One sure way to start an argument is to introduce a very controversial topic into the conversation. One such topic is that of capital punishment. Since capital punishment is the central theme of Leviticus chapter 20, it may appear that we are approaching a very sensitive subject. Actually, I do not believe that our text has very much to say regarding the contemporary debate over capital punishment. In fact, I want to settle this issue before we even begin to study our text. I do not think that Leviticus chapter 20 was recorded to convince 20th century Christians of the need for capital punishment any more than I believe that the primary purpose of Genesis 1 and 2 is to refute the relatively recent theory of evolution.
It should be clear at the outset that the Old Testament in general, and our text in particular, requires capital punishment in a number of instances. The issue, however, is whether or not the capital punishment of Leviticus can be viewed as timeless and universal, so that what God commanded Israel to observe is also binding on those who lived in later dispensations. Some would dogmatically maintain that Old Testament texts such as ours do make capital punishment a mandate. Let us beware in being too dogmatic on the basis of our text, however, since it “proves” far more than we would wish. Are we willing to insist on capital punishment for every offense which is listed here? We may insist that God’s word requires the life of the murderer, but do we also insist that the one who has sexual relations with his wife during her monthly period also has to die for such a sin?
The New Testament does seem to suggest that even heathen governments have the right to execute criminals. In John 19:11 our Lord implied that Pilate had the legal right to take human life in the form of capital punishment. So, too, the apostle Paul seems to say that government may “bear the sword” so as to be able to pronounce and execute the death sentence (Rom. 13:4). Following the three-fold question which I raised last week (Does the New Testament accept, reject, or revise a particular teaching or command of the Old Testament?), I would say that the New Testament “modifies” the teaching which we find in texts such as Leviticus chapter 20.
The principle issue addressed by Leviticus 20 is not whether or not governments should execute men for their crimes, but whether or not God does so. And if He does, as both the Old and New Testaments demonstrate, then we had best devote our attention to discovering the reasons why He does so. We should identify those reasons so that we can avoid committing any of these “capital crimes.” This will be the principle aim of our study.
Our approach in this lesson will be to begin by making some general, overall observations about chapter 20. Then I will attempt to surface some of the “tensions of the text” which present the contemporary Christian (and the Old Testament saint as well) with some difficulties, but also point the way to the interpretation of the passage. Next I will seek to resolve these tensions or problems by finding an explanation for them in the Old Testament. Finally, looking through the filter of the revelation of the New Testament, we will seek to discover how the principles underlying God’s determination of what constitutes a capital crime apply to your life and mine.
Chapter 20 falls into the broader context of chapters 18-20, which stress the practical outworkings of holiness in the everyday life of the Israelite. Chapter 18 has focused primarily on the family . Chapter 19 approaches holiness from the standpoint of one’s neighbor, and here God requires that His holiness be reflected by His people loving their neighbor. Chapter 20 follows up the teaching of the previous two chapters by prescribing the punishment for the capital crimes forbidden which have been outlined there. The serious nature of the punishment of these crimes serves to strongly underscore the importance of obeying the commands found in these chapters.
The structure of the chapter can be seen as outlined below:
The general tone of the chapter, along with some of the “tensions,” becomes evident in the following observations:
(2) There is a co-participation between God and His people Israel in condemning and executing those who are guilty of these capital crimes. Men must cooperate with God in judging the wicked or they become accessories to the crime (vv. 4-5).
(3) Not all capital crimes are listed here, but only selected capital crimes. In particular, those capital crimes are listed which have been forbidden in the immediately preceding context.
(4) The capital crimes mentioned here are not those which we would have expected, those which governments generally condemn, such as “murder,” “kidnapping,” and “rape.”
(5) The capital crimes of this chapter are not those which are universal, applicable in all dispensations, and would thus be directly applicable to or binding upon the 20th Century Christian.
(6) Quite frankly, some of these capital crimes are offenses which we might doubt as worthy of the death penalty. For example, one finds it difficult to conceive of a man having sexual relations with his wife during her monthly period as being a crime on a par with murder, adultery, or incest.
