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Punishment

Punishment [N] [E]

Earthly Punishment. The Old Testament. Early in Israel's history, guilt and punishment were understood to be communal. When Achan broke the law by taking some of the spoil from Jericho, the whole Israelite army was defeated at Ai ( Joshua 7:1-5 ). Once it was discovered what Achan had done, his whole family was stoned along with him ( Joshua 7:22-26 ). The sins of parents could be punished to the third and fourth generation ( Exod 20:5 ; 34:7 ; Deut 5:9-10 ). However, the Lord later revealed that individuals would bear their own guilt ( Deut 24:16 ; 2 Kings 14:6 ; Jer 31:29-30 ; Ezekiel 18:1-4 Ezekiel 18:20 ).

Sometimes punishment was meted out by God directly, as when fire and brimstone destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah ( Gen 19:24-25 ) or when the ground opened up to swallow those who rebelled in the wilderness ( Num 16:31-33 ). On a national level, God punished his people using the instrumentality of foreign nations. For example, Assyria was seen as the Lord's rod of wrath ( Isa 10:5 ). Most crimes and punishments, however, were dealt with through Israel's judicial system, which is found in the Pentateuch.

The Decalogue is in apodictic or absolute form, giving the most important requirements of the law in general terms without listing punishments. One has to examine the casuistic or case law to discover specific violations and their penalties. In the following paragraphs, both are reviewed.

The first and second commands concern foreign deities ( Exod 20:3-6 ). Worshiping gods other than Yahweh was a capital crime ( Exod 22:20 ) for which the punishment was stoning ( Deut 13:6-10 ). Molech worship, involving infant sacrifice, was specifically forbidden, also requiring death by stoning ( Lev 20:1-5 ). Likewise, those who prophesied in the name of other gods, or who led the people into idolatry were to be executed ( Deut 13:1-5 ; 18:20 ). Other pagan religious practices such as witchcraft, consulting of spirits, necromancy, divination, sorcery, augury, and soothsaying were proscribed ( Lev 19:26 ; 20:6 ; Deut 18:10-11 ). Death is indicted for a sorceress ( Exod 22:18 ); stoning is designated for a medium ( Lev 20:27 ).

The third command prohibited taking Yahweh's name in vain ( Exod 20:7 ; Lev 19:12 ; cf. Exod 22:28, ; "revile God" ). Offenders were stoned ( Lev 24:10-23 ; falsely accused, in Naboth's case, 1 Kings 21:8-14 ).

The fourth command, breaking the Sabbath ( Exod 20:8 ), was also a capital offense ( Exod 31:14-15 ; 35:2 ). An example of its enforcement is found in Numbers 15:32-36, where the penalty was stoning.

The fifth command entails respect for parents ( Exod 20:12 ). According to the case law, death was the punishment for the one who struck ( Exod 21:15 ) or even cursed a parent ( Exod 21:17 ; Lev 20:9 ).

The sixth command prohibits murder ( Exod 20:13 ). Those who intended to kill were to be executed while those who slew accidentally could flee to a city of refuge ( Exod 21:12-14 ; Num 35:9-28 ; Deut 19:4-13 ). However, if two men were fighting and one of them accidentally hit a pregnant woman so that she both miscarried and died, he would suffer death also ( Exod 21:22-25 ). If the owner of a dangerous ox did not keep it fenced in and the ox gored someone to death, both the ox and the owner were to be put to death ( Exod 21:28-32 ). Killing a burglar at night incurred no guilt ( Exod 22:2 ). Obviously, the taking of human life was allowed in war and when punishing capital offenses. If someone caused bodily harm to another rather than death, lex talionis, or the law of retaliation was invoked: "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" ( Exod 21:23 ; Lev 24:19 ; Deut 19:21 ; Matt 5:38 ). The intention was to make the law more equitable by making the punishment fit the crime.

