Thursday, December 28, 2006

Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned (Ex 21:15ff, capital punishment)

Okay, I've been slacking on this, so let's kill off the year with a post on the subject of capital punishment. As I think I mentioned in my other blog (Hmm, it seems I mentioned it in a post that's in progress and has not yet been posted, oh well.) this is actually one of a handful of difficult subjects for me as my personal views are not fully lined up with the position the Bible seems to be taking. As a good Christian, one generally must defer to the Bible on difficult matters however, especially in a context such as discussing the Bible itself.

The first question that must be answered is the matter of possible contradiction. As the SAB puts it, "Does God approve of capital punishment?" The page given goes on to show verses supporting both the "Yes" and "No" positions. At the moment, I wish to focus on the "No" column, and dispute what has been put there. In the case of Cain, as I commented when I covered that passage, one issue is that God has already doled out the punishment for Cain, and He doesn't want anybody adding to it. Also, while I disputed that there were only four people on the earth at the time of that incident, I would like to say that I don't think the population of the earth at the time of this murder was very large anyway; it may have suited God's purposes to allow Cain to live and raise his own family despite the heinousness of his crime.

Now, as for the famous passage from John 8, it might be an easy way out for me to note that most modern scholars have some question as to whether this story really belongs in John's Gospel, but that's a whole can of worms I'm not planning to open until I get to direct commentary on the Gospels. I think it suffices (it certainly does for me personally) to say that the behavior we see exhibited by Jesus in this passage is consistent with his behavior on the whole, and while it may have been edited in later than the original, it's reasonable enough to believe it to be a true story. But what does Jesus actually say? He says, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." (John 8:7) There's an important thing to notice about this single line that Jesus says to the accusers that most people don't notice. It's not what he says, but what he does not say. He never says, "You know, capital punishment is an outdated concept, and I really don't like Leviticus 20." No, he's pointing out the hypocrisy of the accusers, and it's an important lesson that we all need to take to heart if and when we do apply capital punishment to our own society.

Probably one of the most popular verses in the Bible is Matthew 7:1, but how many people notice that that particular verse is only part of a longer sentence/thought? Jesus doesn't just say "Judge not, that ye be not judged..." but explains what he means in the next verse: "For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." In other words, Matthew 7:1 is not Jesus' way of saying, "Live and let live," but rather his way of saying, "Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," a much more apt metaphor for the John 8 passage. The men in that story brought a woman to Jesus and accused her of adultery, but did she somehow commit adultery all by herself? It's possible if not highly likely that the man that the woman had slept with was in the crowd, and that the others had been involved in a plot to entrap her and make Jesus look bad. After all, Jesus was known for associating with "sinners", but how many of those people would hang out with Jesus once the word spread that Jesus had ordered a woman stoned to death for adultery? On the other hand, if Jesus told them not to stone her, he really would be going against the Law. As so often happened in Jesus' interaction with people trying to bring him down, he circumvented the question by getting to the heart of the matter.

So, in the "Yes" column, the SAB does a pretty good job of cataloguing the various reasons a person could be put to death according to the Law. For the most part, other than murder, these sins break down into two main categories: people who practiced some banned form of religion, and people who practiced some banned form of sexuality. It's always been very interesting to me what extent religion and sexuality are interconnected--in this case being two areas that are considered serious enough to be put to death for--I might consider a piece on it for my other blog. In any case, these are two areas of life that God considers to be vitally sacred and intimate. One might wonder whether it's overkill to put the punishment that high for some of these, especially working on the Sabbath. I think God wants to show that He's serious about these issues, and certainly you can't deny that capital punishment at the very least gets the message across.

Darn it, I'm rambling here, because I don't have so much to say. As I said, I personally am not too keen on the concept of capital punishment. I think one of the reasons that capital punishment was used in those days, and why many punishments seem very harsh to our modern sensibilities is that it really was a product of the times. Not to say that the ancient Israelites were culturally backwards and barbaric, although there is some truth to that no doubt. Rather, as a society without a centralized governmental infrastructure, and being a nomadic people in their early days, they didn't have a prison system. If someone is a menace to society and you can't lock him away, your choices are limited. Exile him, put him in bondage, or execute him; there's not much else, unfortunately. As I may or may not have said previously, but I will be saying a lot as I cover the Mosaic Law, these were laws designed for keeping order in ancient Israel, and I think that numerous misguided individuals who want to call for applying these laws to 21st-century America are missing that living thousands of years later on the other side of the globe really is a significant consideration. As we have the option of punishing without killing, I think it would be preferable to exercise that option. As we live in a society that is pluralistic and not a theocracy, I don't think we have the right to enforce rules telling people how to practice religion, nor would I want to, myself. When we look at the Law, we need to question what the underlying moral principle is, and decide how it applies to us today. The Torah is neither inferior nor superior to any modern law, it's simply different.

Okay, we'll see you next time when I get to discuss the oh-so-pleasant topic of abortion. Happy New Year, everybody.