Capital Punishment: Justification for Death Penalties in the Old Testament



Joshua Wu[1]

            In his popular book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins boldly claims that, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”[2] Not surprisingly, many people share Dawkins’ views as a result of their deformed view of the Bible and what it states.

The purpose of this paper is to provide two, non-exhaustive, justifications for Old Testament laws which prescribe the death penalty for certain offences. The paper will begin by addressing some preliminary issues before introducing a two prong justification. Moving on from there, we will consider how it all ties in with Christ, before concluding on what our relationship to the Old Testament law is.


  1. A) Preliminaries

It is pertinent to be aware of some of the offences for which the death penalty is prescribed. In his Dictionary of the Bible, John McKenzie maintains: “The laws of the Pnt prescribe stoning for the following crimes: idolatry (Dt 13:10; 17:5); blasphemy (Lv 24:14; cf 1 K 21:10; Jn 10:33); child sacrifice (Lv 20:2); divination (Lv 20:27); Sabbath violation (Nm 15:32 ff); adultery (Dt 22:22 f; cf Ezk 16:40; 23:47;  Jn 8:4 f); fornication by an unmarried woman (Dt 22:21); rebellion of children (Dt 21:20 f); and the ox that gores (Ex 21:28).”[3]

There are also other offences, wherein stoning isn’t mentioned but where it is commanded that the perpetrators be “put to death”. These are, being a false prophet (Deuteronomy 13:5), bestiality (Exodus 22:19), homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), murder (Exodus 21:12), as well as prostitution and rape (Deuteronomy 22:24). John McKenzie argues that “It may be assumed that stoning is the penalty for other crimes in which the manner of execution is not specified.”[4]

What else do we know about stoning? Craig Keener comments that, “Death by stoning was a common mob action throughout the ancient world, but it was a legal form of execution in the Torah …”[5]. Stoning is also the “… most commonly mentioned form of execution in the Bible … it requires all those persons who have been offended to participate. Because it cannot be determined whose individual stone caused the death of the condemned, no one person needed to bear the guilt for the death.”[6]

Interestingly, “Stoning is not mentioned as a form of capital punishment outside the Bible. Ancient Near Eastern law codes list only drowning, burning, impalement, and beheading, and in each case it is an official body, not the community at large, that is charged with carrying out the punishment.”[7] Lastly, Matthew George Easton remarks: “The official Pentateuchal methods of capital punishment were stoning, burning and decapitation by the sword, these being enumerated in their descending order of severity. The Rabbis added a fourth and milder alternative, strangling.”[8]


B) Justifications

B1) First prong: The law was a result of a covenant

A covenant has been defined as “a contract or agreement between two parties.”[9] and “it presupposes two or more parties who come together to make a contract, agreeing on promises, stipulations, privileges, and responsibilities.”[10] It makes perfect sense for a law to follow from a covenant, as a stipulation and responsibility of a party to a covenant.[11]

The next question to answer is who the covenant is between. J Hampton Keathley III maintains that, “The Mosaic Law was a bilateral covenant made specifically for Israel alone to govern her life in the promised land. From the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen.12) we see Israel was a chosen nation, an instrument of God to become a channel of blessing to all nations. Yahweh was her Theocratic King who was to rule and guide the nation in her destiny that she might not become polluted or contaminated by other nations and could thus fulfill her purpose. For this the Mosaic Law was instituted to direct Israel as a nation in all spheres of her life—morally, socially, politically, economically and religiously.”[12]

According to Owen Budden, “By being obedient to God, the Israelites were to encourage the surrounding nations to be drawn, or attracted, to the Israelite community, and, ultimately, to their God. They were to live lives that were “set apart” from the people who lived near them. They were to show the nations, by their actions, by their high morals and ethics, that faith and belief in the one true God was the only way to find true happiness and success in life. By being obedient to God, and resistant to the temptations all around them, the Israelite nation was meant to be a shining star in a galaxy of black holes.”[13]

Law professor, Dr. David Skeel and Old Testament professor, Dr. Tremper Longman adds in their co-authored paper that “…the fact that the law is followed by blessings and curses [found in Deuteronomy 27-28] also indicates that obedience maintains the divine-human relationship. If Israel disobeys the law, then the curses of the law come into effect.”[14] In other words, “The earthly, temporal blessings were granted to God’s people Israel under the conditions of the Mosaic administration. As long as Israel was faithful to the covenant with her Lord she would enjoy life and prosperity in the promised land. By reason of disobedience those temporal blessings would be forfeited by the whole house of Israel … Hans K. LaRondelle correctly observes: “Israel would only remain God’s treasured and holy possession and holy nation if Israel would obey God and keep His covenant (Exodus 20-24) …””[15]

A sub-question is as to why the law resulting from the covenant between God and Israel has to include the death penalty. Couldn’t God have just entered into a covenant with Israel and overlook their failures to adhere by the law He has set out?

