Troubling Bible Passages 3: The Death Penalty

Any believer attempting to share his or her faith will eventually be confronted with the cliched “gotcha” verses often cited by unbelievers. Often, they will bring up ritual purity laws from the Old Testament which may indeed appear strange to modern Western eyes. Others, however, hit very close to home in today’s world and how we understand them will definitely impact how we perceive God’s character.

The purpose of this series is to address some of the more troubling parts of the Bible as well as offering a blueprint for navigating others when we find them. The first message dealt with misconceptions about the Bible and Slavery. Part Two responded to those who accuse God of Genocide. For this article we will examine the understandably disturbing theme of the death penalty.

In our fallen world capital punishment is, unfortunately, sometimes necessary. As my longtime friend Pastor Troy Edwards has well stated:

God created mankind to live in peace and harmony and to accomplish great things. But with the fall came sin, and sin’s selfish ways always brings harm to others. While God finds death, even the death of the wicked, reprehensible, He has had to accommodate what He hates due to the fallen nature of mankind. Thus, the establishment of capital punishment. ¹

The first civil law God ever established called for the death penalty for murder (Genesis 9:6). Keep in mind that this was established centuries before the Law of Moses and I have discussed in a previous post why I believe this is still in force today.

However, when the Law was given to Moses at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-20), it established a theocratic style of government for the children of Israel which would be in effect until the coming of the Messiah (Matthew 11:11-13; Luke 16:16). Clear cut moral laws such as the Ten Commandments are restated in the New Testament and are still very much in force today. However, other laws served a more temporary purpose. In short, the Law served as a “schoolmaster” or “tutor” until it was ultimately fulfilled in Christ (Galatians 3:24). Nonetheless, it was merely a “shadow of good things to come” (Hebrews 10:1).

When it came to crime and justice under Old Testament Law, methods included restitution (Exodus 22:10-13; Leviticus 6:1-5), corporal punishment (Deuteronomy 25:1–3) and in some cases, capital punishment. Death penalty crimes included:

  • Murder (Exodus 21:12; Numbers 35:31)

  • Incorrigibility in children (Exodus 21:15, 17; Deuteronomy 21:20)
  • Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:10-16)
  • Various sexual offenses (Exodus 22:19, Leviticus 18:23; 20:10-13)

  • Kidnapping (Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 24:7)

  • Apostasy (Leviticus 20:2; Deuteronomy 13:6-17)
  • Occult activity and false prophecy (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:21; Deuteronomy 13:5; 18:30)
  • Sabbath-breaking (Exodus 31:14; Numbers 15:32; Exodus 35:2)

As commonplace as many of these things are today, one might assume that the executioner had a full time job! Yet executions were actually quite rare in ancient Israel. In fact, Jewish history shows very few instances in which these sorts of punishments were actually carried out. Does that surprise you? In the words of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan:

In practice…these [physical] punishments were almost never invoked, and existed mainly as a deterrent and to indicate the seriousness of the sins for which they were prescribed…The rules of evidence and other safeguards that the Torah provides to protect the accused made it all but impossible to invoke these penalties. ²

There are a few important factors to consider. First of all, as Rabbi Kaplan points out, the burden of proof required in a death penalty trial was extremely high. A death sentence had to be based on the testimony of at least two independent witnesses who, if they were found to be lying, would receive the death sentence themselves (Deuteronomy 17:6-7, 19:18-20). There was also a system of plea bargaining in which a fine or ransom of some sort could be agreed upon instead of the full penalty. The one exception was murder, which did carry a mandatory death sentence (Numbers 35:31).

Furthermore, as previously stated, we no longer live under this theocratic government. Carrying out these sorts of punishments would be impossible today. Remember that even those who were trying to kill Jesus did not have the authority to do it on their own. They had to appeal to Rome to carry it out. Later, the Apostle Paul was addressing a situation in the Corinthian church in which a man was having an incestuous relationship with his stepmother. Under the Old Testament system, this would indeed be subject to the death penalty (Leviticus 20:10-11). Yet the penalty Paul prescribes in excommunication, not death (see 1 Corinthian 5).

So how does this continue to apply to us in the New Testament age of grace? Do these same penalties bind us today? Yes, but at a different time and by a different agent. As Hebrews 10:28-29 tells us that:

Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?

In other words, the wages of sin is still death, (Roman’s 6:23). While it may not come at the hands of a civil magistrate, having it carried out by God Himself is infinitely more terrifying.

Of course, God’s ideal throughout the Bible is not wrath, but mercy for those who will receive it: ‭

Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live…(Ezekiel 33:11, ESV)

For us, this mercy comes through Jesus taking our punishment for us. This mercy is available to you right here, right now!

As we come to the end of this series, I fully realize that there are many other troubling passages we could examine. Let’s face it, the Bible is a challenging book! Serious study requires working through numerous historical, cultural and linguistic barriers. If we are honest, we will often find ourselves struggling with the meaning of certain verses. The good news is that God understands! This is why He calls us to reason together with Him (Isaiah 1:18). In fact, the name Israel means “One who wrestles with God.” Theologian RC Sproul writes:

The Holy One cannot be defeated in personal combat, but there is some consolation here… At least we can learn that God will engage us in our honest struggles. Indeed for the transforming power of God to change or lives we must wrestle with Him. We must know what it means to wrestle with God if we are to experience the sweetness of the soul’s surrender. ³

Finally, I hope this discussion will prompt you to always read these troubling passages through the lens of God’s character as revealed throughout the whole of Scripture. I will close with a passage which sums it up perfectly: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17 ESV‬).

Keep It Real,



1. Edwards, Troy J. The Biblical Principle of Accommodation. © 2020. Vindicating God Ministries. Pp 63-64.

2. Quoted in The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible by Robert J Hutchinson. 2007, Regency Publishing, Washington DC. pp 103-104.

3. Sproul, Robert Charles (RC). The Holiness of God, second edition. © 1998, Tyndale House Publishers Wheaton Ill. Pp 196-197.







#jameshboyd #keepitreal #yourfriendjames

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