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The death penalty

In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament)

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Two conflicting penalties for murder in the book of Genesis

Both instances of murder refer to an era that preceded the 613 commands of the Mosaic law code.

The first mention of the appropriate punishment for a murder is in Genesis 4:11-15. 

"And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand;...a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him." (KJV)

Adam and Eve's sons were Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a shepherd. Each brought the best that they had had produced as a sacrifice to God. God accepted Abel's sacrifice of meat but rejected Cain's grain offering. Cain's resultant disappointment turned to anger; he killed his brother. God cursed Cain for the murder and sent him to wander the earth. God also put a mark on Cain's body so that nobody who saw him would be motivated to kill him. If anyone killed Cain for the murder of his brother, that person would be very severely punished. Here, banishment and exile is the penalty for murder; capital punishment is specifically prohibited.

The first mention of capital punishment as a penalty for murder is in Genesis 9:6:

"Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man." (KJV)

This passage regards the killing of a human as an offense against God because humans were made in the image of God, both male and female. Unlike the previous passage which required that the murderer be merely exiled, this verse required the murderer to be executed.

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Capital crimes, according to rest of the the Hebrew Scriptures

The Biblical books Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy form the rest of the Pentateuch and contain the Mosaic Code - a set of civil and religious transgressions with their appropriate punishments. This set of 613 laws greatly expanded the range of crimes which were punishable by death.

If sufficient proof were provided that a person had committed any capital crime, the state imposed the death penalty on the guilty person(s). They were executed either by being stoned to death, impaled on a stick, or burned alive. Witnesses who testified at the trial would often participate in the killing.

To their credit, the courts of ancient Israel required very high levels of proof of criminal behavior before they would order the death penalty.

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Avoiding the death penalty:

The culture of the ancient Israelites was tribal in nature. If a person was killed, it would be the responsibility of a member of her or his family to avenge the killing. The next of kin would be expected to hunt down and kill the person responsible. This "Avenger of Blood" "... was regarded as the representative, not only of the murdered man's [sic] family, but of Yhwh Himself, who was the highest avenger." See: Genesis 27:45, Joshua 7:24 and 2 Kings 9:26. The laws later evolved to differentiate accidental homicide from intentional murder.

Six cities of refuge were established so that person who committed accidental homicide could be protected from the avenger until the elders of his community rendered a verdict in the case. As long as the killer remained in the city, he or she would be safe. But if the verdict was murder, the elders of his city went to the city of refuge, picked up the killer -- by force if necessary -- and delivered them to the avenger to be executed.

These laws remained in place until replaced by Roman law which did not have a right of blood revenge. 2

Numbers 35:31 states:

"... you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death."

Some believe that this verse implies that persons found guilty of one of the the dozens of capital crimes other than murder could repent of their sin, pay a ransom, and avoid execution. However, murder was perceived as corrupting the land and had to be revenged with the death of the murderer.


  1. "Death Penalty," Abounding Love Ministries, at: http://www.aboundinglove.org/ They list 42 activities for which the Hebrew Scriptures call for the death penalty.
  2. Morris Jastrow Jr. et al., "Avenger of Blood," Jewish Encyclopedia, at: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/

Essays on related topics:

bulletSpecific capital crimes in the Hebrew Scriptures
bulletSpecific capital crimes in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament)


 Home page > "Hot" religious topics > death penalty > here

Home page > Christianity > Bible themes > here

Copyright © 1997 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Latest update: 2009-MAR-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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