B1)(i): The law reflects God’s system of values[16]

“The crimes which are declared worthy of death in Leviticus 20 are those acts which God called sin previously, and which His covenant clearly prohibited. The reason why any violation of His covenant was a capital offense was that this was God’s expressed will, the basis for His blessing or discipline, the standard for holiness.”[17]

It has been argued that, “In the midst of our consternation that God would condemn a person to death for what we would call a minor offense, let us not forget that the Bible portrays every sin as worthy of death. The wages of sin, we are told, is death (Rom. 6:23). There is no such thing as a small sin in God’s sight.”[18] As hard hitting as the following may sound, Robert Deffinbaugh is right when he said that “If it happens that we are troubled by what God has condemned as worthy of death, then we must recognize that our value system must be “out of sync” with God’s …”[19]

B1)(ii): To purge the evil from amongst them

It has been said that “(2) Punishment is designed to “purge the evil from the midst of you” … refers to the guilt that rests upon the land and its inhabitants. This concept, though foreign to our secular way of thinking, occupies an important place in the Bible … Gen. 4:10-11 … Lev. 18:24-28 … Deut. 21:1-9 …”[20] Bible commentator John Walton notes that, “In every case [of capital punishment] the purpose is to eliminate contaminating elements from society and thereby purge the evil that threatened to draw the people away from the *covenant.”[21]

An opt observation is that “[Israel’s] very existence and character as a society were to be a witness to God, a model or paradigm of his holiness expressed in the social life of a redeemed community.”[22] It could also be said that, “The context of the criminal law is Israel’s unique relationship with God as his chosen people. The law reflects God’s holiness and his expectation that his people will be holy too.”[23]

B1)(iii): As a deterrence

We see this in Deuteronomy 19:20 which says: “”The rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you.” Dave Miller also notes that “Another instance of this rationale is seen in the pronouncement of death upon the incorrigible rebel: “And all the people shall hear and fear, and no longer act presumptuously” (Deuteronomy 17:13). The principle is stated again when the Jews were instructed to take a rebellious and stubborn son and stone him to death with the effect that “all Israel shall hear and fear” (Deuteronomy 21:21).”[24]

“The issue here is the difference between legality, or between crime (that which men declare to be a punishable social evil) and sin (that which God declares to be evil, and thus worthy of death). God is especially emphasizing the punishment for those sins (acts contrary to His law, as given at Mt. Sinai) which were not crimes (according to Egyptian or Canaanite law). God’s people are especially vulnerable to sins which are not crimes, for two reasons. First, the sins which are not crimes are acts which our culture will encourage us to commit. Secondly, the sins which are not crimes do not seem to have immediate (and dire) consequences.”[25]

In summary, it can be said that “…the penalties are designed both to punish individual wrongdoing and to promote the well being of the community”[26] Bible teacher, John Piper, puts it well when he said that “…  all these penalties belonged to a particular season in the history of God’s dealings with his covenant people, and those dealings have changed dramatically with the coming of God’s Son Jesus Christ into the world.”[27] This assertion will be backed up in a later section of this paper.


B2) Second prong: Due process

B2)(i) Maximum penalty, not mandatory penalty (for most cases)

We see this in Exodus 21:29-30 wherein it is stated:

29 If, however, an ox was previously in the habit of goring and its owner has been warned, yet he does not confine it and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death.

30 If a ransom is demanded of him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is demanded of him.

It is clear that in the abovementioned situation, a ransom is allowed as a substitution for the death penalty.

