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Thursday, July 18th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature

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This subject is properly restricted to the penalty imposed on the commission of some crime or offence against law. It is thus distinguished from private retaliation or revenge, cruelty, torture, popular violence, certain customs of war, etc. Human punishments are such as are indicted immediately on the person of the offender, or indirectly upon his goods, etc. For the leading points in the literature of the question concerning future and divine punishment see Soul. Capital punishment is usually supposed to have been instituted at the deluge (). Arnheim, however, thus explains the precept: if one stranger slay another, the kinsmen of the murdered man are the avengers of blood; but if he be slain by one of his own kindred, the other kinsmen must not spare the murderer, for if they do, then divine providence will require the blood—that is, will avenge it. This interpretation would account for the custom of blood-revenge among all the ancient and Asiatic nations. The extensive prescription of capital punishment by the Mosaic law, which we cannot consider as a dead letter, may be accounted for by the peculiar circumstances of the people. They were a nation of newly-emancipated slaves, and were by nature perhaps more than commonly intractable; and if we may judge by the laws enjoined on them, which Mr. Hume well remarks are a safe index to the manners and disposition of any people, we must infer that they had imbibed all the degenerating influences of slavery among heathens.

The mode of capital punishment, which constitutes a material element in the character of any law, was probably as humane as the circumstances of Moses admitted. It was probably restricted to lapidation or stoning, which, by skillful management, might produce instantaneous death. It was an Egyptian custom (). The public effusion of blood by decapitation cannot be proved to have been a Mosaic punishment. The appearance of decapitation, 'slaying by the sword,' in later times (;; ), has no more relation to the Mosaic law than the decapitation of John the Baptist by Herod (); or than the hewing to pieces of Agag before the Lord by Samuel, as a punishment in kind (). Execution was ordered by Moses, probably adopting an ancient custom, to be begun first by the witnesses, a regulation which constituted a tremendous appeal to their moral feelings, and afterwards to be completed by the people (;;; ). It was a later innovation that immediate execution should be done by some personal attendant, by whom the office was probably considered as an honor (; ). Stoning therefore was, probably, the only capital punishment ordered by Moses. It is observable that neither this nor any other punishment was, according to his law, attended with insult or torture (comp. 2 Maccabees 7). Nor did his laws admit of those horrible mutilations practiced by other nations. Mutilation of such a nature amounts to a perpetual condemnation to infamy and crime. It will shortly be seen that the lex talionis, 'an eye for an eye,' etc., was adopted by Moses as the principle, but not the mode of punishment. He seems also to have understood the true end of punishment, which is not to gratify the antipathy of society against crime, nor moral vengeance, which belongs to God alone, but prevention. 'All the people shall hear and fear, and do no more so presumptuously' (; ). His laws are equally free from the characteristic of savage legislation, that of involving the family of the offender in his punishment. He did not allow parents to be put to death for their children, nor children for their parents (), as did the Chaldeans (), and the kings of Israel (comp. 1 Kings 21; ). Various punishments were introduced among the Jews, or became known to them by their intercourse with other nations—viz., precipitation, or throwing, or causing to leap, from the top of a rock: to which ten thousand Idumeans were condemned by Amaziah, king of Judah (). The inhabitants of Nazareth intended a similar fate for our Lord (). This punishment resembles that of the Tarpeian rock among the Romans. Cutting asunder appears to have been a Babylonian custom (;;; ); but the passages in the Gospels admit of the milder interpretation of scourging with severity, discarding from office, etc. Beating to death was a Greek punishment for slaves. It was inflicted on a wooden frame, on which the criminal was bound and beaten to death (;; comp. 6:30). Fighting with wild beasts was a Roman punishment, to which criminals and captives in war were sometimes condemned (Adam, Roman Antiq., p. 344;; comp. ). Drowning with a heavy weight around the neck, was a Syrian, Greek, and Roman punishment. For Crucifixion, see the Article.

