If God forgives, why does the Old Testament Law command the death penalty?
The Law was always meant to be adaptable to changing times and cultures because beneath its cultural expression was the heart and holiness of God. In other words, the Law would have always looked different between Israel and the Church since the context of the two were so different: different times, spreading out into different regions, and operating with a different set of communal expectations (i.e., the Church did not initially consider itself a people with claims to a land where they must establish their own theocratic government). The Church was to operate more like Daniel in Babylon than Israelites in Israel. What we are starting to recognize, though, is that there is an underlying continuity that does not change. In light of Lefebvre’s important contributions, these observations come alive.
In the New Testament, Paul writes that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Death is the deserved outcome of sin (since we sin against God Himself when we sin), the natural outcome of sin (since through sin we separate ourselves from the source of life), and it is the result of sin (since sin only destroys, both ourselves and others whom we are called to love). True as that is, we have grown accustomed to thinking of God as merciful and loving. I have just attempted to show how God’s mercy and love are expressed within the Law itself. Yet the Law is also where a lot of crimes are considered worthy of a death sentence. In the New Testament, disfellowshipping—removing someone from the community—takes the place of the death penalty.[i] Why is this mercy absent from the Old Testament, which allegedly depicts the same God?
It is imperative to understand the purpose of the death penalty in a covenant community such as Israel. In a covenant community, one person’s impropriety could put the whole community in jeopardy. History is replete with examples of the damage one person or one idea can do to the world, from taking the advice of a snake in the Garden of Eden to the idea that some people were born to be slaves. The death penalty in the Old Testament signals to us that certain crimes were considered community-destabilizing and destructing. It is akin to finding cancer in the body. It doesn’t matter if it is a lot or a little, fast or slow-growing; you want it eliminated before it has a chance to spread. Once it spreads to certain parts of the body, after all, it will spread more quickly to others. A covenant community is like an organism in that every part affects every other part. You stand together, and you fall together.
Death penalties also work, then, as not just signals but warnings. To put it in language that we are more familiar with now, death penalties are akin to hyperbolic statements, meant to get a point across, urgently and forcefully. As Christopher JH Wright articulates,
There was an explicit element of deterrence in such maximum penalties, designed to preserve the life of the whole community by the combination of deterring people from committing such offenses and purging the community of those who did.[ii]
Since all understood that they were in a covenant community, there could be nothing more selfish or irresponsible than committing a capital offense, rolling the dice on whether it will destroy you or your community. That said, capital punishment being prescribed for the offenses in question is by no means a foregone conclusion. For instance, David and Bathsheba both committed adultery together, and yet neither one is put to death. David’s expression of guilt and repentance in Psalm 51 holds out hope for those who commit devastating sins. Gane explains, “Divine mercy is found here in narrative and hymn, rather than in laws regarding sexual offenses, because mercy is usually not prescribed in laws.”[iii] Henry McKeating observes that there is not a single place recorded in the Old Testament where the prescribed punishment for adultery is the actual punishment; indeed, the worst we see (which is not to say it wasn’t quite devastating at that time) was divorce, public humiliation, or the fear of an offended husband’s retribution.[iv] Indeed, Longman adds that a judge’s hands would not be tied by the Law in cases of the death penalty. The death penalty was the maximum sentence handed down for “egregious and repetitive cases.” Based on Numbers 35:31 and other texts, Longman shows that murder was considered automatically egregious, so much so that no ransom could be accepted to save the murderer from a death sentence (recall Genesis 9:6). This implies, Longman concludes, that there must have been exceptions in other cases.[v]
When we come to the New Testament, we find Jesus sentencing adulterers to divorce or simply offering forgiveness rather than death (Matthew 5:32a, 19:9; John 7:53-81). This is both a movement to a particular cultural ideal (sometimes called the “Edenic ideal”) and a return to the mercy that was always meant to be there in the first place but made more explicit for a people who had lost their way.
In the end, the Law should be understood as God’s desire for order built upon love, mercy built upon salvation, and community built upon relationship with Him. It is a sign of His love and care for community. Like our own systems of law, there are more harsh sentences for more harsh crimes. And a harsher crime is anything that hurts people more severely. This is not to say that God’s ultimate desire is for the death penalty. Nor is it an argument against the death penalty. Indeed, these are complicated issues. But it is to say that the heart behind the penalties are protective rather than retributive. As Lefebvre astutely observes, God sometimes takes “a crime that the Law shows is worthy of death and [treats] it with a lighter penalty for the sake of redemption.”[vi]
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Image: Dana Schutz (b. 1976), “Shame,” 2017.
[i] Roy E. Gane, Old Testament Law for Christians: Original Context and Enduring Application (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 13. And perhaps this was always the point. Death was not needed so long as one repented or exited the community, somewhat similarly to how death was not needed in the Canaanite conquests so long as they were successfully driven out of the land.
[ii] Christopher JH Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 291.
[iii] Gane, 15.
[iv] Henry McKeating, “Sanctions Against Adultery in Ancient Israelite Society, with Some Reflections on Methodology in the Study of Old Testament Ethics,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 11(1979), 59-62. Quoted in Lefebvre, 14.
[v] Tremper Longman III, Confronting Old Testament Controversies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2019), 228.
[vi] Michael Lefebvre, “Jesus, the Law, and the Hermeneutic of Love,” Bulletin for Ecclesial Theology 9.2 (forthcoming, 2022), 14. Note that page numbers may vary in forthcoming publication. My sincere gratitude to Michael Lefebvre for allowing me to read this article pre-publication. For a more truncated and readily available version of this article, see Michael Lefebvre, “Jesus’ concept of the Law in the New Testament,” The Biblical Mind, October 28, 2021, https://hebraicthought.org/jesus-law-in-the-new-testament/.