So how did ransoming work? “[Raymond] Westbrook points to the practice of “ransoming” as an explanation of how this worked in application. In ancient Near Eastern legal practice, a person who committed a serious crime would be considered to have forfeited their life or limb, but this did not mean they were executed or mutilated. Instead, they could “ransom” their life or limb by making a monetary payment and/or agreeing to some lesser penalty usually set by the courts … From early rabbinical times, commentators have noted that the Torah appears to operate with the same assumption … The text literally demanded a person be put to death but assumed the punishment would be substituted for a fine set by the courts.”[28]

This line of argument is also illustrated in Numbers 35:31:

you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death

Numbers 35 “… makes it clear that convicted murderers had to be executed, but also implies that the penalty in other crimes might be commuted through a ransom, probably some monetary compensation (see Prov 6:32-35; Matt 1:19). Just as God accepted the blood of a sacrificed animal in place of the blood of the sinner, so the victim of a crime other than murder might accept a lesser penalty than death.”[29] “Only in the case of premeditated murder did the text say that the officials in Israel were forbidden to take a “ransom” or a “substitute.” This has widely been interpreted to imply that in all the other fifteen cases the judges could commute the crimes deserving of capital punishment by designating a “ransom” or “substitute.” In that case the death penalty served to mark the seriousness of the crime.”[30]

Moreover, “In 1 Kings, a person had committed a capital crime and the sentence was announced as “a life for a life”; however, the immediate context shows what this sentence, in fact, was: “It will be your life for his life or you must weigh out a talent of silver” (1 Kings 20:39). Old Testament scholar Joe Sprinkle notes that “‘life for life,’ in the sense of capital punishment, has an explicit alternative of monetary substitution.”[31]

Furthermore, bible scholar Gordon Wenham notes that, “In the case of blasphemy and profanation of the sabbath, it evidently depended on the gravity of the particular offense whether the ultimate penalty was executed … This shows that the penalties prescribed in the law were the maximum penalties. Where there were mitigating circumstances, lesser penalties would have been enforced.”[32]

B2(ii) At least two witnesses

Deuteronomy 19:15 tells us that “… A  matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” “The stringency of the laws of evidence underlines the extreme reluctance of the Jews to impose death sentences, even when they possessed full civic rights. Circumstantial evidence was entirely discounted, for the Pentateuch insists on two witnesses (Numbers 35:30 …).”[33]

The witnesses were also subject to stringent examination. “They [rabbis sitting in judgment at the trial of a murderer] would examine them with seven searching queries: In what seven-year period {did it take place}? In what year? In what month? On which day of the month? On what day of the week? At what hour? And, at what place? Did you know him?…” (Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin 40a)”. This would act as a counterbalance to two individuals (at least) falsely accusing another individual of murder: “These questions, and many others further enumerated in the passage, were aimed at establishing the precision and reliability of the witnesses’ testimony. The many questions regarding date and time were not easy to answer for ordinary people in ancient times, people who were often illiterate and had no time-keeping devices or calendars. The witnesses also had to be in total agreement about the details of the murder, including the weapon used, the murderers’ clothing, footwear, etc. (Ibid, 40b). Otherwise, their testimony was thrown out of court.”[34

B2(iii): Death penalty cases were handled by a Lesser Sanhedrin of twenty-three

For “some offences-called merely for a light flagellation or a small fine. These cases were referred to the minor court, the Beth Din, presided over by three judges.”[35] Roy Stewart has pointed out that “Criminal cases in general required a Lesser Sanhedrin of twenty-three-the Talmud further demands two reporting clerks and two ushers, who also had to administer any necessary scourgings.4[36]

So who would qualify to be a part of the Lesser Sanhedrin? The individuals were “… all distinguished scholars who are exemplary in their ethical behavior, known for kindness and humility, and not driven by greed or amplifying their own ego. A person who is childless and has not experienced the pangs and anxieties of raising a child, or is so old he is thought to have forgotten these, is disqualified. The members of the court are to sit in three semicircles and watch each other throughout the proceedings to make sure all are attentive and alert. Any error or uncertainty that might lead to conviction must be corrected, while an inaccuracy in testimony that supports the perpetrator’s innocence can be allowed to stand once heard in the court (Mishnah Sanhedrin, Chapter 4).”[37]

B2(iv): There must have been intention

We see this in Numbers 35 where “… capital punishment could not be imposed when the offender did not act intentionally.”[38] Verses 22-25 say the following:

22 ‘But if he pushed him suddenly without enmity, or threw something at him without lying in wait,

23 or with any deadly object of stone, and without seeing it dropped on him so that he died, while he was not his enemy nor seeking his injury,

24 then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the blood avenger according to these ordinances.

25 The congregation shall deliver the manslayer from the hand of the blood avenger, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge to which he fled; and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil.


C) How does the law tie in with Christ?

