The shedding of blood is so serious that it requires the exchange of “life for life”.
However, modern society has decided that the death-penalty itself is a form of murder, and needs to be abandoned .
So it’s worth considering how much a death-penalty, in cases of murder, might be
a) compatible with the principles taught by a Biblical God, and
b) demanded by the principles taught by a Biblical God.
Is it compatible?
The wrongfulness of murder is expressed in these laws by the idea of “blood-guilt”; “the shedding of blood pollutes the land”.
This in turn rests on the understanding, which runs through the Old Testament, that the blood of any living creature is its life, and its life belongs
to the God who gave it life.
He has given us permission to take the life of animals, but even then the Israelites are expected to leave him the blood, to acknowledge his prior
But anyone who takes human life is trespassing, in principle, on what belongs to God.
However, the Old Testament does not see “murder” in every
act of taking of life.
I’ve already quoted passages which treat the act as a lesser offence if it happened accidentally or otherwise without malice.
Another law allows a man breaking into a house in the middle of the night to be killed without any blood-guilt.
Similarly, these laws prescribe the death-penalty in certain cases.
They are obviously taking for granted, then, that carrying out the death-penalty is one of the forms of taking life which does not constitute
The death penalty may be carried out by a stoning, but that’s not enough, in itself, to make it an acceptable act.
When Bishop Odo of Bayeux fought at the Battle of Hastings, he thought he was not guilty of “shedding blood” because he was using a mace.
But this literalistic evasion of the command was invalid; the law found in Numbers ch35 covers all the possibilities and makes it clear that even
stoning a man, if done in malice, counts as murder.
You do not need to be shedding literal
blood in order to be “shedding blood” in the eyes of God.
The real explanation must be that the man who carries out the death-penalty is acting under command, not acting out of malice.
And if he’s acting under God’s command, then he cannot be guilty of trespassing upon God’s prerogative, which is the real point of the Biblical
law on murder.
That’s why there is no conflict between the specific instruction to carry out the death penalty and the more general prohibition against taking
Is it demanded?
This God’s view of murder, like his view on marriage, is fundamental enough to be included in the text of Genesis.
“For your lifeblood I shall require a reckoning;…of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man
shall his blood be shed.”- Genesis ch9 vv5-6
If a man takes a life which belongs to God, then God takes back (through the executioner) the life which the man has already received from him.
Thus God demands the death-penalty for his own sake.
He also demands the death-penalty, in cases of murder, for the sake of the victim.
This can be seen from the later laws dealing with compensation for injuries.
The penalties work up from “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth” until they reach “a life for a life”.
In each case, the penalty has the same value as the injury.
So the basic principle which underlies the death-penalty is evidently that nothing has more value than human life, and therefore nothing less
human life can be accepted in exchange for the loss of life.
Presumably this is the reason why the authorities or the victim’s family are explicitly banned from accepting money as a substitute for the death
If we were living in Anglo-Saxon England, my life would be worth 200 Wessex shillings, which would be the appropriate wergild for a ceorl such as
That’s how much the man who killed me would have to pay my family.
But the Israelite law gives my life a much greater value, by insisting that it cannot be exchanged for anything less than another life.
Therefore, on the Biblical principle that human life has greater value than anything else, in God’s eyes, it did make sense to get rid of the death
penalty for lesser offences like theft.
When it was possible for a man to be hung for a sheep or for a lamb or even for picking another man’s pocket, the penalty was disproportionate.
But what is the result of abolishing the death penalty in the event of murder itself, replacing it with some less drastic punishment, such as a term
It could be argued that a lesser penalty undervalues the life of the victim himself.
It says, in effect, that the victim’s life is less valuable even than the life of the man who killed him.
It might be seen as a reversion to the days of “wergild”, when the value of human life was low enough to be measured in monetary terms.
So it’s possible, perhaps, to put forward a case that the abolition of the death penalty for murder is a retrogression from Biblical principles
rather than a progression.