A Look at the Harsh Penalties of the Old Testament

In his 2009 article “Bible’s ‘Bronze Age Morality’” Captain Josh Packard writes, “The Bible tells us to put to death adulterers, blasphemers, witches and people who work on the Sabbath. … This is just a sampling of typical Bronze Age ‘morality’ in the Bible that has no place in today’s society.” 

Captain Packard is not the only person who takes issue with the overly harsh penalties of the Mosaic Law. In his book Is God a Moral Monster? author Paul Copan summarizes atheist Sam Harris’ objections to Old Testament Law: 

“If the Bible is true, then we should be stoning people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, worshiping graven images, and ‘other imaginary crimes.’ In fact, putting to death idolaters in our midst (see Deut. 13:6-15) reflects ‘God’s timeless wisdom.’ 

“In The End of Faith, Harris, referring to Deuteronomy 13:6-11, insists that the consistent Bible believer should stone his son or daughter if she comes home from a yoga class a devotee of Krishna. Harris wryly quips that one of the Old Testament’s ‘barbarisms’ – stoning children for heresy – ‘has fallen out of fashion in our country.’” 

Mosaic Law did, indeed, prescribe death by stoning for a number of offenses, in addition to bodily mutilation for several other types of crimes (an eye for an eye, etc.). However a pertinent question becomes “How were such penalties enforced?” 

The book of 1 Samuel describes the very first time that a king was appointed to rule over Israel. This event took place a few centuries after the Mosaic Law was originally penned. During those intervening years, what was the process for judging and executing these laws? 

The book of Exodus describes the formation of the original judicial system for Israel. In chapter 18Moses’ father-in-law comes for a visit and notices that Moses sits all day long settling disputes as great crowds of people are gathered around him. This passage describes the origin of Israel’s justice system: 

“When Moses' father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” 

And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.”  

Moses' father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves.”” 

This same system is then represented throughout the Old Testament up until the first king is appointed: 

Deuteronomy 25:1-3 

“If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty, then if the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in proportion to his offense. Forty stripes may be given him, but not more, lest, if one should go on to beat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight.” 

Typically, these judges held court at the gates of the city, and when two people had a contention or legal matter, they would voluntarily bring it before the judges in order to have the dispute resolved. 

If some kind of penalty was due, it was democratically enforced by the people. There was no police force. 

This creates an interesting situation. Since these laws were on the books, individuals were aware of the risk of a judicial ruling against them. This gave ample opportunity for two individuals to “settle out of court.” 

If the offender were able to appease the person they wronged without taking it to court, then the maximum penalty need not be invoked. Likewise, if the offended party were willing to forgive the offence, there would be no need to consult the judges. 

In fact, the Old Testament urges people to mercy rather than law. Hosea 6:6, frequently quoted by Jesus in the book of Matthew, reads “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” and Micah 6:8 reads, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good and what does the Lord require of you: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” 

The latter passage speaks to both offender and accuser, urging people to act in accordance to the law (do justly) and when offended, to forgive (love mercy). 

When expositing upon Mosaic Law in the book of Matthew, Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18, which states: 

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” 

The penalties of the Mosaic Law were fearsome, indeed. Under the threat of such penalties, the people might well avoid behavior that would earn them such condemnation. However, since prior to the period of the kings, Israel was a true democracy without a designated police force, simple forgiveness could easily avoid such penalties. 

The assumption that just because a parent had the legal right to stone a rebellious child that they would automatically do so is a bit of a leap. However, such a law might well be an encouragement for the child to respect the absolute authority that their parent held over their life and livelihood. 

The criticism laid upon Old Testament morality in light of modern morality is vast and multifaceted, and the above observation certainly does not answer all such criticisms, however one cannot simply accuse ancient Israelites of stoning everyone they didn’t like and justifying it according to the law. On the contrary, it is far more likely that the law encouraged them to act justly, to repent of their offenses, and to accord mercy to one another.