C1. The law was a pointer to Christ

Galatians 3:23-24 tells us that, “23 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.” The Apostle Paul here is telling us that the Law is not the end in itself. It is meant to lead us to Christ.

In Romans 10:4, Paul goes further and says that, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” J Hampton Keathley III summarises it well when he said that, “The [Mosaic] Law was never designed to be a permanent rule of life. It was merely a tutor or guardian to guide Israel in all areas of her life until Christ (2 Cor. 3:7, 11; Gal. 3:23-24; Rom. 10:4).”[39]

He also notes: “Part of the purpose of the Law was to point men to the coming Savior through its shadows and types. Through the moral law, man could see God’s holy character as well as his own sinfulness and the infinite gulf that separates God and man. Through the ceremonial part of the Law (the priesthood, sacrifices, and tabernacle), man could find the solution to his sin by faith in what this part of the Law represented, a suffering Savior, one who would die as the Lamb of God.”[40]

C2. Jesus rescued us from the law

Peter Leithart has argued that, “The death penalty is an essential, foundational principle of biblical theology. Adam was told in the Garden, “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). Here we see the first example of the commutation of a capital sentence: Instead of putting Adam to death, Yahweh, based on the sacrifice of a substitute, imposed a less severe form of death, namely, exile from the tree of life. But “dying you shall die” was still the fundamental curse against sinful humanity. Israel’s worship was entirely based on the justice of the death penalty, because their entire worship center on the slaughter of representative, substitutionary animals. Ultimately, this was the curse that Jesus accepted on behalf of His people. When we are saved, we are rescued from that threat. Denying the justice of the death penalty undermines the whole structure of biblical redemption.”[41]

This line of argument is supported by passages like Romans 8:2-4 and Galatians 3:13

Romans 8:2-4 NASB

2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

3 For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh,

4 so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.


Galatians 3:13 NASB

13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us–for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” –


D. What is a Gentile (non-Jew)’s relationship to the Mosaic Law?

In his article, The Mosaic Law: Its Function and Purpose in the New Testament, author J Hampton Keathley III succinctly answers this question in five points. They are the following:

      1. He is never saved by keeping the Law (Gal. 2:21).

  1. He is not under the Law as a rule of life, i.e., sacrifice, Sabbath keeping, tithing (Rev. 6:14; Acts 15:5, 24).
  2. Thus, he does not walk by the Law but by the Spirit, which is the new law for the New Testament saint (Rom. 8:4; Gal. 5:5). This is law of liberty through faith in the power of God.
  3. He is dead to the Law (Rom. 7:1-6; Gal. 2:19) by virtue of his union with Jesus Christ who fulfilled the Law.
  4. He is to fulfill the righteousness of the Law, i.e., the spirit of the law as seen in Christ’s words in Matthew 10:37-40 [sic] love for God, and love for one’s neighbor (James 2:9). But this can only be fulfilled through a knowledge of Bible truth and the filling of the Holy Spirit, which furnishes the power or ability needed to live the Christian life according to the eternal moral law of God. So we are under God’s new law, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:2-4).”[42] [43]


Additionally, it can also be observed that in the New Testament, church discipline is prescribed. John Piper notes that, “When Paul dealt with that [in 1 Corinthians 5] — which was in the Old Testament an offense so egregious it would have been dealt with by stoning, killing, execution — Paul did not, of course, prescribe stoning or execution. He prescribed church discipline.”[44]

Furthermore, “Not only is the church urged to handle grievances internally, as when Paul chastises the Corinthians for suing one another in secular courts [1 Corinthians 6:1-8], but it becomes much less evident that secular law should be used to prosecute those who blaspheme God or break the Sabbath.”[45]


[1] LLB (Hons) University of London

[2] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion, p.51

[3] McKenzie, John L. The Dictionary of the Bible (1965), p.847

[4] Ibid.

[5] Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (2014), p.341

[6] Walton, John H.; Matthews, Victor H.; Chavalas, Mark W. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (2000), p.139

[7] Walton, John H.; Matthews, Victor H.; Chavalas, Mark W. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (2000), p.183

[8] Stewart, Roy A. “Judicial Procedure in New Testament Times” The Evangelical Quarterly (1975), p.100

[9] Easton, Matthew George, Easton’s Bible Dictionary (1897), ‘Covenant’

[10] Elwell, Walter A. Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (1997), ‘Covenant’

[11] see Flanagan, Matthew. “Stoning Adulterers.” Accessed August 28, 2017. “… the laws occur as part of a covenant or vassal treaty between the tribes of Israel and God.”