Posthumous insults offered to the dead bodies of criminals, though common in other nations, were very sparingly allowed by Moses. He permitted only hanging on a tree or gibbet; but the exposure was limited to a day, and burial of the body at night was commanded (). Such persons were esteemed 'cursed of God' (comp.;; )—a law which the later Jews extended to crucifixion (, etc.; ). Hanging alive may have been a Canaanitish punishment, since it was practiced by the Gibeonites on the sons of Saul (). Another posthumous insult in later times consisted in heaping stones on the body or grave of the executed criminal (). To 'make heaps' of houses or cities is a phrase denoting complete and ignominious destruction (; ). Burning the dead body seems to have been a very ancient posthumous insult: it was denounced by Judah against his daughter-in-law, Tamar, when informed that she was with child (). Selden thinks that this means merely branding on the forehead. Moses retained this ancient ignominy for two offences only, which from the nature of things must have been comparatively rare, viz., for bigamy with a mother and her daughter (), and for the case of a priest's daughter who committed whoredom (). Though 'burning' only be specified in these cases, it may be safely inferred that the previous death of the criminals, probably by lapidation, is to be understood (comp. ). Among the heathens this merciful preliminary was not always observed, as for instance in the case of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3).

Among the minor corporal punishments ordered by Moses, was scourging; or the infliction of blows on the back of an offender with a rod. It was limited by him to forty stripes, a number which the Jews in later times were so careful not to exceed, that they inflicted but thirty-nine (). It was to be inflicted on the offender lying on the ground, in the presence of a judge (;; ). We have abundant evidence that it was an ancient Egyptian punishment. Corporal punishment of this kind was allowed by Moses, by masters to servants or slaves of both sexes (). Scourging was common in after times among the Jews, who associated with it no disgrace or inconvenience beyond the physical pain it occasioned, and from which no station was exempt (; comp. 10:13; ). Hence it became the symbol for correction in general (). Solomon is a zealous advocate for its use in education (;; comp. ). It was inflicted for ecclesiastical offences in the synagogue (; ). The Mosaic law, however, respecting it, affords a pleasing contrast to the extreme and unlimited scourging known among the Romans, but which, according to the Porcian law, could not be inflicted upon a Roman citizen (; ). Reference to the scourge with scorpions, i.e. a whip or scourge armed with knots or thorns, occurs in .

Retaliation is doubtless the most natural of all kinds of punishment, and would be the most just of all, if it could be instantaneously and universally inflicted. But when delayed it is apt to degenerate into revenge. Hence the desirableness that it should be regulated and modified by law. Moses accordingly adopted the principle, but lodged the application of it in the judge. 'If a man blemish his neighbor, as he hath done, so shall it be done to him. Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, wound for wound, stripe for stripe, breach for breach' (; ). His system of compensations, etc., occurs in Exodus 21. He, however, makes willful murder, even of a slave, always capital, as did the Egyptians. The Egyptians doomed the false accuser to the same punishment which he endeavored to bring on his victim, as did Moses (). Imprisonment, not as a punishment, but custody, till the royal pleasure was known, appears among the Egyptians (). Moses adopted it for like purposes (). In later times, it appears as a punishment inflicted by the kings of Judah and Israel (;; ); and during the Christian era, as in the instance of John (), and Peter (). Murderers and debtors were also committed to prison; and the latter 'tormented' till they paid (; ). A common prison is mentioned (); and also an inner prison or dungeon, which was sometimes a pit (), in which were 'stocks' (;; ). Prisoners are alluded to (), and stocks (). Banishment was impracticable among the Jews. It was inflicted by the Romans on John (). Cutting or plucking off the hair is alluded to (; ). Excision, or 'cutting off from his people,' is denounced against the uncircumcised as early as the covenant with Abraham (). This punishment is expressed in the Mosaic law by the formula—'that soul shall be destroyed from its people' (); 'from Israel' (); 'from the midst of the congregation' (); 'it shall be destroyed' (; ); which terms sometimes denote capital punishment (; comp. 35:2; , etc.) [ANATHEMA].

Ecclesiastical punishments are prescribed, as might be expected under a theocracy, but these were moderate. Involuntary transgressions of the Levitical law, whether of omission or commission, were atoned for by a sin-offering (, etc.;; ). This head embraced a rash or neglected oath, keeping back evidence in court (, etc.;; ), breach of trust, concealment of property when found, or theft, even when the offender had already cleared himself by oath, but was now moved by conscience to make restitution. By these means, and by the payment of twenty percent beyond the amount of his trespass, the offender might cancel the crime as far as the church was concerned (; ). Adultery with a slave was commuted from death to stripes and a trespass-offering (). All these cases involved public confession, and the expenses of the offering.

Future punishment.—Though the doctrine of a future state was known to the ancient Hebrews, yet temporal punishment and reward were the immediate motives held out to obedience. Hence the references in the Old Testament to punishment in a future state are obscure and scanty. See Hades; Heaven; Hell.





Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Punishments'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​kbe/​p/punishments.html.
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