The seventh command forbids adultery ( Exod 20:14 ). Stoning is stipulated in Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22-24. Prostitution was outlawed but no punishment is listed ( Lev 19:29 ; Deut 23:17 ). In the case of a man raping a single woman, he could be forced to marry her (relinquishing the right to divorce) and pay her father the marriage present, but no punishment was required ( Deut 22:28-29 ). In the case of seduction, the result was the same except that no mention is made of divorce and the father could still be paid the marriage present though he disallowed the wedding ( Exod 22:16-17 ). Incest was proscribed ( Leviticus 20:11 Leviticus 20:12 Leviticus 20:14 Leviticus 20:17 Leviticus 20:19-21 ; Deuteronomy 27:20 Deuteronomy 27:22-23 ) for which the penalty in certain cases was death by burning ( Leviticus 20:11 Leviticus 20:14 ). Sexual relations between two men or between humans and animals were punishable by death ( Exod 22:19 ; Lev 18:22-23 ; Leviticus 20:13 Leviticus 20:15-16 ).

The eighth command concerns stealing ( Exod 20:15 ). The law requires restitution with interest ( Exodus 22:1-4 Exodus 22:7 ; Lev 6:4-5 ). If the thief could not pay, he could be sold as a slave to pay the debt ( Exod 22:1 ). Kidnappers, who stole humans, were to be put to death ( Exod 21:16 ; Deut 24:7 ).

The ninth command prohibits bearing false witness ( Exod 20:16 ). Whatever the false witness intended to do to the innocent party would be done to him ( Deut 19:15-19 ).

The tenth command deals with coveting ( Exod 20:17 ). No penalty is recorded.

The New Testament. As in the Old Testament, so in the New Testament. God occasionally punished people directly, as when Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead ( Acts 5:1-11 ), but this was rare. Unlike Israel, the church is not a nation. Therefore, it does not have a set of laws with crimes and punishments. That is left to the secular authorities, which are instituted by God ( Rom 13:1-7 ). However, Jesus did provide for church discipline. If one believer sinned against another, the offended party was to confront the guilty party. If the offender refused to repent, the one wronged should go back to him, bringing one or two others with him. If that failed, he was to bring the accusation to the church, which may then excommunicate the sinner ( Matt 18:15-17 ). The church has the power of "binding and loosing, " which is the power to determine what is forbidden and what is allowed ( Matt 16:18-19 ; 18:18 ).One illustration of church discipline in a case of gross immorality is found in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5. Paul instructs the assembly to hand the transgressor over to Satan for the destruction of the body in order that the spirit might be saved. This may refer to excommunication (if cast out of the church one is under the domain of Satan) or to a mortal illness invading the sinner's body. Either way, the goal is redemption more than punishment. The hope is that after being handed over to Satan, he will repent and return to the fold, or at the very least, that his spirit will go to heaven in spite of his body's death. Another illustration may be Ananias and Sapphira. Although God seems to have struck them dead, it was while Peter was presiding and executing judgment as God's representative ( Acts 5:1-11 ).

Eternal Punishment. The Old Testament introduced the notion of eternal punishment in Daniel 12:2, indicating that the lost will also be resurrected, but for the purpose of eternal shame and contempt. While the worst punishment that earthly courts can inflict is death, Jesus taught his disciples not to fear those who can kill the body, but rather God, who can also cast people into hell ( Luke 12:4-5 ). Isaiah 66:24 speaks of an undying worm and unquenchable firethe same imagery Jesus uses to warn about hell ( Mark 9:42-43 Mark 9:47-48 ). Jesus also described it as "outer darkness, " where people "weep and gnash their teeth" ( Matt 8:12 ). The Lord described eternal punishment for the wicked as well as eternal life for the righteous, showing that both are without end ( Matt 25:46 ). The rest of the New Testament is in agreement ( 2 Thess 1:9 ; Rev 20:10-15 ). Just as that Bible utilizes earthly things to symbolize heavenly bliss, so the description of hell as fire may be metaphorical for torment. However, the torment of hell is as real as the joy of heaven, even if our pictures of the two are less than perfect.

William B. Nelson, Jr.

See also Eternal Punishment; Judgment; Ten Commandments

Bibliography. W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament; G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.


[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary

Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Punishment'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.