[12] J Hampton Keathley III. “The Mosaic Law: Its Function and Purpose in the New Testament” Accessed August 21, 2017.; see also Skeel, David A. Jr. and Longman, Tremper, “The Mosaic Law in Christian Perspective” (2011). Faculty Scholarship. Paper 367., p.2: “The covenant is a metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel that itself is legal. In the past half century, due to comparisons with ancient Near Eastern texts, it has become increasingly clear that covenant (in Hebrew berit) is more specifically described as a treaty. God, the great king, enters into a treaty with his subject people.”

[13] Budden, Owen. “Holiness in Ethics in the 21st Century” Melanesian Journal of Theology 19-1 (2003)

[14] Skeel, David A. Jr. and Longman, Tremper, “The Mosaic Law in Christian Perspective” (2011). Faculty Scholarship. Paper 367., p.2

[15] Karlberg, Mark W. “The Significance of Israel in Biblical Typology.” JETS 31/3 (September 1988), p.258

[16] Deffinbaugh, Robert L. “Capital Crimes (Leviticus 20).” Accessed August 21, 2017. “… the capital crimes of Leviticus chapter 20 reflect God’s system of values.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Wenham, Gordon J. The Book of Leviticus (1979), p.282-283

[21] Walton, John H.; Matthews, Victor H.; Chavalas, Mark W. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (2000), p.192

[22] Wright, C. J. H. An Eye for an Eye (1983), p.43

[23] Skeel, David A. Jr. and Longman, Tremper, “The Mosaic Law in Christian Perspective” (2011). Faculty Scholarship. Paper 367., p.12; see also Sanlon, Peter. “The Curse of Law.” Accessed August 25, 2017. “… different aspects in different commandments, but overwhelmingly the majestic holiness and purity of God is unveiled in the Law.”

[24] Miller, Dave. “Capital Punishment and the Bible.” Accessed August 21, 2017.

[25] Deffinbaugh, Robert L. “Capital Crimes (Leviticus 20).” Accessed August 21, 2017.

[26] Skeel, David A. Jr. and Longman, Tremper, “The Mosaic Law in Christian Perspective” (2011). Faculty Scholarship. Paper 367., p.12

[27] Piper, John. “Doesn’t The Bible Tell Christians To Put Homosexuals to Death?” Accessed August 28, 2017.

[28] Flanagan, Matthew. “Stoning Adulterers.” Accessed August 28, 2017.

[29] Leithart, Peter J. “The Death Penalty in the Mosaic Law”. Access date: August 18, 2017.

[30] Flanagan, Matthew. “Stoning Adulterers.” Accessed August 28, 2017.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Wenham, Gordon J. The Book of Leviticus (1979), p.285

[33] Stewart, Roy A. “Judicial Procedure in New Testament Times” The Evangelical Quarterly (1975), p.101

[34] “The Death Penalty in Jewish Teachings.” Accessed August 24, 2017.

[35] Rabbi Samuel Hirshberg, “Jurisprudence Among the Ancient Jews” Marquette Law Review Volume 11, Issue 1 December 1926, p.26

[36] Stewart, Roy A. “Judicial Procedure in New Testament Times” The Evangelical Quarterly (1975), p.95

[37] “The Death Penalty in Jewish Teachings.” Accessed August 24, 2017.

[38] Ness, Van Dan. “The Death Penalty” Accessed August 21, 2017.

[39] J Hampton Keathley III. “The Mosaic Law: Its Function and Purpose in the New Testament” Accessed August 21, 2017.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Leithart, Peter J. “The Death Penalty in the Mosaic Law”. Access date: August 18, 2017.

[42] J Hampton Keathley III. “The Mosaic Law: Its Function and Purpose in the New Testament” Accessed August 22, 2017.

[43] There is a typographical error here. I believe the author is referring to Matthew 22:37-40 and not Matthew 10:37-40

[44] Piper, John. “Doesn’t The Bible Tell Christians To Put Homosexuals to Death?” Accessed August 28, 2017.

[45] Skeel, David A. Jr. and Longman, Tremper, “The Mosaic Law in Christian Perspective” (2011). Faculty Scholarship. Paper 367., p.13

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author, and they do not reflect in any way views of the institutions to which he is affiliated  and/or the other Laikos Theologos contributors.

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