resonates remarkably with our own, in conceptual theory if not always in practical application. Except, perhaps, that the ancients appeared to believe much more strongly in capital punishment. According to the King James Bible, the following offenses are punishable by death:

Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made he man. (Genesis 9:6)
The land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it. (Numbers 35:33)

Well, death to murderers fits within our own system, at least in some states. Certainly everyone would agree that if we have to have capital punishment, that murder would be an offense to be punished with it. But the reasoning here is interesting. A murderer should be killed for two reasons: one, because if he kills a man, he kills an image of God, and that’s a big no-no, and two, because it is necessary to avenge the dead in order to cleanse the land of the crime. In other words, murder is an offense against both God and the land on which it occurs. Modern people, I think, see it more as an offense against the person murdered. Of course, we get our whole “eye for an eye” thing from the Bible, too, but very few of our crimes are punished in that manner. Although, come to think of it, personally I feel it would be very entertaining if I got to egg the kids who keep egging my car, and might even discourage others from following suit, especially if the eggs were rotten.

Interestingly, The Bible also provides a number of caveats even in the case of murderers, exceptions which are still very much present in the American law of today, but that is a subject for another post.

On to capital crimes numbers two and three:
Smiting one’s mother or father. (Exodus 21:15)
Cursing one’s mother or father. (Exodus 21:17)
You can be put to death for either smiting or cursing your parents. That’d get teenagers to honor their folks, eh? Or would we simply run out of teenagers?
Stealing a man:
If a man be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and maketh merchandise of him, or selleth him, then that thief shall die (Deuteronomy 24:7)

Interesting. The Lord seems to frown upon slavery. Or at least, of making slaves of your own people.

Working on the Sabbath:
Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death. (Exodus 35:2)

God is really serious about this one. In Numbers 15:35, he even orders a stranger, a non-Jew, stoned to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. Of course, much to the chagrin of the Pharisees, Jesus went a little soft on the whole Sabbath thing himself, arguing that it was okay to heal the lame or pick corn if your men were hungry, but as Lord of the Sabbath, he couldn’t really be faulted anyway. Which is really fortunate for us – I’m sure you can imagine the carnage which would ensue at the mall on Sundays if we still adhered to this no-working thing. Of course, the real fundamentalists stay home and watch football and thus avoid trouble either way.

Worshipping other gods:
He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed. (Exodus 22:20)

The Lord spends a lot of the Old Testament trying to make this point. The Jews seem to have some trouble getting it.

Being mean to those who have lost husbands and fathers:
Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. (Exodus 22:22)
I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless. (Exodus 22:24)
This really surprised me. I’d be really curious to know why that was so important. I’m inclined to suspect that it had to do with war. You want your soldiers to be reassured insofar as possible that their loved ones won’t be mistreated in the event of their death.

Numerous sexual offenses also require capital punishment, including committing adultery, lying with one’s father’s wife, one’s daughter-in-law, or a woman and her mother (Leviticus 20:10-14; Sorry, fans of Stacy’s mom; that fantasy is strictly forbidden). For a man to lie with another man is an offense punishable by death, and also for a man to lay with a beast, although I’m not sure why the beast is called onto the carpet for it:

And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast. (Leviticus 20:15)
But these are only the capital offenses: fear not, there’s lots and lots more crime and punishment to come.

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