Old Testament Law and Punishment

Anthony Weber —  October 15, 2012 — 6 Comments

In previous posts, I noted three key points in relation to Old Testament law. First, the laws cannot be understood apart from their context and purpose. Second, many of the laws that seem unusually restrictive served an important purpose: God wanted a people who understood what it meant for something to be “holy” – separate, undefiled, and distinct. Third, God actively involved the Israelites in a progressive movement toward individual and societal restoration.   In this post, I will add a fourth and final claim: the system of punishment and restoration in the Old Testament was purposefully used to foreshadow the Gospel message. In order to do this, I will need to address the cultural, historical, and religious context in which the system of punishments were given.

First, there were no prisons in Israel, so there needed to be a way in which offenders could maintain life in the community without minimizing or ignoring actions that harmed their relationship with God and others.  If they did not agree with the covenant, they could leave. Israel was not a closed nation. Those who stayed agreed to live in a nation linked in a covenant with God, knowing full well how covenant worked. 

Second,the Jewish nation believed that the primary purposes of God’s Law were restitution, rehabilitation, and atonement.  Punishment was not the point.  Both the laws and the punishments served an interest greater than themselves. For that reason, most of the punishments were not applied literally. Thus, “an eye for an eye,” was never understood to call for actual maiming of an offender. Rather, it required equivalent compensation for the value of the victim’s lost eye.  If someone killed the livestock of another, he or she did not automatically lose an animal in response.  If a thief took someone’s shoes, the victim had a right to equal compensation, though it might have taken a different form.

With this in mind, consider the many safeguards that Jewish law put in place when it came to the death penalty. In order to convict and execute someone, they needed:

  • at least two eyewitnesses of unquestionable character
  • evidence that was neither circumstantial nor self-incriminatory
  • testimony from witnesses that did not include family members or personal confession
  • proven premeditation in the act of crime, which meant the criminal had to be specifically warned by the eyewitnesses prior to the crime, the criminal had to indicate that he or she heard the warning, was fully aware of the magnitude of the deed, but was determined to go through with it.

In effect, this did away with the application of the death penalty for much of Jewish history.  The Mishna declared: “The Sanhedrin that executes one person in seven years is called “murderous.” Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah extended this to one execution in seventy years. That does not mean the punishment was meaningless, or the crime irrelevant. The punishment clearly attached a level of severity that God considered appropriate to the crime. But in every case but one, there was another way the penalty could be paid. 

A couple case studies may be helpful. Exodus 21: 29-32 deals with a case where an ox gores another person to death due to negligence on the part of the owner. The prescribed penalty is death, but…

“If the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull must be stoned and the owner also must be put to death. 30 However, if payment is demanded of him, he may redeem his life by paying whatever is demanded.”

Notice that provision is made for a monetary fine to be paid instead of execution. In response to a capital crime in1 Kings 20:39, the following sentence is announced: “a life for a life.” However, the immediate context shows there is more to the sentence :

“It will be your life for his life or you must weigh out a talent of silver.”

In Towards an Old Testament Ethic, Walter Kaiser summarizes in this fashion:

“There were some sixteen crimes that called for the death penalty in the OT…. Only in the case of premeditated murder did the text say that the officials in Israel were forbidden to take a “ransom” or a “substitute.” This has widely been interpreted to imply that in all the other fifteen cases the judges could commute the crimes deserving of capital punishment by designating a “ransom” or “substitute.”

 Third, the Jewish people revered those who repented of even the gravest sins: ““In the place where the repentant (ba’alei teshuva) stand, even the wholly righteous cannot stand” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 34b). As Maimonides wrote, “He receives a great reward because he has tasted the taste of sin and yet separated himself from it and has conquered his evil inclination.”  We so often associate the Old Testament with only law and punishment, but the people of the covenant understood there was a highly desired outcome: repentance, forgiveness, and restoration.

I think we have done a disservice to the Law by not seeing its role in paving the way for the coming of Christ. Galatians 3:24 says the Law “was put in charge to lead us to Christ.” Have we ever thought of the Law this way: that it makes clear we do bad things, tells us what we deserve, allows for genuine repentance, and gives an example of a “ransom” or a “substitute”? When Jesus showed up to fulfill the Law, he arrived in the midst of a people who understood the need for a “ransom for our souls” (Matthew 20:28). So as I look at the context and purpose of Old Testament Law, what do I see?

