In the time of the Pentateuch, God’s creation moves from Adam and Eve to Moses setting up the foundation of the Jewish people, with rules that last until today. This included rules about people, property or traditional customs. The penalties included the penalty of death. I am familiar with these rules for what then was a Jewish tribal culture, growing up in a small village in India. God’s commandments in the time of Moses are as much a part of the life I experienced in India as they are the heart of the Pentateuch. Most cultures in the Middle Eastern areas of Egypt, the Red Sea, Palestine, Iraq, and Syria had rules on how to punish someone who murdered someone else or committed any other crimes against their clan or community. Of these, the death penalty was the most extreme.
The “death penalty” is what we call capital punishment today. The Pentateuch itself is the best source for more detail of the behavior that God considers crimes that should earn the death penalty. The crimes are spread out in the 5 Books of the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The 10 Commandments list the behavior that God finds unacceptable. However, there is no penalty given for the disobedience. For example, one of the Ten Commandments is “Thou Shall Not Kill’ (bible gateway exodus 20). At the same time, the Commandment does not say: “Or you will be killed for the killing that you did.”
In researching the topic of capital punishment in Pentateuch times, I have found three journal articles that gave me a great deal of insight into the life of the Jewish people in the time of the Pentateuch. The Pentateuch itself remains the best source for understanding capital punishment and God’s rules for His people during these early centuries of the Jewish people. The rules have changed as human beings have added layers upon layers of “crimes and penalties.” It seems that the basic “Thou Shall Not” still are issues and the basis of legal judgments in most countries, including India, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas. 1. The First Murder: No Capital Punishment In Genesis 4:1-18, the story of Cain and Abel and the murder of Abel by Cain is told in a very detailed way. At this time in human history, while Adam and Eve were still alive, God the Father was still very involved in the lives of this first family.
In Verse 6-8, Cain who is the older brother and the farmer makes an offering of his farm while Abel, the younger brother who raises sheep, also offers sheep for sacrifice. God prefers the blood sacrifice of Abel. Cain gets angry and in Verse 8, kills Abel. Then Cain lies about it to God, saying “Am I my brother’s keeper?” in Verse 9. God catches the lie and then has the choice of punishment. Unlike in almost all other examples of murder, God chooses to curse Cain rather than follow the rule of “…an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…” of Exodus 21:24-25 (biblegateway). 2. Moses and the Authorship of the Pentateuch I was raised to believe in the Bible is inerrant and authored by the Holy Spirit using a human agency. Dr. Jack Cottrell discusses the concept of Biblical inerrancy in great detail in his book, The Faith Once and For All. Since Moses would have known the laws of Egypt, as a prince of Egypt, his authorship of the Pentateuch through the Holy Spirit does not seem impossible. So this study of capital punishment in the Pentateuch could also be known as what the law of Moses says about capital punishment.
By the time of Exodus, the Jewish tribes had been in captivity in Egypt for centuries before Moses. Reading Exodus, we see that the Jewish people were slaves and so we are not under Egyptian law. This was why God gave Moses the 10 Commandments after leading the Jewish people out of Egypt. 3. Life in the Jewish Tribes in the Times of the Pentateuch Scholars had done a great deal of research into what life was life in the time of Genesis when the sons of Noah began to repopulate the earth. The Biblical Archaeology Review In an article in the 2013 Biblical Archaeology Review, titled Of Fathers, Kings and the Deity”, co-authored by Dr. King and Dr. Stager, describes what life was like in the time of the Pentateuch: The nested households of ‘ancient Israelite society was structured in a way that few of us in modern times experience. Its focus was on family and kin groups organized around agrarian activities.
Family and kin groups, in turn, generated the symbols by which the higher levels of the social structure—the political and the divine—were understood and represented'( Vetus Testamentum, vol. 5, no. 2, 1955, page 133-136). A three-tiered structure formed a series of, as it were, nested households. At ground level was he ancestral or patriarchal household known in the Bible as “house of the father” (Genesis 24:7; Joshua 2:12, 18; 6:25). As a social unit, the joint or extended family, not thebiological family, was most important. Sometimes as many as three generations lived in a large family compound, comprising a minimal area that they had.
This, the basic unit of Israelite society, was the focus of religious, social and economic spheres of Israelite life and was at the center of Israel’s history, faith, and traditions. 4. Crimes That Carry a Death Penalty in the Pentateuch Given the emphasis on nested families and clan, and then up to the level of tribes, it is no surprise to me that the majority of the crimes relate to the enlarged joint family, followed by crimes against the clan and tribe as well as against God. In Capital Punishment and Its Alternatives in Ancient Near Eastern Law (5) Dr. Ernest Good suggests five different categories of crimes that incur capital punishment: • “Category 1: offenses against persons, including sexual offenses;
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