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Bible Dictionaries
Crimes and Punishments

Holman Bible Dictionary

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Israel, like most peoples in the Ancient Near East, considered their law to be the direct revelation from God. Since the law came from God, any transgression of the law was a transgression of God's revealed will.

The responsibility for the fulfillment and enforcement of the law lay with the entire community. The transgression of the law by one person or group within Israel involved the whole community in the guilt of the act. This is especially true in cases of homicide, idolatry, and sexual offenses (see, for example, Deuteronomy 19:10; Deuteronomy 21:1-9; 2 Kings 24:1-7 ). When Israel failed to purge the offender and rebellion against God's Law from their midst, God punished Israel (Leviticus 18:26-28; Leviticus 26:3-45; Deuteronomy 28:1 ).

Israelite Law with respect to crime and punishment was distinct from the laws of other cultures in several ways. First, Israel, in contrast to many of its neighbors, did not consider crimes against property to be capital crimes. Israel observed a system of corporal punishment and/or fines for lesser crimes. Second, Israel restricted the law of retaliation (eye for an eye; lex talionis ) to the person of the offender. Other cultures permitted the family to be punished to the crimes of the offender. Third, Israel did not observe class differences in the enforcement of the Law to the extent that their neighbors did. Nobility and commoner, priest and lay people were treated equally in theory. However, slaves and sojourners (foreigners) did not have an equal standing with free Israelites—though their treatment in Israel was often better than in surrounding nations; and women did not have equal standing with the men in Israelite culture—especially in regard to marriage and divorce laws and laws pertaining to sexual offenses. Finally, Israelites (in contrast to the people of surrounding nations) could not substitute sacrifices for intentional breaches of the law; sin and guilt offerings were allowed only in the cases of unwitting sins (Leviticus 4-5 ).

Crimes and Capital Punishment in the Old TestamentIsraelite law considered some crimes serious enough to warrant capital punishment. The offenses subject to capital punishment were: intentional homicide (Exodus 21:12; Leviticus 24:17; Numbers 35:16-21 ,Numbers 35:16-21,35:29-34 ), giving false testimony in capital cases (Deuteronomy 19:16-21 ), idolatry (Exodus 20:3-5; Leviticus 20:1-5; Numbers 25:1-9; Deuteronomy 13:2-19; Deuteronomy 17:2-7; 1 Kings 15:11-13; 2 Kings 10:18-28 ), kidnapping an Israelite (Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 24:7 ), incest, homosexuality, and beastiality (Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 20:11-17 ), rape (if the victim did not cry for help, she, too, should be executed; Deuteronomy 22:23-27 ), adultery (Leviticus 20:10-12; Deuteronomy 22:22 ), other sexual relations outside marriage (Leviticus 21:9; Deuteronomy 22:20-21 ,Deuteronomy 22:20-21,22:23-24 ), false prophecy (Deuteronomy 13:1-5; Deuteronomy 18:20-22; 1 Kings 22:19-28; Jeremiah 26:9 ,Jeremiah 26:9,26:15-16; Jeremiah 28:5-9 ), magic, divination, and witchcraft (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 19:26 ,Leviticus 19:26,19:31; Leviticus 20:6 ,Leviticus 20:6,20:27; Deuteronomy 18:10; 1Samuel 28:3,1 Samuel 28:9 ), violation of the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11; Exodus 23:12 Exodus 31:14-17; Exodus 34:21; Exodus 35:1;Exodus 35:1;2:1; Leviticus 23:3; Numbers 15:32-36; Nehemiah 13:15-22 ), blasphemy (Leviticus 24:14-16 ,Leviticus 24:14-16,24:23; 1 Kings 21:13 ), cursing or striking one's parents (Exodus 21:15 ,Exodus 21:15,21:17 ), disobeying the ruling of the court of appeals (Deuteronomy 17:8-13 ), and certain crimes against the king (1 Samuel 20:31; 1 Samuel 22:7-19; 2 Samuel 12:5; 2 Samuel 13:30; 2 Samuel 15:12; 2Samuel 16:5-9,2 Samuel 16:21; 1Kings 1:21,1 Kings 1:51; 1 Kings 2:22-25; 1 Kings 12:18-19; 1 Kings 21:10 ).

Since capital crimes were considered a blot on the community, not only did capital punishment punish the offender, it also purified Israel (Deuteronomy 13:5; Deuteronomy 17:7 ,Deuteronomy 17:7,17:12; Deuteronomy 19:19; Deuteronomy 21:21; Deuteronomy 22:21-22 ,Deuteronomy 22:21-22,22:24; Deuteronomy 24:7; Judges 20:13; 2 Samuel 4:11 ). Israelite law held that public execution served as a deterrent (Deuteronomy 17:13; Deuteronomy 19:20; Deuteronomy 21:21 ).

