The Scott Peterson case has brought the topic of the death penalty back into discussion and numerous Christian writers have begun to comment on the issue (i.e. Proverbial Wife). I have a problem. I have stated before that to the best of my ability, I judge everything in life based on the premise of “sola scriptura“. Therefore, anything I think on the matter has to be run through the lens of scripture. With that as a starting point, I will try to examine what the bible says about capital punishment.
When the biblical record begins, it doesn’t appear that God requires capital punishment. In Genesis 4:10-16, God punishes Cain, but does not demand his life, instead he protects him from being killed by others by putting a special mark on him and stating that anyone who kills Cain “will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Some try to argue that the desire of others to kill Cain comes from his being a murderer, but it would be more consistent that as a wanderer they would want to kill him as a stranger. In addition, God’s judgment on anyone who would kill Cain is not death but a seven-fold vengeance (seven-fold here being a perfect vengeance).
It is not until after the flood and Noah’s new beginning of humanity that we see God lay down the requirement for capital punishment. God does this in the commands he gives Noah and his sons, and by extension, the whole human race. God’s post-flood ordering of the relationship between man and the animals and man and man has never been rescinded or modified; therefore it is still in effect today. Animals still have a natural fear of man. God’s requirement about the blood of animals and men, with its application to all of the nations and peoples of the earth still applies.
God issues these commands to Noah and his sons in Genesis 9:1-15 and there are several parts to his directive. God begins by putting the fear of man into the animals that previously had none (how else would Noah have gotten them into the ark). Then God gives Noah, and through him all of mankind, all of the animals for food, as this point placing only one restriction (in contrast to the later laws about unclean animals in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). That restriction is an important qualification.
But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. (verse 4)
The blood of all living things, which God calls the “lifeblood”, belongs to the Lord. While you can shed it to kill an animal, you cannot consume it. God then goes on to apply the concept of lifeblood beyond just the animals to man, establishing a new level of punishment for taking a human life.
And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. (verse 5)
So men can kill animals for food, shed their blood, but not consume the blood or meat that still has the blood in it, such as in strangled animals. However, neither man nor animals can kill a man, for God will demand an accounting from them. God is also very explicit about what that accounting is and how it is to be enforced.
Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed;
For in the image of God
has God made man.
This is a very significant set of passages. It sets out for the first time the absolute requirements for treatment of any man or animal who kills any human being. At this point God makes no distinctions between accident and murder, self defense and war, or any of the other discriminations that will be made clear later when the law is given to Israel by Moses.
So, capital punishment was not a Godly requirement as punishment for killing someone until after the flood. God made that new demand of Noah and his sons and by extension on all who descend from themall men and nations now living. That requirement has never been rescinded. It has been modified and we will examine those modifications later. However, the basic requirement for capital punishment is still in effect. I personally believe, based on my own study, that any nation on this earth, or any state within the United States, who denies capital punishment for premeditated murder, disobeys God and as a result, comes under judgment. They are in rebellion against God.
In The Death Penalty: Part II I will look at how the law that God gave Moses modified and expanded the command given to Noah and his sons.