Yesterday I discussed parts of Shane Claiborne’s Biblical arguments in Executing Grace in favor of abolishing the death penalty. While I don’t think there are strong practical reasons to keep the penalty around these days—except, perhaps, for exceptional cases—the Biblical evidence Claiborne marshals in favor of abolition is thin. Indeed, he crafts his Biblical argument by ignoring several of the most significant passages relating to the penalty.
Today I step away from the policy debate to try to understand some of the puzzling, even troubling, aspects of the death penalty in the Scriptures. Specifically, Jesus tells his followers that the Old Testament revelation—all of it—reveals him (see, e.g., Lk 24:27, 44, John 5:46). That means that even the laws with death penalties attached to them reveal him.
I first discuss why Jesus’s death changed the implications of Mosaic (and Noahic) teachings regarding the death penalty. While Jesus fulfills the sacrificial elements of these penalties, the laws continue as revelations of God and of man and cannot be dismissed merely as “a good start,” as Claiborne would have it. They teach us of God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love. But how? My touchstone is the hard case for moderns, the death penalty for numerous sexual sins in the Old Testament.
There is a sacrificial component to the death penalties in the Old Testament. We often think of Old Testament sacrifices as means of placating God’s wrath. But they are more about creating a space appropriate for the opening of heaven onto earth, a space in which God’s presence overlaps with fallen creation and humanity.
The sacrificial aspect of the Old Testament death penalty can be seen explicitly in several passages. Murder is one of the Bible’s “crying sins” (Gen 4:10); the shedding of human blood polluted the land, the land of God’s presence (Nm 35:33-34), and so required a response. Deuteronomy 21 details a situation in which there has been a murder by an unknown person (vv. 1-10). In response, the elders of the city closest to the victim take a heifer and, with a few additional stipulations, kill it. With the oversight of Levitical priests, the elders wash their hands over the heifer, saying, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it. Forgive your people Israel whom you have redeemed, O Lord, and do not place the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel.” In response, “the bloodguiltiness shall be forgiven them.” Per Genesis 9, blood must be shed to atone for murder—either the murderer’s blood, or a substitute’s. Otherwise, the blood of the victim pollutes the land.
Likewise, in Numbers 35, Yahweh prohibits Israel from taking a ransom to spare the life of a murderer: “a murderer guilty of death shall surely be put to death” (vv. 31-32). Yet Exodus 21 details a homicide in which God permits the ransom of a person guilty of murder (28-32). What gives?
The Exodus passage discusses a case in which an ox’s owner has not confined an ox prone to gore people. The ox subsequently kills someone. The law provides “the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death.” Yet the next verse permits the owner to pay a ransom and escape the death penalty. Why the possibility of ransoming the murderer’s life in this situation? Presumably because the blood of the ox has already atoned for the victim’s blood. Because the ox’s blood has been shed, and the pollution covered, the blood of the culpable owner need not be shed, and he can ransom his life.
As with other sacrifices in the Old Testament, the specific sacrificial purpose of the Old Testament death penalties is fulfilled in and through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This fulfillment necessarily transforms the Christian’s relationship, and the world’s, to the Old Testament laws. Jesus’s death, as it were, definitively cleansed the world (Heb 10:12). No additional shedding of blood is required in the New Covenant. Indeed, the sacrificial shedding of blood is prohibited to Christians as a rejection of the work of Jesus Christ; Christians may not treat ceremonial components of the Old Testament as binding in the New Covenant (cf., Galatians, Hebrews 10, Acts 10, etc.). This applies to the Noahic death penalty as well, given the nascent sacrificial system of that era (Gn 8:20).
Does this imply that the death penalty must be abolished in the New Testament? I don’t think so. Cleansing the land from the pollution of murder was one important reason for the death penalty in the Old Testament, but not the only one. The Bible also mentions deterrence (e.g., Dt 19:20) and just reciprocity (e.g., Dt 19:21) as reasons for the penalty. Further, the New Testament could hardly be clearer regarding the permissibility of the death penalty (Claiborne’s strained reading of Romans 13 notwithstanding). That said, with the propitiatory element of the Old Testament death penalty now fulfilled in Jesus’s death, Christians must base the penalty’s use on their prudential judgments regarding its usefulness for deterrence, reciprocity, and justice. If they don’t think the penalty serves those purposes, whether absolutely or in a given political and legal context, then they can limit it, or get rid of it, if they wish.
Murder, the attack on God’s image bearers, polluted the land and so made it unfit for God’s presence (as did death and corruption more generally; see, e.g., Numbers 19). The pollution needed to be covered by sacrifice. Understanding the sacrificial aspect of the death penalty for murder in the Old Testament points us toward a more general theory of the death penalty, one that applies to the other sins punishable by death in the Old Testament.
Genesis 9 provides the starting point for this more general justification: All of the sins receiving death in Moses are ultimately rejections of God directly or rejections of God’s image in humans. The point was not so much to punish—indeed, there are few reports of the penalties actually being applied—but to teach God’s people about the character of God by teaching them about his image, themselves.
Some of this is obvious. Cursing God is a direct assault on God. Kidnapping is akin to murder in its assertion of one person’s power to dispose of another person. To attack a parent or ruler is to attack a divine authority. But what does the image of God have to do with sex, let alone with the seemingly draconian laws in the Pentateuch dealing with some sexual sins? The answer is that expressions of human sexuality inescapably inhabit, or mar or even extinguish, the image of God that God sets in humans.
The idea of divine semiotics writ by God not only in the individual human but in marriage and sexual relationships is pretty foreign to most moderns. Modern Christians sometimes have an inkling of it, given well known texts in which it’s sketched. Among the best known is Paul’s discussion in Ephesians 5:
So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself;for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church,because we are members of His body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.
