Previously, I have examined the issue of capital punishment from a purely secular perspective (see links at the close of this article). Yet, since religious values and arguments so strongly shape this debate, it would be negligent to not consider the biblical side of the issue at some length as well. Since the primary religious framework for most Westerners is the Bible and Christianity, I will discuss it within that context. Although important ideas have been voiced by the non-Christian religious, both my own knowledge and also the actual nature of this debate recommend this limitation.
Does anything in the Old Testament affirm capital punishment? This question will strike those who have actually read the Bible as a bit ludicrous, but there are many who in fact do not know what it says on this subject. The foundational passage is Genesis 9:6, "Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man." This simple verse both explains what the punishment for murder should be and why murder merits it.
Because people are made in the image of God, their lives are precious in a way that animals and property are not. Wantonly destroying them is an insult to the God who made them, which is further emphasized by the contrasting emphasis in the next verse, indicating just how opposed the will of God is to the destruction of innocent life. Genesis 9:7 reads, "And as for you, be fruitful and multiply; populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it." In the very center of a passage which is foundational to the relationship of man to God after Noah's flood (Genesis 8:20), God thus establishes death for those who murder and proclaims life as His ideal.
Although this clear reference is sufficient, I wouldn't want a reader mistakenly thinking that it stands alone. In fact, one of the interesting notes about the first five books of the Old Testament (called the Pentateuch) is that every one of them specifies death as the penalty for murder. Exodus 21:12says, "He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death." This follows closely after Exodus 20:13, which proclaims, "You shall not murder," in the middle of the Ten Commandments. Those who tritely claim this verse means to not kill (an inferior translation) would do well to explain how the author (traditionally Moses) so flagrantly contradicted himself in the space of just 25 verses. Better exegesis wouldn't mangle such an important Scripture.
Leviticus 24:17 reads, "And if a man takes the life of any human being, he shall surely be put to death." Numbers 35:31 says, "Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death." In fact, murder is unique in that it is the only crime with no possibility for restitution. We know this from Numbers 35:33, "So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it." Thus, failing to execute a murderer brings a stain upon the land.
Completing the books of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy 19:11 explains, "But if there is a man who hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and rises up against him and strikes him so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. You shall not pity him, but you shall purge the blood of the innocent from Israel, that it may go well with you." This last reference is fascinating because it comes amidst the discussion of God providing "cities of refuge" for the protection of those who merely commit manslaughter. In other words, God refuses to require life for unpremeditated homicide but goes out of His way to clarify that actual murderers who appeal to such protection must be killed without pity. It's almost as if He wants to be sure there's no misunderstanding and that someone doesn't come along to claim that He favors leniency for murderers.
To further punctuate the point, Deuteronomy 19:10 prefaces this very passage by explaining that the reason God wants to provide cities of refuge is to protect Israel from the bloodguilt that would come to them if they executed a mere manslaughterer. And, as if all this weren't sufficient, the chapter finishes with the requirement that those guilty of perjury in a capital case be executed for their attempt to use the state as their murder weapon (Deuteronomy 19:11). Such distinctions and contrivances are at least moderately surprising if God's real intent was for murderers to be left alive.
Now I know this is going to feel like overkill, but, given the number of people who claim to base their opposition to capital punishment on the Bible, I hope you can forgive me for feeling the need to be thorough. Not only did God put capital legislation in the hands of the Israelites, but He even specifically sanctioned execution in particular cases. He told Joshua to kill Achan's family for breaking the ban on items taken from Jericho (Joshua 7:1). He told king Saul to kill all the Amalekites and then punished Saul by taking the kingdom away from him when he failed to do so (1 Samuel 1:1). And one of the most celebrated prophets in the Old Testament, Elijah, rather famously executed the 450 prophets of Baal when God proved His reality and the falseness of their religion. Whether through governmental legislation or direct command, the God of the Old Testament clearly believes in capital punishment.
Continue reading for more about the Bible's record and the teachings of jesus regarding the propriety of capital punishment.
Andrew Tallman is the host of The Andrew Tallman Show and a columnist. Andrew's show is heard daily on KPXQ in Phoenix. This is part 7 of Andrew's series on capital punishment (see, also, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 and part 6). Contact him at [email protected].