Methods of capital punishment included stoning (Exodus 19:13; Leviticus 20:27; Leviticus 24:14; Deuteronomy 22:24; Joshua 7:25; 1 Kings 21:13 ), burning (Genesis 38:24; Leviticus 20:14; Leviticus 21:9 ), death by the sword (Deuteronomy 13:15; 1 Kings 18:40; 2 Kings 23:20 ), beheading (2 Kings 6:31-32; compare 2 Samuel 16:9 ), and being shot with an arrow (Exodus 19:13 ). The bodies (or heads) of executed persons were some times impaled and exposed to public view as a warning (Deuteronomy 21:22-23 ); at times the bodies of executed persons were mutilated (2 Samuel 4:12 ). See Capital Punishment .

Being “Cut Off” from Israel Often in the Old Testament the punishment for a particular crime is termed being “cut off” from Israel. The meaning of the phrase is somewhat ambiguous. Some interpret the phrase to mean excommunication or exile from Israel or the community of faith while others interpret it as the pronouncement of the death penalty. The latter position is accepted in this article. Often the phrase “cut off” is used in parallel with words or phrases or in contexts which clearly indicate death (Exodus 31:14; Deuteronomy 12:29; Deuteronomy 19:1; 2 Samuel 7:9; 1 Kings 11:16; Jeremiah 7:28; Jeremiah 11:19; Ezekiel 14:13 ,Ezekiel 14:13,14:17 ,Ezekiel 14:17,14:19 ,Ezekiel 14:19,14:21; Ezekiel 17:17; Ezekiel 25:7; Ezekiel 29:8; Amos 1:5 ,Amos 1:5,1:8; Amos 2:3; Obadiah 1:9-10; Nahum 3:15; Zechariah 13:8 ). See Excommunication .

The offenses that make one liable to being “cut off” are: the men of Israel who are uncircumcised (Genesis 17:14; compare Exodus 4:24; Joshua 5:2-9 ), eating leavened bread during the feast of unleavened bread (Exodus 12:15 ,Exodus 12:15,12:19 ), trying to copy or using the holy anointing oil on outsiders (Exodus 30:33 ), profaning the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14 ), partaking of sacrifices in an unclean state (Leviticus 7:20-21 ,Leviticus 7:20-21,7:25; Leviticus 19:8; compare 1 Samuel 2:33 ), eating blood (Leviticus 7:27; Leviticus 17:10 ,Leviticus 17:10,17:14 ), offering sacrifices in a place other than the tabernacle (Leviticus 17:3-4 ,Leviticus 17:3-4,17:8-9 ), certain sexual offenses (Leviticus 18:29; Leviticus 20:17-18 ), child sacrifices to Molech (Leviticus 20:1 ,Leviticus 20:1,3:1 ,Leviticus 3:1,5:1 ), consulting wizards or mediums (Leviticus 20:6; Micah 5:12 ), approaching holy things in an unclean state (Leviticus 22:3; Numbers 19:13 ,Numbers 19:13,19:20 ), improperly observing the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:29 ), not observing the Passover (Numbers 9:13 ), committing a high handed sin (sinning intentionally or defiantly; Numbers 15:30-31 ), idolatry (1 Kings 9:6-7; 1Kings 14:9-10,1 Kings 14:14; 1 Kings 21:21; Ezekiel 14:7-8; Micah 5:13; Zephaniah 1:4; Zechariah 13:2 ), and those God curses (Psalm 37:22 ). The idea of being “cut off” is also mentioned in the New Testament (Romans 9:3; Romans 11:22; compare 1 Corinthians 16:22; Galatians 1:6 : Galatians 5:12 ).

Crimes and Corporal Punishment in the Old Testament Crimes of a lesser nature (usually those involving premeditated bodily injury) were punished with some sort of corporal punishment. The law of retaliation (eye for an eye; lex talionis) was the operative principle in most cases involving corporal punishment (Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:19-22; Deuteronomy 19:21 ).

The law of retaliation may seem to some to be rather harsh and even crude. In our own modern world, we would sue a person responsible for putting out an eye before we would put that person's eye out. In the ancient world, however, the law of retaliation served to restrict the vengeance taken on one who inflicted bodily injury. For example, it prevented the killing of a person who had put out the eye of another. The law of retaliation helped make the punishment fit the crime.