Paul underscores that he is writing primarily of Jesus and the Church in this passage, not of human marriage. Indeed, he applies the teaching to human marriage almost as an afterthought in verse 33.
One often hears of how the Bible instructs of God’s relationship with humanity by pointing to the intimacy of human marriage. While well intended, comments of this sort typically take human marriage as fundamental, and God’s relationship with his Church as the analogy. This gets Paul’s argument exactly backwards. In Paul’s argument, the one real marriage is the one between Jesus and the Church; human marriage is the type or image of this marriage.
Significantly, in Ephesians 5, Paul quotes Genesis 2:24—on a husband and his wife being united as one body—as a Christological passage first, and only secondarily, by application, as a passage that instructs about human marriage.
Paul does not pull his exegesis out of thin air. He takes Genesis 2 as a continuing meditation on Genesis 1, understanding the teaching of God’s image in humanity in Genesis 1 to imply that, when addressing humanity, God often is teaching humanity first about himself. God’s revelation of and to God’s human image bearers is first a revelation of God himself, his character, nature and being. These teachings of course apply to humanity as well—critically so, given that humans are his image bearers. But God’s laws first reveal and instruct about God himself.
This principle is not novel to Paul. Jesus instructs the disciples on the road to Emmaus that the Old Testament revelation is first a revelation of him (Lk 24:27, 44, cf., Jn 5:46). This is the orientation of all the New Testament authors.
The roots of Paul’s argument are in Genesis. Genesis 1:27 reports that God created male and female in his image. The plural is God’s image bearer, as well as the singular. Paul thus takes the teaching in Genesis 2 about husband and wife to teach first about the One who is imaged in husband and wife together. Paul argues the union of husband and wife as one body is first a teaching about Yahweh’s relationship with humanity, the image of union between Jesus—Yahweh in the flesh—and his Church in one body. There is an obvious difference between husband and wife, yet a necessary correspondence as well.
Throughout the Scriptures, multiple authors draw on this nuptial image—for instance, in the repeated description of idolatry as adultery in the Old Testament. The prophets draw expansively on this language in Isaiah (chapter 57), Jeremiah (chapter 3), Ezekiel (chapter 16), and Hosea. Israel is admonished to avoid “harlotry” with false gods (Ex 34:15, Lev 20:5-6, Numbers 15:39, Dt 31:16). In the New Testament, Church members who bear “friendship with the world” are “adulteresses” according to James (note the feminine corporate identity).
This theme is also the apparent background for Jesus’s teaching regarding the passing-away of human marriage in the age to come. This outcome would be expected when human marriage is the type and the anti-type is the marriage of Christ and the Church: When the anti-type arrives on the last day (see, e.g., Rev 19:7-9, 21:2, 7, 22:17), the type passes away (Heb 10:9, cf., Mt 5:17).
Nonbelievers, and many Christians for that matter, take God’s commands, relating to sex or otherwise, as being basically arbitrary. God is the great killjoy, and he wills what he wills capriciously. But in the Bible, ethics and ontology are not separate. Life and the good are irreducibly coextensive with God and his presence. From the Garden onward, humans have tried to split them apart, thinking we can reject God and still have life. Or even more pointedly, that rejecting God is itself what it means truly to live. But we can’t, and it isn’t.
Death is not a punishment for failing to observe the arbitrary dictates of a capricious god. It is the natural consequence of living, and desiring to live, outside of God’s presence. To reject God and his presence is to reject life. There is no separation between the two, no matter how much a person may desire it.
Divine “ethics” and divine “ontology” are treated as inseparable throughout the Scriptures. “He who finds me finds life,” “but he who sins against me injures himself.” And “all those who hate me love death” (Prov 8:35-36). “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). Indeed, hell itself, eternal destruction, is simply eternity away from God’s presence (2 Thes 1:9). The land in the Old Testament was not merely the domain of God’s people, but of God himself dwelling with and among his people (Ex 33:14, Lev 26:11-12, Is 63:9, etc.). The land was the location of the tabernacle and Temple, where heaven and earth came together. Indeed, the Scriptures refer to Yahweh being “married” to the land (Is 62:4).
The laws of Moses are pedagogical. They teach humanity not simply to submit and follow this or that arbitrary rule, but they teach of the character of God and humanity’s true nature as his image bearers. The union of husband and wife images the relationship between Jesus and his Church. As a result, marriage and sexual relationships, whether in the Old Testament or the New, are not simply a matter of submitting to arbitrary dictates, but a matter of fulfilling the human image-bearing vocation. To reject that vocation is to reject that image, and God himself. It rejects the very basis of the dignity humans have as God’s image bearers. We bear that image not simply as individuals, but as husband and wife, imaging the teleological promise of and for humanity: life with God, in his presence, in union with Jesus Christ.
Ironically, given popular perception, the New Testament actually intensifies Moses’s teaching, rather than rejecting or diminishing it. With the Church now God’s temple, along with believers themselves, the Age to Come is proleptically in and among us, however obscurely and imperfectly, again. But people, including a fair number of Christians, dismiss that claim as mere “spiritualization,” as if the invisible were less real than the visible, and as if spiritual death were less real, and less dire, than physical death (cf., Mt 10:28).
Critically, whether in the New Testament or the Old, the dire outcomes for extinguishing God’s image, in others or in ourselves, is not an external punishment imposed by a fickle god for breaking arbitrary rules. It is the embrace of death in rejecting God and his image in others, and in ourselves. To dismiss God’s Old Testament revelation in Moses as nothing more than “a good start,” as Claiborne does, is to miss the grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love that the Son reveals of himself, for humanity. In them, God’s word to humanity is nothing less but “choose life, not death.”
James R. Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He also blogs at Law & Liberty.