The Death Penalty: Part II

This discussion was started because of a posting on Proverbial Wife. This is solely a biblical investigation, since, to the best of my ability, my life is scripture-driven and that is my touchstone for this issue. Social, psychological, and public policy issues will not drive this investigation, though we will probably examine in later parts how they impact how people and governments look on the death penalty. In Part I we looked at what God said and did in Genesis, both in the murder of Able by Cain and the rules he laid down for Noah and his family as the human race moved forward out of the ark. In this section we examine the issues leading up to the time when Moses instituted the Passover.

However, in response to some questions, I want to look a little further at the events surrounding God’s command to Noah before we move on. Noah lived in a difficult time. The earth had been corrupted, filled with violence by the people inhabiting it. So, with Noah alone finding grace in God’s sight (Gen. 6:8, 9) it was do over time. But this time, after Noah and his family came out of the ark there was something new, God would institute judgment on the killing of those created in his image.

While we discussed the basics last time, I believe it is important to see this new command of God in context. For the first time since Adam, God gives man animals for food, and at this point not just clean animals, but all of them, “Everything that moves shall be food for you.” But God goes even further; he places the fear of man in the animals. That serves several important purposes: it protects the animals and gives them a reasonable chance at survival, and it also forces men to have to work to get them for food. They won’t just walk into his hands. This harkens back to Genesis 3:19 “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground.” The need to work for food is extended to this new food God makes available. The only limitation God places on animals for food is that their blood belongs to him alone and is not to be consumed as food.

However, having made killing acceptable for the first time for a whole class of creation, God, as we saw last time, now draws a distinct line when it comes to man.

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.

Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made man.

We could spend a lot of additional time on this one section. God floods the earth because of man’s sin, especially his violence, but afterwards allows man to kill animals for food, what many today consider violence. Without getting stuck on this we need, at the very minimum, to see that God appears to relate violence to acts against men, whether done by men or animals. Men taking the lives of animals, or by extension animals taking the lives of other animals, do not appear to be considered acts of violence. At this point let’s set aside sadistic acts against animals and focus on the distinction being made: man is different. He alone is created in God’s image. Taking his blood is an act of violence and God requires a special accounting, a life for a life.

As we saw before, this is the institution of capital punishment, and it comes not from the will of man, but from the command of God. God gave this command to Noah and his sons, and through them to all who followed, for as Paul tells the Athenean Greeks at the Areopagus “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth…” (Acts 17:26)

So, blood for blood, life for life. God commanded mankind through Noah and then through his descendants, his blood, to all who followed, “from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth” to adhere to this singular command.

This brings us to three events I want to cover before we consider the Exodus and then the giving of the Law of Moses. They are Abraham, Lot, and Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham and Isaac, and Moses killing the Egyptain overseer.

Abraham, Lot, and Sodom and Gomorrah

We first learn of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah when the Lord and two others appeared at Abraham’s camp at Mamre (Gen. 18:1). The Lord tells Abraham what he is going to do and Abraham intercedes for the home of his cousin Lott, arguing that God should spare the cities on the basis of the righteous that reside there. Abraham bargins God down to ten righteous as enough to stop the destruction. It should be noted that Abraham never questions the Lord’s right to exact such a final and complete judgment. After all, the lives of those in the two cities are his, their blood, harkening back to the command to Noah, is his. Abraham only seeks mercy on account of any righteous men who might reside there.

In the end only Lott is accounted righteous, so before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he and his immediate family are allowed to flee the wrath of God. Lot, like Noah, is give an escape from God’s judgment. We all know what happened to Lott’s wife; she broke the Lord’s command, looked back and was turned to salt. Her life was exacted as punishment for disobedience, which was right and just for God to do. Her life was his.

From this event we see that God’s judgment is final, yet not unmerciful, since even here he separates the wheat from the chaff before executing his wrath.

Abraham and Isaac

God asks Abraham to do the most difficult thing a man can be asked to do, sacrifice his only son. (Gen. 22:2) Many people over the centuries have had serious problems with this story. They cannot see a loving God demanding such a thing. They argue that God asked Abraham to commit murder, asking him to sin and how could God do that? Those are fair questions but they can only be answered in context, the context of who is doing the asking, why, and what the attitude of Abraham was as he complied.

It is God who makes the command. All life is his. He determines the length of our lives, its beginning and the moment of its ending and however it ends, it is in his hands. Remember the words of Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him…” (Job 13:15a). I personally do not see anything wrong with God asking Abraham to do this. He has that right. After all, Isaac was God’s gift to Abraham and Sarah in the first place. The only issue is whether it is God who is doing the asking, or is Abraham is being deceived. Many a crazy person has argued that God told them to kill this or that person or persons. We could even argue that Satan could come as a Angel of light and try to deceive a person, even Abraham, into killing someone. However, Abraham has the distinct advantage of having had previous discussions with the Lord, so God talking with him, asking him to do something, is not new. He should know with whom he speaks.

The only other issue is the attitude of Abraham’s heart. Is this hard for him to do or did he actually want to kill Isaac? There is no dispute here; it was hard, very hard. Yet, Abraham trusts God and even is prophetic when Isaac asks him where the offering will come from. He replies, “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering…” (Gen 22:8a) Abraham’s hope was that God would either provide an alternative or resurrect his son after the offering. He tells his servants, “I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.” He expected both of them to return. He, like Job, trusted God, no matter what happened. He was inside the circle of God’s will.

Moses killing the Egyptain overseer

Moses, grown up and concerned for his brethren, kills an Egyptian overseer for beating a Hebrew.

One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Glancing this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (Exodus 2:11-12)

He knew what he was going to do was wrong; he checked to see if anyone was looking. His own people considered it wrong.

The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?” The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.” (Exodus 2:13-14)

Pharaoh considered it wrong and deserving of judgment.

When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh. (Exodus 2:15)

Moses escapes and the incident is never brought up again except obliquely when God tells Moses 40 years later, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead.” (Exodus 4:19)

The simplist way to look at this is to look back at God’s command to Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” It was up to Pharaoh and the relatives of the man who was killed to exact punishment from Moses. They were now all dead and there is no one to execute judgment on Moses except God, and as the Lord explains later to Moses, he can forgive whomever he wants, especially since the life that is taken belonged to him in the first place. “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (Exodus 33:19b) We will see a similar extension of mercy to King David, though both David and Moses did undergo some judgment: David’s son born of his adultery dies, and later God raises up David’s son Absalom to rebel against David and lay with David’s wives in public as punishment, and Moses spends forty years in Midian, once a prince reduced to a simple shepherd.

That doesn’t mean that there might not have been more to the judgment of Moses. There are some who argue that God’s attempt to kill Moses on his way back to Egypt, which is circumvented by his wife Zipporah’s circumcision of one of Moses’ sons and the casting of the bloody foreskin at his feet, was the execution of that judgment for murder. (Exodus 4:24-26). “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” seems to carry more weight than a simple circumcision allows and makes sense if she is relating to Moses being guilty of shedding a man’s blood and causing God to seek his life. What is not entirely clear to me from this argument is how his son’s bloody foreskin appeases God, but it is an interesting viewpoint.

So, God takes a murderer and makes him the savior of Isreal, leading them out of slavery and into freedom. He also takes a man who broke God’s one outright commandment given up to that time, the one he gave to Noah, and makes him the lawgiver, the one to give his chosen people Israel all of its laws and requirements that it was to follow from that point forward. He takes that which was broken and redeems it for his use.

Next time we will look at the last plague in Egypt and the Passover.

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