Besides the law of retaliation, corporal punishments also included scourging (Deuteronomy 25:1-3 ), blinding (Genesis 19:11; 2 Kings 6:18; compare Judges 16:21; 2 Kings 25:7 ), plucking out hair (Nehemiah 13:25; Isaiah 50:6 ), and the sale of a thief into slavery who could not pay the monetary penalties (Exodus 22:1-3; compare Leviticus 25:39; 2 Kings 4:1; Nehemiah 5:5 ). In one instance, mutilation is prescribed (Deuteronomy 25:11-12 ).

Crimes and Fines in the Old Testament Fines were always paid to the injured party. Fines were prescribed for causing a miscarriage (Exodus 21:22 ), deflowering a virgin (Exodus 22:16-17; compare Deuteronomy 22:29 ), sexually violating a slave woman promised to another man in marriage (Leviticus 19:20 ), and in some cases where an ox gored a person causing death (Exodus 21:28-32 ). A thief (one who steals by stealth) may be fined double, four-fold, or five-fold the value of the stolen goods, depending on what was stolen (Exodus 22:1-4 ,Exodus 22:1-4,22:9 ). A robber (one who steals by force or intimidation) must return the stolen property plus one-fifth of its value plus make a guilt offering (Leviticus 6:1-7 ). The difference between the penalties for thievery and robbery is difficult to explain. Should a man falsely accuse his bride of being unchaste, the man is fined double the marriage present (100 shekels of silver; Deuteronomy 22:19 ). One who inflicted unpremeditated bodily injury must compensate the victim for the loss of income plus pay the costs of recovery (Exodus 21:18-19 ). If a person should cause the loss of eye or tooth of his slave, the slave was freed (Exodus 21:26-27 ).

Crimes and Punishments in the New Testament There is no body of legal material in the New Testament comparable to that found in the Old Testament. Jesus did comment in the Sermon on the Mount on some of the matters discussed above. He expanded the prohibition of killing to include anger (Matthew 5:21-26 ) and the prohibition against adultery to include lust (Matthew 5:27-30 ). In contrast to the Old Testament, Jesus forbade divorce except on the grounds of unchastity (Matthew 5:31-32 ). With regard to the law of retaliation, Jesus desired that his disciples waive their rights to reparations (Matthew 5:38-42 ).

During the period of the New Testament, the Jews seem to have had relative autonomy in the matters of their religious law and customs. Even Jewish communities outside Palestine were under the authority of the high priest (Acts 9:1-2 ) and were allowed some measure of autonomy in religious matters (Acts 18:12-17 ).

Whether or not the Jews had the authority under the Roman government to impose the death penalty is a debated question. When Jesus was brought to trial, the Jews' reason for bringing him to Pilate was that they did not have the power to execute criminals (John 18:31 ). One ancient rabbinic tradition in the Babylonian Talmud (Abodah Zarah 8b) holds that the Jews lost the power to execute criminals for about 40 years. However, incidents in the New Testament seem to indicate otherwise: statements made at Peter's trial (Acts 5:27-42 ), the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:57-60 ), attempted lynchings (Acts 9:23-24; Acts 14:19; Acts 23:12-15 ), the authority to kill foreigners caught trespassing in certain areas of the temple (Acts 21:28-31 , a practice reported by Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian), and a statement made by Paul (Acts 26:10 ). Other ancient Jewish records of stonings and burnings indicates that the Jews may have had the authority to impose the death penalty.

The Jews during the period of the New Testament had the power to impose corporal punishment. This consisted primarily of scourgings (Matthew 10:17; Acts 5:40; Acts 22:19; 2 Corinthians 11:24 ) and excommunication (Luke 6:22; John 9:22; John 12:42; John 16:2 ).

The procurator was Rome's legal representative in the provinces of the Roman empire. He intervened in local affairs when the public peace and order were threatened—especially by sedition, riot, or brigandage (compare Acts 5:36-37 ). The charge against Jesus was a claim to be “King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37 ). Roman punishments included crucifixion (usually reserved only for slaves and the lower classes), beheading (see Matthew 14:10; Revelation 20:4 ), lifetime sentences to work in the mines (that is, kept in bonds; Acts 23:29; Acts 26:31 ), scourging (Acts 16:22; Acts 22:24 ), and imprisonment (Acts 16:23-24 ). See Appeal to Caesar .

Phil Logan

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Crimes and Punishments'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​c/crimes-and-punishments.html. 1991.
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