Advocating the death penalty in the Old Testament seems barbaric. However, David Instone-Brewer argues that scripture actually has a high value for human life.


The 3,200 people waiting on Death Row in the USA demonstrate the ambivalence felt about capital punishment. There are only about 100 new death sentences handed down in the US each year. There is increasing reluctance to carry them out, and the complex appeals process has created a huge backlog of unfulfilled executions. In the UK the last execution was by hanging in 1964, though surveys suggest that a majority of the population would like to restore the death penalty for murder, and many would like it for child abuse and rape.


Can the Bible teach us which kinds of crime deserve death, or does it represent a backward and outdated worldview that we should simply dismiss? I regard the Old Testament as a valuable guide for the appropriate punishment of crime – though we have to read it properly. Like almost everything in the Bible, we have to read its laws in context.


The trouble is that although no one can fail to be impressed by the moral clarity of the Ten Commandments, the following chapters detailing the law gradually make us uncomfortable – and then horrified. Exodus 21 lists many crimes for which the penalty is death. A deliberate murderer would be executed after a proper trial including at least two witnesses. An accidental killer, however, was not only excluded from this punishment, but was given protection from anyone who might try to get revenge (Exodus 21:12-14; Numbers 35:11- 28). These laws are easy to accept, especially as modern distinctions between manslaughter and murder are founded on them.


We start to feel uneasy, however, when we read that death was the punishment for hitting a parent or kidnapping someone (vs15-16). And then we really squirm when we find that death was also the penalty for cursing your parents (v17) and constant drunkenness (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). Couldn’t they just imprison people for these ‘lesser’ crimes?


The answer is no – prison wasn’t an option. The Israelites lived firstly in tents and then in houses made of reinforced mud. Even stone walls were easy to break through – unless they were built from the huge, carefully carved blocks reserved for palaces. If they needed to detain someone, they would put them in a hole in the ground, but this was not a long-term humane possibility. The only other available punishments were fines and physical punishments ranging from whipping to maiming.

 A Different Message

In the context of other ancient nations’ law codes, the Law of Moses has a clearly different message. I love the fact that the oldest large bodies of writing in the world are laws and religious texts – you could say that lawyers and priests vie with prostitutes for the title of the oldest profession! Hammurabi ruled Babylon in about 1800 BC with a set of laws recorded on huge stone columns in the shape of a finger pointing to the sky. One of them towers over visitors to the Louvre in Paris. What is interesting is that although these and other ancient Near Eastern law codes list crimes in language similar to the Old Testament, they have very different penalties.


The Old Testament proclaims a surprising message to the world: People are more important than things. Israel’s penalties for crimes against people were very severe, but crimes against property had far less punishment.


In other ancient Near Eastern countries, the death penalty was much more common. It was applied not only for murder, rape and other sexual crimes (as in the Bible), but also for theft, buying stolen goods, and even attempted theft. The penalties were graphic: if a burglar was found digging through a wall, his corpse was stuffed into the hole he dug; if you kissed someone’s wife, your lips were cut off; if you hit someone, your fingers were cut off; and if you poked someone’s eye out, they did the same to you – literally.


Rich people in other nations got away with murder, because they could pay a fine instead. These fines were too high for any but the very wealthy to pay – the fine for blinding someone’s eye was half a kilogram of gold. Theft could also be recompensed by a fine, but it was 30 times what you stole. So if someone stole a cow (equivalent to stealing a car today) they had to give the owner 30 cows in recompense. And if they couldn’t afford to pay that high a fine (and not many could) they were executed.


In contrast to other nations, Old Testament fines were much more affordable – a thief, for example, had to repay double rather than 30 times what he stole (Exodus 22:3-7). And if people couldn’t afford the fines, they were sold – ie they worked the fine off – instead of being executed.


‘An eye for an eye...’ is a legal phrase inherited from law codes older than the Bible, but it was probably never carried out in Israel, because Old Testament fines were much lower. We don’t know the exact valuations for various body parts, but the value put on a whole life was half a kilogram of silver – which was only ten times the offering made at the birth of a first child (Leviticus 27:3; Numbers 18:16).


However, in the Old Testament you couldn’t get away with murder, even if you were very rich. The penalty for almost every crime under the Law of Moses could be substituted by a fine, even up to accidental manslaughter, but a deliberate murderer was always executed (Numbers 35:15-31).


Crimes against people – especially sexual crimes and murder – were regarded as extremely serious, and the mandatory death penalties for these crimes reflected this.

 Direct Contrast

Today, different lengths of imprisonment perhaps help us make the punishment fit the severity of the crime. However, when all serious crimes are punished by imprisonment, there is a strong perception that crimes against people aren’t treated seriously enough – a direct contrast with the message conveyed by Old Testament punishments.


Our system of imprisonment also fails the prisoners. We no longer sentence people to pointless labour, such as breaking rocks, but we do little to provide useful activities and prison jobs for inmates. Programmes for education and rehabilitation receive tiny budgets and about three-quarters of prisoners are still functionally illiterate when they leave prison.


I am heartened by the fact that some of the best work in prisons is done by Christian groups. Christians run courses for prisoners and facilitate family visits. It is a response to Jesus’ command to ‘visit those in prison’. The Bible’s teaching is clear: people are all-important – both in how we compensate and protect victims, and also in how we treat those who have committed the crimes.