Capital Punishment in Leviticus: Part I (Lev. 20-27)

What does the Bible have to say about the death penalty?

While we at Holey Books may be slightly behind the curve on these recent debates, the concern over the death penalty (amid the execution of Troy Davis) seemed like an important topic for us to cover—especially as we are in the midst of Leviticus, which is notorious, for, among other things, frequently employing the death penalty. Whatever your opinion on capital punishment, however, it should be clear after examining Leviticus that the capital punishment system it sets forth in no way conforms to modern conceptions of the legitimate use of the penalty—from the left or right. In Part I, I’ll examine the way this is used for the death penalty debate, and in Part II I’ll look more at the history and context and see how it should inform our views.

This topic has been pretty well covered in popular debate about the death penalty—and often in two forms. On one side, ardent Christians and Bible apologists justify the death penalty by citing to the Old Testament; on the other, death penalty opponents say the death penalty is barbaric and anachronistic, often citing the ridiculous punishments prescribed in Leviticus (and in Exodus, as well as Deuteronomy), and arguing that the Bible is a poor source for the support of capital punishment. It turns out, as it often does with these sorts of debates, that both sides are right—and both sides are wrong.

First, what do the Bible apologists say? Their argument usually goes something like: The Bible, the word of God, allows capital punishment. Therefore God supports capital punishment. Therefore we should allow capital punishment as a society. (Excuse me for not being more formal in my logic and construction, here.) This argument is of course predicated on the Bible being the word of God, and being influenced by him or at least having God’s imprimatur on the words in the book. In the case of the Israelites, the “chosen people,” we can expect that how they conducted their world would align with how God would want them to live. To be fair, they might not always be perfectly following God, but their scripture, I think the assumption always goes, should align with God’s views. (Whether Jesus repudiated all of this is an entirely different issue, but I think many Christians or at least those who argue the Bible supports the death penalty, implicitly seem to suggest that Jesus did not repudiate the portion of scripture they are citing for authority). They are right to the extent that the Bible does expressly provide support for the death penalty.

Those who oppose the death penalty point to scripture’s full content to argue the death penalty should be outlawed. Much of their concern—and the reason we are talking about it now—comes from Leviticus, specifically chapter 20. While Leviticus prescribes the death penalty for the one thing that our legal system in the United States does, murder (Lev. 24:17),* it also prescribes the death penalty for a range of other conduct that we would shirk from now:

  • Anyone who curse his/her mother or father (Lev. 20:9)
  • Adultery with a married woman (Lev. 20:10) or with your father’s wife (Lev. 20:11) (note both the man and woman are to be put to death in this situation)
  • Sex with daughter in law (Lev. 20:12) (again, both participants are required to be killed)
  • Homosexuality (at least as far as male-male homosexuality goes) (Lev. 20:13)
  • Bestiality (Lev. 20:15-16)
  • Marrying a woman and her mother (Lev. 20:14) (yet again, everybody’s gotta die)
  • Sacrificing to another god (not YHWH) (Lev. 27:29)
  • Prostitution, if your father is a priest (Lev. 21:9)
  • Blasphemy (Lev. 24:10-16)

Note, however, Lev. 20 specifically mentions a few other behaviors that are not apparently as bad. Some sexual relations are condemned but not given the death penalty, including having sex with a parent (Lev. 20:19), having sex with your sister if you’re a man (Lev. 20:17), having sex with a woman during her period (Lev. 20:18), and having sex with an aunt (Lev. 20:20). It’s understandable why these would be condemned (perhaps the period-sex one less so**), but not perhaps as understandable as to why they do not receive as severe punishment.

For the purposes of this post, let’s focus on one fact: Leviticus, and indeed other Old Testament books, prescribe capital punishment for a range of conduct that we today would not punish as severely. This is why, in this respect, the death penalty opponents are right, too. Hardly anyone outside of the most conservative religious fundamentalists would hold that the government should execute someone for adultery or bestiality. These are, obviously, still looked upon by society with disdain and repulsion (at least the vast majority of society), but are not condemned to the point of death. As well, despite much conservative opposition to gay marriage (often citing Leviticus, by the way), none but the most extreme advocate executing homosexuals (in fact, the Supreme Court found about a decade ago that punishing homosexuality criminally in any way was unconstitutional—but the real story in the case was that an anti-homosexuality statute had been enforced at all). Thus, to use Leviticus to justify the death penalty is a slippery slope: ought we not to follow its prescriptions in all of these instances? If not, why not?

Generally speaking, the death penalty has been employed less and less over the course of history, at least in western civilization, and the United States remains one of the few “rich” western countries still to employ it. We have drifted father and farther away, and questioned more and more, its value and its morality. But what was it like for the ancient Israelites? And how does that inform the debate? Ought death penalty opponents not consider that the Ancient Israelites were living in a different era? I will examine this in Part II.

*Note that there is a fine line here. Lev. 24:17 says, in the NIV translation, “Anyone who takes the life of a human being is to be put to death.” This is not quite true in modern U.S. society. We reserve the death penalty only for first degree murder, which, legally speaking, is the premeditated murder of an individual. We in the U.S. do not apply the death penalty for manslaughter, which is usually reserved for crimes that result in the death of a human being that involve less degrees of culpability, such as through negligence (drunk driving, for example) or provocation (such as finding your spouse in bed with another person).

**This prohibition is obviously more related to ritual cleanliness issues than it is to moral depravity.

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