These general observations present the thoughtful reader with some perplexing questions, which I call the “tensions of the text.” These are troubling questions which occur to the reader as a result of grasping what is being said in the text. Such tensions are critical to good study and interpretation of the Bible, for I believe they are the means of finding the heart of the issue being taught, or what I call the “punch of the passage.” Let us consider the tensions which the above observations pose for the reader.
(1) Why is it that some seemingly minor offenses are considered capital crimes in Leviticus 20? Why, for example, should one be executed for having sexual relations with his wife, during her monthly period? Today, this is viewed as simply a matter of personal preference and nothing more. Having sex with another man’s wife we can more readily accept as a capital crime, but having sex with one’s own wife at a certain time of the month seems excessively severe.
(2) Why are the capital crimes listed in Leviticus 20 “odd-ball” capital crimes? The offenses listed here are those which, at least to the 20th century reader, seem off-beat and unusual. We would have expected this list of capital crimes to be quite different. Murder, kidnapping, and rape are the kinds of sins which nearly every government condemns and severely punishes. But the sins listed in chapter 20 are not of this type.
(3) The bottom line is this: why does what God calls worthy of death differ from our expectations of what He should have listed?
The solution to our dilemma, to these “tensions in our text,” is to discern those principles on which these particular capital crimes are selected, rather than others. We must, in other words, discern the divine reasoning and rational behind the crimes which are called capital. Here is the key to the correct interpretation of our passage, and the key to understanding its relevance to us.
Before attempting to answer the questions raised by our text, we must begin by establishing a fundamental premise: CAPITAL CRIMES REFLECT A GIVEN SYSTEM OF VALUES.
Acts which are called capital crimes are those which are considered most evil, and thus reflect the value system of the one (or ones) making the laws. Since capital punishment is the most serious penalty men can execute, those crimes which are capital crimes are those acts which are viewed as the ultimate evil.
Let me illustrate. In our country, it is possible, even likely, that a man might spend more time in prison for stealing than for murder or rape. This suggests that our society has become materialistic, and that those who take away our goods will be severely punished because we value things so highly.
This can be illustrated in another way. Think of the “crimes” for which our society is willing to put a person to death. While capital punishment for crimes such as murder and kidnapping is widely opposed by many, we will put the elderly to death for the crime of becoming a burden on us, for being a nuisance. The child that is born with a serious defect may be starved to death or have surgery which is necessary to preserve its life withheld so that the parents won’t be burdened with an “inferior” child. And, to cap it all off, we pronounce an infant in the womb worthy of death (and thus let the abortionist kill it) because it interferes with the freedom and pleasure of the parents. Our society has surely turned God’s values upside-down. The innocent are put to death because they violate our autonomy, our freedom, our pleasure. Our values become evident by those whom we sentence to death.
The only conclusion which we can reach from these illustrations is that our society worships money, freedom, and pleasure. These are the gods of 20th century America.
So, too, the capital crimes of Leviticus chapter 20 reflect God’s system of values. If it happens that we are troubled by what God has condemned as worthy of death, then we must recognize that our value system must be “out of sync” with God’s. What, then, are God’s values, which are the basis for His choice of capital crimes?
There are several principles evident in our text which explain why the crimes listed are capital offenses, worthy of death. Let us consider these principles very carefully.
The first tension raised by our text was the fact that capital punishment seems to be prescribed for offenses which are not all that serious. The solution to this dilemma is to be found in our first principle. PRINCIPLE ONE: GOD VIEWS EVERY SIN AS A CAPITAL CRIME, WORTHY OF DEATH.
Let’s face it, you and I would not have deemed a man worthy of death for having sex with his wife during her monthly period. Our society views this totally as a matter of preference. This offense, which is but a misdemeanor in our minds, was a felony to God, a capital crime, deserving the death penalty. Our problem is solved when we come to view sin as a horrid crime against a holy God. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, does this seem such a heinous crime that it necessitated not only the death of these two persons, but also the death of all their offspring?
