pun'-ish-ments ('awon, "fault," "iniquity," "punishment for iniquity," "sin" (Genesis 4:13; Leviticus 26:41; Job 19:29; Psalms 149:7; Lamentations 4:22; Ezekiel 14:10 margin; Amos 1:3,6,9,11,13; 2:1,4,6), `onesh, "tribute," "fine," "punishment" (Lamentations 3:39), chaTa'ah, or chaTTa'th, "sin" and its retribution, "penalty," "expiation" (Zechariah 14:19); kolasis, "punishment," "torment" (Matthew 25:46), epitimia, "poll tax," hence, "penalty" (2 Corinthians 2:6), timoria, "vindication," hence, "penalty" (Hebrews 10:29), ekdikesis, "vindication," "retribution" (1 Peter 2:14 the King James Version)):

A court could inflict for a crime against the person, a sentence of

(1) death in the form of stoning, burning, beheading, or strangling, etc.;

(2) exile to one of the cities of refuge in case of manslaughter (Numbers 35); or

(3) stripes, not to exceed 40, in practice 39 or less (Deuteronomy 25:3; 2 Corinthians 11:24).

Offences against property (theft, fraudulent conversion of deposit, embezzlement, robbery) were punished by exacting more than the value of the things taken (Luke 19:8), the excess going to the injured party, thus differing from a fine, which goes into the treasury of the community. The housebreaker was liable to be slain with impunity (Exodus 22:2). A fine in the modern sense is unknown in the Scriptures, unless Leviticus 5:6-19 be interpreted as referring to such.

1. History of the Hebrew Law concerning Punishment:

The earliest theory of punishment seems to have been that of retaliation--"blood for blood"--and to some extent this principle appears even in the Law of Moses (Leviticus 21:19,20; Matthew 5:38). Early in the history of the race, punishment was administered for sin and crime. Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden, and Cain, the first murderer, though not executed in retaliation for his deed, had a mark set on him. The words of Lamech (Genesis 4:24) indicate that death was regarded as the fitting punishment for murder, and the same thought apparently was in the minds of the brethren of Joseph (Genesis 42:21). Judah, as head of his family, seems to have had power of life and death (Genesis 38:24), and Abimelech threatens his people with the extreme punishment in case they injure or insult Isaac or his wife (Genesis 26:11). Similar power is ascribed to Pharaoh (Genesis 41:13).

2. The Mosaic Law concerning Punishment:

Under the Law of Moses, the murderer was to be put to death without mercy. Even if he took refuge at the altar in a sanctuary or in an asylum city, he would not be immune from arrest and execution, and the same principle was applied in the case of an animal (Exodus 21:12,14,23,28,36 parallel). But punishment under the Mosaic Law was not to be entailed or transmitted (Deuteronomy 24:16), as was the case among the Chaldeans (Daniel 6:24) and the kings of Israel (1 Kings 21; 2 Kings 9:26).

It has been noted that capital punishment is extensively prescribed by the Mosaic Law, and undoubtedly the Law was carried out. This circumstance has been explained by reference to the fact that the nation consisted of newly emancipated slaves, and therefore required harsh measures to keep them in check.

Under the Mosaic Law, the offenses that made one liable to the punishment of death were:

(1) striking or reviling a parent (Exodus 21:15,17);

(2) blasphemy (Leviticus 24:14,16,23; 1 Kings 21:10; Matthew 26:65,66);

(3) Sabbath-breaking (Exodus 31:14; 35:2; Numbers 15:32-36);

(4) witchcraft and false pretension to prophecy (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:27; Deuteronomy 13:5; 18:20; 1 Samuel 28:9);

(5) adultery (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22);

(6) unchastity:

(a) before marriage, but detected afterward (Deuteronomy 22:21),

(b) in case of a woman with someone other than her betrothed (Deuteronomy 22:23),

(c) in a priest's daughter (Leviticus 21:9);

(7) rape (Deuteronomy 22:25);

(8) incestuous and unnatural connections (Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 20:11,14,16);

(9) man-stealing (Exodus 21:16);

(10) idolatry, actual or virtual, in any form (Leviticus 20:2; Deuteronomy 13:6; 17:2-7);

(11) false witness in capital cases (Deuteronomy 19:16,19).