  • God the Creator took the chaotic, formless, and unboundaried and created a world that is good because it is ordered. God is clearly a God of wholeness and completeness. We, too, need to be a people who seek to be complete, whole, and boundaried, not people who live chaotic and fragmented lives.
  • God is a God whose goal is redemption. We need to be a people who look for and exemplify the redemptive movement that God offers as Jesus continues to pull us from darkness into light.
  • God accepts people where they are, but is not content to leave them there because 1) they are His people, and 2) they desire to become holy. In the same way, we must show the same patience to those around us who are moving toward Christ.
  • God does not desire punishment – He does not want any to perish. He desires restitution, rehabilitation, and atonement. In the same way, a hope that people “get what’s coming to them” has no place in the life of a follower of Christ. All of us who are followers of Christ share three things in common: We were “dead in our sins”; God has “begun a good work in us” that is not yet finished, and one day He will complete it.

Anthony Weber


Anthony graduated from Cedarville University in 1995 with a degree in English Education, and from Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana in 2004 with a Master's Degree in Theology and Philosophy. Anthony is a husband and father of three, an author ("Learning to Jump Again"), high school and college teacher, pastor, blogger (tcapologetics.org, empiresandmangers.blogspot.com), and co-founder of etcetera, a "street-level philosophy group" in Traverse City, Michigan.

6 responses to Old Testament Law and Punishment

  1. I would be really interested in reading the exegesis of Leviticus 24:13-22 which has persuaded you that God did not mean “an eye for an eye” literally. The NET makes it most explicit: “If a man inflicts an injury on his fellow citizen, just as he has done it must be done to him – fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth – just as he inflicts an injury on another person that same injury must be inflicted on him.” That sure looks literal to me, and while other translations may soften it a bit, they are all pretty consistent with the lex talionis message. What’s your workaround?

    I’m also curious about the claim that there were “some sixteen crimes that called for the death penalty in the OT” but that only premeditated murder carried a non-negotiable capital sentence. Deuteronomy 13, for example, seems to be pretty unambiguous about the sentence for heresy, and the aforementioned Leviticus 24 is pretty clear on the penalty for blasphemy against the Name… not a whole lot of wiggle room there.

    Anyway, don’t you think it’s a little odd that you’re defending the laws laid down by God by arguing that His earthly representatives ensured that those laws would never actually be enforced in the way he commanded? In a way, it makes my case for me: even those old uncivilized tribesmen, so early in the process of progressive revelation, were aware that the laws their god had given them were too harsh and needed to be softened a bit.

    (BTW, I don’t think the context in 1 Kings 20:39 is really your friend here: the punchline of that little story seems to be that when God has decreed that person X deserves to die, the authorities had better kill person X or God will be displeased.)

    • Good questions, Steve. Let’s see if I can do them justice!
      1) The lex taiionis principle as I described it draws from more than just one verse. It’s a contextualization of the principle as it is seen in other case law scenarios in the OT. So God says “eye for an eye,” then shows in other places that this is a standard for gauging recompense, not a command to maim as one was maimed. In other words, if you do an eye’s worth of damage, you owe an eye’s worth in return. We see this in civil court all the time.
      2) There are only a few verses in the OT that say, “You cannot accept a substitute.” Biblical scholars understand that to mean that in all other cases, you could.
      3) I attempted to make the point that God’s earthly representatives sought to ensure that His laws were enforced the way He commanded and intended. Their structure was the result of a very careful attempt to honor what they believed God was telling them to do.
      4) In 1 Kings 20, the prophet tells Ahab that he should not have set a man free that God determined should die – “Therefore, it is your life for his life.” The result? Ahab leaves, humbles himself… and God removes the capital sentence on Ahab. This does not happen in every story, but doesn’t this particular case set a precedent for the Jewish people to understand punishment as a way of signifying how seriously God takes a matter, without believing that one must hand out maximum punishment?

      • 1) It may be that other case law softens lex talionis, but what I’m curious about is how you can tell that in Lev 24:12-22 God didn’t really mean what he said. How much time was there between God’s statement in Lev 24 and the “other case law scenarios in the OT” which contextualized His statement? Do you think that people during that in-between period believed that God’s law in personal injury cases was pure lex talionis? What reason would they have had to think otherwise?

        2) That’s taking “the exception proves the rule” pretty seriously, isn’t it? It’s essentially claiming that when God said that the punishment for a crime was that the criminal “must surely be put to death” (Lev 24, again) but neglected to specify an alternative fine, what He really meant was “must surely be given whatever punishment the judges think is appropriate”. Do you think that’s a reasonable interpretation?

        3) Well, maybe. I still think the most plausible explanation is that the rabbis were kinder than their god.

        4) I think you may be reading the next episode back into the previous episode. But the whole thing is rather confusing: In the next story, Ahab does humble himself, but the actual crime was committed not by him but by Jezebel, apparently on her own initiative; Ahab merely took advantage of the results. In any case, God did decide not to destroy Ahab’s dynasty, but He did declare that the dogs would lick Ahab’s blood and, lo and behold, they did! It’s a little hard to pull a moral about justice out of this story, I would think.


  3. Thank you for this! It’s very helpful researching for an essay I’m writing.

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