In the midst of our consternation that God would condemn a person to death for what we would call a minor offense, let us not forget that the Bible portrays every sin as worthy of death. The wages of sin, we are told, is death (Rom. 6:23). There is no such thing as a small sin in God’s sight.
Society finds it necessary to categorize evils, and rightly so. It classifies crimes in relation to the harm which is done to society. Stealing a piece of fruit from a grocery store is therefore not viewed as being as socially destructive as killing the grocer would be. Thus, society categorizes sins as felonies and misdemeanors, as being in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd degree. It fines men for the commission of certain crimes, imprisons men for others, and executes some for still others.
God views sin differently. God looks upon sin not only in terms of the action and its consequences, but also in terms of the attitude which is evidenced. At the bottom line, sin is an act of rebellion against God. It matters little what form our rebellion takes, for any act of rebellion against the sovereign God is worthy of death. Why should we be surprised, then, when God prescribes the death penalty for any sin, even one which we view as minimal? We ought rather to ponder the grace of God in not striking every one of us dead for our endless succession of acts of rebellion against Him.
The fact that all sins are capital crimes has a number of significant implications. Let us consider some of them.
(1) Since all sins are capital sins, worthy of death, all men desperately need to experience God’s provision for sinners—forgiveness through the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross, bearing the (capital) punishment which we deserve.
We may deceive ourselves into thinking that God will accept us into His heaven because we are less sinful than others, but God views any sin as worthy of the death penalty. Thus, regardless of how society stratifies the sins we commit, God hates all sin and must, in His holiness, punish them. Some seem to find comfort in the fact that Jesus refused to condemn men in His first coming, even refusing to take part in the execution of the woman caught in the very act of adultery (John 8). This is because His first coming was not to condemn men, but to save them: “For God did not send the son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:17-18).
Let us not be lulled into a false sense of security, however, for while Christ’s first coming was not to pronounce God’s sentence on men, His second coming is. A reading of the 19th chapter of the Book of Revelation makes this painfully and dramatically clear. Let us be warned that all sin is worthy of death, that Jesus Christ has borne the death penalty in our place, but all those who reject Him now as Savior will face Him later as judge and executioner. If the ultimate penalty is eternal death—hell—then the ultimate crime is to reject Christ, who came to bear the penalty of sin and to break the power of death. Let us not reject Him who alone saves.
(2) The fact that all sins are capital crimes means that no sinner should feel more righteous than another. There is no room for self-righteousness if God views all sins as capital offenses. The scribes and Pharisees looked down their noses at the “sinners,” who were guilty of those offenses which the religious leaders had considered greater than their own. If we are not guilty of one form of sin, we are surely guilty of another, and seen from God’s point of view, the kind of sin of which we are guilty matters little. Thus, no sinner should feel more righteous than another. As James has put the matter, to be found guilty of offense at one point is to fall short in all points (cf. James 2:1-13, esp. v. 10).
Our second tension of this text concerned the fact that the capital offenses listed in Leviticus were not those commonly defined by society. In other words, the capital crimes of Leviticus were “oddball” crimes, rather than the typical crimes which governments almost universally condemn. This tension is solved by PRINCIPLE TWO: GOD’S LAW REFUSED TO DISTINGUISHES BETWEEN SINS AND CRIMES.
As a rule, governments do not concern themselves with moral matters, sins, but rather with social evils, crimes. As a friend of mine once put it: “There are a lot of crimes which aren’t sins, and there are a lot of sins which aren’t crimes.”
Those acts which God identified as capital crimes in Leviticus chapter 20 could also be called sins, for in the Law of Moses and in the Old Testament order sins were crimes. This is not universally true among nations however. Usually governments distinguish between crimes and sins. Governments don’t bother themselves with sins (that is, those acts which are against God) but with crimes (offenses against men).
The capital crimes listed in Leviticus 20 are those sins which the Canaanites would not have considered crimes at all. Thus, the Israelites would have been especially tempted to do the things penalized by death in our text.