A large number of offenses come under the law of punishment by cutting off from the people, the meaning of which expression has led to some controversy. It may signify excommunication or death, and occurs in connection with the following offenses:

(1) breach of morals, such as willful sin in general (Numbers 15:30,31); incestuous or unclean connections (Le 18:29; 29:9-21);

(2) breach of covenant, brought about through uncircumcision (Genesis 17:14; Exodus 4:24), neglect of Passover (Numbers 9:13), Sabbath-breaking (Exodus 31:14), neglect of Atonement Day (Leviticus 23:29), work done on the Atonement Day (Leviticus 23:30), children offered to Molech (Leviticus 20:3), witchcraft (Leviticus 20:6), anointing an alien with holy oil (Exodus 30:33);

(3) breach of ritual, committed by eating leavened bread during Passover (Exodus 12:15,19), eating fat of sacrifices (Leviticus 7:25), eating blood (Leviticus 7:27; 17:14), eating sacrifices while unclean (Leviticus 7:20,21; 22:3,4,9), offering too late (Leviticus 19:8), making holy ointment for private use (Exodus 30:32,33), making perfume for private use (Exodus 30:38), general neglect of purification (Numbers 19:13,20), not bringing offering after slaying a beast for food (Leviticus 17:9), slaying the animal at a place other than the tabernacle door (Leviticus 17:4), touching holy things illegally (Numbers 4:15,18,20).

Of capital punishments that are properly regarded as of Hebrew origin, we note:

(1) Stoning

Stoning, which was the ordinary mode of execution (Exodus 19:13; Leviticus 20:27; Joshua 7:25; Luke 20:6; Acts 7:58; 14:5). The witnesses, of whom there were at least two, were required to cast the first stone (Deuteronomy 13:9; John 8:7). If these failed to cause death, the bystanders proceeded to complete the sentence, whereupon the body was to be suspended until sunset (Deuteronomy 21:23).

(2) Hanging

Hanging is mentioned (Numbers 25:4; Deuteronomy 21:22), probably not as a mode of execution, but rather of exposure after death. It may have been a Canaanitish punishment, since it was practiced by the Gibeonites on the sons of Saul (2 Samuel 21:6,9).

(3) Burning

Burning, before the age of Moses, was the punishment of unchastity (Genesis 38:24). The Law prescribes it as a punishment in the case of a priest's daughter (Leviticus 21:9), and in case of incest (Leviticus 20:14), but it is also mentioned as following death by other means (Joshua 7:25), and some believe it was never used except after death. That it was sometimes used as a punishment on living persons among the heathen is shown by Da 3.

(4) The Sword or Spear

The sword or spear as an instrument of punishment is named in the Law (Exodus 19:13; 32:27; Numbers 25:7). It occurs frequently in monarchic and post-Bab times (Judges 9:5; 1 Samuel 15:33; 2 Samuel 20:22; 1 Kings 19:1; Jeremiah 26:23; Matthew 14:8,10), but among these cases, there are some of assassination rather than of punishment.

(5) Strangling

Strangling as a form of punishment has no Scripture authority, but according to tradition was frequently employed, and is said to have been performed by immersing the convict in clay or mud, and then strangling him by a cloth tied around the neck.

3. Punishments of Foreign Origin:

Besides these, which are to be regarded as the ordinary capital punishments, we read of some that were either of foreign introduction or of an irregular kind, such as:

(1) crucifixion (which see);

(2) drowning (Matthew 18:6 parallel);

(3) sawing asunder or crushing (2 Samuel 12:31; Hebrews 11:37);

(4) torturing (1 Chronicles 20:3; Hebrews 11:35);

(5) precipitation (2 Chronicles 25:12; Luke 4:29);

(6) suffocation (2 Macc 13:4-8).

The Persians are said to have filled a high tower a great way up with ashes, and then to have thrown the criminal into it, and continually stirred up the ashes by means of a wheel till he was suffocated (Rawlinson, Ancient Monarchy, III, 246).

See also HEROD, II, 100.