The issue here is the difference between legality, or between crime (that which men declare to be a punishable social evil) and sin (that which God declares to be evil, and thus worthy of death). God is especially emphasizing the punishment for those sins (acts contrary to His law, as given at Mt. Sinai) which were not crimes (according to Egyptian or Canaanite law). God’s people are especially vulnerable to sins which are not crimes, for two reasons. First, the sins which are not crimes are acts which our culture will encourage us to commit. Secondly, the sins which are not crimes do not seem to have immediate (and dire) consequences. And so we are more naturally inclined to follow the speed limit than we are to shun covetousness.
In 1973 the Supreme Court overruled a law which declared abortion to be a crime. Before 1973, some women had abortions anyway, and became guilty of both a sin and a crime. After 1973 however, countless more women have had an abortion, largely because what was once both a sin and a crime is now no longer a crime. When God made certain sins crimes as well, the Israelites were strongly motivated to obey God’s laws and to avoid sin.
This lifestyle which is distinct from that of the surrounding nations is emphasized in chapters 18 and 20:
Usually sins and crimes are not always synonymous. This was not true in Israel’s theocracy, but it is generally true, especially when that government is essentially godless and pagan. In such cases, government too often declares the practice of righteousness to be a crime, as when Darius was deceived into declaring prayer to be unlawful (Daniel 6) or when the Jews declared witnessing in the name of Jesus to be against the law (Acts 5). In such cases, God’s people must be righteous even when it is illegal to do so.
Recognizing the difference between sins and crimes is vital to godly living in America. In past years, America’s laws reflected Christian morality, thus homosexuality was a crime and divorce was not easily obtained. Now, however, we live in a post-Christian day. The fact that professing Christians are now getting divorced almost as often as unbelievers is not to be credited so much to a declining morality as to a changing legality. I am not convinced that Christians of a bygone day stayed together out of obedience to God so much as out of respect for the law.
Today, Christians must wake up to the fact that living a godly life requires much more than being a law-abiding citizen. If the Christian is to be distinct as one who belongs to God—as the Old and New Testaments both require (cf. Matt. 5:43-48; 1 Peter 2, 4), then we must live according to a much higher standard than the laws of our land. At times, we must even violate them, if obedience to God requires it. The American way of life is not a high enough standard for Christians. Let us live higher than the law demands, for avoiding sin requires this. The law can define what is crime, but God defines what is sin.
Our third tension in the text of Leviticus chapter 20 had to do with God’s basis for identifying certain acts as capital crimes. This tension is resolved by PRINCIPLE THREE: THE CAPITAL CRIMES OF LEVITICUS 20 ARE VIOLATIONS OF GOD’S COVENANT WITH ISRAEL.
The crimes in Leviticus for which death is prescribed are all crimes against God’s covenant given Israel from Mt. Sinai. The purpose of the covenant, God continually emphasized, was to set Israel apart from the surrounding nations, to distinguish them by means of holiness, as His people (cf. Exod. 19:5-6). The Mosaic Covenant was the definition of the holiness which God required in order for Him to dwell among this people and for them to be His holy nation. Thus, to violate that covenant was to seek to thwart the purposes of God for His people. The crimes which God punished by death were those against His covenant.
No wonder the sins which God defined as capital crimes were not declared crimes by the Canaanites. These were the very things which the Canaanites practiced and promoted, and for doing so they were thrust out of the land (cf. Lev. 18:1-5, 24-30; 20:22-26).
The crimes which are declared worthy of death in Leviticus 20 are those acts which God called sin previously, and which His covenant clearly prohibited. The reason why any violation of His covenant was a capital offense was that this was God’s expressed will, the basis for His blessing or discipline, the standard for holiness. Whether or not the act appeared to have great social significance, it had great spiritual significance: it would defile the land and God’s sanctuary, thus either causing Him to depart or to drive the nation Israel from the land.
Our study of capital punishment in Leviticus inevitably leads us to the New Testament, from which we derive our fourth principle. In the New Testament God is seen to exercise capital punishment on those who disregard His new covenant.
This same principles which we have found in Leviticus chapter 20 are found demonstrated in the New Testament, where God is shown to exercise capital punishment in several instances. When I speak of “capital punishment” here I am referring to direct interventions of God which resulted in the death of individuals. In this sense, God “cut off” these offenders.
Ananias and Sapphira were “cut off” for lying to the Holy Spirit regarding their gift (Acts 5:1-11). The Galatian legalists who perverted the gospel were pronounced “accursed” by the apostle Paul (Gal. 1:6-9). While they were not put to death, they were pronounced worthy of death. The saints in Corinth who inappropriately observed the Lord’s Table suffered sickness and death for their disregard (1 Cor. 11:17-34). So, too, the one who would willfully disregard rebuke and persist in his sin was turned over to Satan, which, apart from repentance, would have led to his death (1 Cor. 5:1-5). In addition, note how strongly Paul reacted to the conduct of Peter when he fell in with the separatism of the Judaizers, based upon the inconsistency of this act with the gospel (Gal. 2).
I contend, therefore, that God looks upon disregard for the New Covenant as an even more serious offense than disregard for the Old. This is precisely the point of the writer to the Hebrews:
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:26-31).
If it is a most serious offense—can I say a capital offense—to disregard and disdain the covenant of God, whether the Mosaic or the New Covenant, then what are some of the ways which men are in danger of doing so? Let me conclude by suggesting some very practical dangers.
(1) The danger of rejecting Christ, through whose shed blood the New Covenant has been established. There is one danger which is common to all men, and it is by far the most dangerous. It is the danger of rejecting Christ, who is the means and the mediator of the New Covenant. He died, bearing the penalty of death which we should have borne. If we reject Christ, we have committed the ultimate sin, for which the ultimate penalty—eternal death—is justly appropriate. Do not reject Christ and thus disdain the New Covenant which God has made with men through Him.
(2) Christians disdain and disregard the New Covenant when they persist in sin. This is precisely what the writer to the Hebrews is warning his readers about. Cheap grace sees the shed blood of Christ as a license to sin. Christ died so that men may cease from sin. To persist in sin is, in the words of the biblical text, to “trample underfoot the Son of God,” and to regard “as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified” (Heb. 10:29). The punishment for such disregard is rightly most severe.
(3) Christians disdain and disobey the New Covenant when they refuse to initiate or participate in the discipline of a wayward saint. As I understand the matter, church discipline is the New Testament counterpart to Old Testament capital punishment. In this case, the Christian initiates discipline by rebuking the guilty party. If, after carrying out the entire process of rebuke (cf. Matt. 18; Gal. 6; 1 Cor. 5) the sinning saint refuses to repent, then the church must “cut off” fellowship. Unless repentance results, the process may well end in the death of the individual, in Paul’s words, “the destruction of his flesh” (1 Cor. 5:5). The sinning saint does not lose his salvation (“that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus,” (1 Cor. 5:5), but he may well lose his life. Just as the Old Testament Israelite disregarded God’s covenant by failing to take action against the sinner (Lev. 20:4-5), so the New Testament saint does likewise when he or she refuses to exercise church discipline.
(4) We disregard God’s covenant when we disdain or disregard the New Testament “sign of the covenant”—the Lord’s Table (cf. Luke 22:14-23; 1 Cor. 11:23-26). The sign of the Old Covenant was the keeping of the Sabbath. The violation of this observance was penalized by death. I am amazed at how easily Christians find it acceptable to fail to observe the Lord’s Table, the sign of the New Covenant. How can we honor the covenant without observing the sign of the covenant? How can a man love his wife and have no desire to enter into sexual union (the sign of his covenant) with her? We disregard the New Covenant by abstaining from a remembrance of the Lord’s Table. The immediately preceding context of Hebrews chapter 10 exhorts the Christian not to “forsake our own assembling together” (Heb. 10:25).