Secondary forms of punishment not heretofore mentioned are to be noted as follows:

(1) Blinding or Putting Out of Eyes

Blinding or putting out of eyes in the case of captives (Judges 16:21; 1 Samuel 11:2; 2 Kings 25:7).

(2) Chaining

Chaining by means of manacles or fetters of copper or iron, similar to our handcuffs fastened on the wrists and ankles and attached to each other by a chain (Judges 16:21; 2 Samuel 3:34; 2 Kings 25:7); also alluded to in the life of Paul (Acts 28:20; Ephesians 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:16); and in the case of Peter (Acts 12:6).

(3) Confiscation of Property

Confiscation of property that had fallen under the ban, i.e. had been singled out for destruction by the special decree of Yahweh, as in Numbers 21:2; Joshua 6:17; or had been reserved for the use of the army (Deuteronomy 2:35; 20:14; Joshua 22:8); or given over to the priesthood (Joshua 6:19). The term may be extended to include all things vowed or sanctified and those irrevocably devoted or consecrated to God (Leviticus 27:21,28). The idea is applied with special emphasis to those things which, because of their uncleanness, must not be used by the Israelites, though, through their warfare with the heathen, they might have come into possession of them (Deuteronomy 7:26; 1 Samuel 15:16-23).

(4) Dashing in Pieces (Psalms 2:9; Isaiah 13:18).

(5) Divine Visitation.


(6) Exposure to Wild Beasts (Leviticus 26:22; 1 Samuel 17:46; Daniel 6).

(7) Flaying

(Rawlinson, Ancient Monarchy, I, 478; Nineveh and Babylon; mentioned figuratively in Micah 3:3).

(8) Forfeiture (Ezra 10:8).

(9) Gallows

Gallows in the modern sense probably were unknown to the ancients. Where the word occurs in Esther 5:14; 6:4; 7:9,10; 9:13,15, it probably refers to a beam or pole on which the body was impaled and then elevated to a height of 50 cubits as an object of warning to the people (see "Hanging").

(10) Imprisonment

Imprisonment is frequently referred to in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, indicating that this was a common mode of punishment among both the Israelites and other nations (Genesis 40:3; 42:17; Leviticus 24:12; Numbers 15:34; 1 Kings 22:27; Jeremiah 37:15,21; Luke 3:20; Acts 4:3,10; 23:10; and the Epistles of Paul).


(11) Indignities.

In this term may be included all those outbursts of vengeance or other evil dispositions that were practiced in times or under circumstances when liberties with the prisoner were permitted on the part of bystanders or those who had charge beyond the execution of the judicial decree. Instances are found in the life of Christ (Matthew 26:59,67; Luke 22:63; John 18:22); also in the life of Paul (Acts 23:2).

(12) Mutilation (Judges 1:6,7; Ezekiel 23:25; 2 Maccabees 7).

The Law was opposed to thus treating any Israelite, and Samuel, when referring to the arbitrary power of the future king (1 Samuel 8:10), does not say that he would thus treat "their sons." It was a barbarous custom of the East (see EUNUCH; POLYGAMY), evidently regarded, among the Hebrews, as a heinous practice (Deuteronomy 23:1). The only act authorizing mutilation (except in retaliation) is mentioned in Deuteronomy 25:11.

(13) Plucking Off the Hair

Plucking off the hair is alluded to as a mode of punishment in Nehemiah 13:25; Isaiah 50:6.

(14) Prison Garments

Prison garments were in vogue to mark the convicts (Jeremiah 52:33).

(15) Restitution

Restitution has been alluded to in the general introduction to this topic.

(16) Retaliation

Retaliation was recognized by Moses as a principle, but the application of it was left to the judge (Leviticus 24:19-22). A fine example of it is found in the law of Deuteronomy 19:19.

(17) Scorpions, Chastising with.

Probably the use of thongs armed with pointed pieces of lead or other metal (1 Kings 12:11; 2 Chronicles 10:14).


(18) Scourging.

See separate article.

(19) Slavery.

See separate article.

(20) Stocks.


Frank E. Hirsch

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'PUNISHMENTS'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.