Furthermore, we disregard the New Covenant when we observe the Lord’s Table in an “unworthy manner.” The 11th chapter of 1 Corinthians tells us that some were sick and some died because of the drunken and disorderly conduct of those who did observe the Lord’s Table, but in an inappropriate way.
(5) We disregard the New Covenant when we pervert the terms of the covenant—when we distort the gospel. The legalists on the one hand (cf. Gal. 1:6-8) and the libertines on the other (cf. Rom. 6:1; 1 Cor. 8-10; 1 Pet. 2:16; 2 Pet. 2), distort the gospel, thus disdaining the covenant as God has established it. Such are those who are in great danger of divine judgment.
(6) We disregard the New Covenant when we fail to live a life on a higher standard than that of our society. Repeatedly in the Scriptures we find that God expects the Christian to live according to a higher standard than those around them (cf. Lev. 18:1-5, 24-30; 20:22-26; Matt. 5:43-48; 1 Pet. 2:11-25; 4). We must live distinct lives to be “salt” and “light” in our world, and may very well suffer persecution for so doing (Matt. 5:10-16; cf. 1 Pet. 4).
We disregard the New Covenant when we refuse to mortify (“put to death”) the flesh. God has, in Christ, condemned sin in the flesh. We are to mortify our members, to put sin to death in our lives. This is the outcome of the work of Christ, and of walking in His Spirit (cf. Rom. 6-8). To fail to mortify the flesh is to chose to follow Satan and to pursue sin to its logical and ultimate outcome—death (cf. Rom. 8:5-8).
Let us learn to shun those things which God has proclaimed worthy of death, and live in obedience to Him, honoring His covenant with us.
117 It is not universally agreed that every crime listed in chapter 20 is a capital offense. Some, for example, tend to take the expression ‘to cut off’ (e.g. Lev. 20:5) to mean excommunication or expulsion. Wenham mentions this as a possibility, but nevertheless leans toward the view that it means an early, untimely, death, at the hand of God:
“The law refers a number of times to God cutting off an offender, or the guilty person being cut off from among his people (e.g., Exod. 12:15, 19; Lev. 7:20-21, 25, 27; 17:4, 9, 14; 18:29; 19:8; 20:3, 5-6, 17-18; Numb. 15:30-31). It is a punishment generally reserved for religious and sexual offenses. Since some of these offenses may also attract the death penalty, ‘cutting off’ could conceivably be an alternative way of describing capital punishment (e.g., Lev. 20:6 and 27). However, since cutting off is contrasted with judicial execution in Lev. 20:2ff. (the man who escapes stoning must still face the possibility of being cut off), something different must be meant. For one case of incest Babylonian law demands expulsion from the community, where as biblical law speaks of the guilty man being ‘cut off’ (LH 154; cf. Lev. 20:17-18). It could be argued that ‘cutting off’ means excommunication from the covenant community. But this treatment is reserved for the unclean rather than for criminals (Lev. 13:45-46; Num. 5:1-4). It seems best, therefore, to retain the traditional interpretation of ‘cutting off’: it is a threat of direct punishment by God usually in the form of premature death. Insofar as many of the offenses punishable by ‘cutting off’ would easily escape human detection, a threat of divine judgment would have been the main deterrent to committing them.” Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), pp. 285-286
It might be argued that the expressions “they shall bear their guilt” (Lev. 20:19) and “they shall be childless” (20:21) may refer to something less than the death penalty. The context militates against this. For example, it is clearly stated that a man who marries a woman and her mother are to be “burned with fire” (v. 14), so the man who commits adultery and uncovers his brother’s nakedness by taking his brother’s wife surely must die also, even though the text says “they shall be childless” (v. 21). From verse 20, it is made clear that to be childless is to die childless.
118 “Most of the subjects dealt with in this chapter have already been discussed earlier in chs. 18 and 19 (cf. 20:2-5//18:21; 20:6,27//19:31; 20:9//19:3; 20:10-21//18:6-20, 22-23). The exhortations to holiness (vv. 7-8, 22-26) are similar to those found in 11:44-45; 18:2-5, 24-30; 19:36-37.” Wenham, p. 277.