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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Why were sexual offenses punishable by death in the Old Testament?
The question of capital punishment is particularly sensitive in Western cultures, and I understand the apprehension. But your question is about specific cases legislated in the Old Testament. I suggest that we understand the legislation itself, then try to clarify its foundation.
1. Legal Materials: I will deal only with three specific legal cases. The first is adultery (Deut. 22:22), considered throughout the ancient Near East to be a great sin requiring the death penalty for the man and the women. In the Bible it is also considered a serious sin against God, against the spouse, and against society. Through capital punishment people were to “put away [ba’ar, “exterminate, remove”] the evil from Israel” (verse 22). Adultery was not simply a private affair, but one that could potentially damage God’s people, making it necessary to remove it from among them. Could the death penalty be commuted to a lesser penalty or forgiven by the spouse? This was the case in the ancient Near East, and some things indicate that this may have also been the case in Israel. Proverbs implies that the husband could accept financial compensation from the adulterer and save the marriage, or at least the life of both individuals (Prov. 6:32-35; cf. Hosea 3:1-3). Divine forgiveness was also available to sinners (Ps. 51).
The second case is the loss of virginity detected after marriage (Deut. 22:20, 21). The husband realizes that the wife, who was expected to be a virgin, was not and feels not only betrayed but deceived by her. She is to be executed because “she has done a disgraceful thing [nebalah, an act that upsets the moral and social orders] in Israel” by being promiscuous (zanah, prostituting herself; lack of moral integrity) (verse 21). This is treated as a case of adultery.
The third case is that of a man who had consensual intercourse with a betrothed virgin (verses 23, 24). This is also considered a case of adultery, and capital punishment is the penalty for both. Whether or not in these two cases the sentence could be commuted by the husband is not indicated, although it is possible.
2. Possible Rationale: We have to say several things about this topic. First, these laws were not simply civil matters; they revealed the nature and morality of God. Capital punishment indicates the seriousness of sexual morality in the eyes of the Lord.
Second, the possibility of commuting the penalty to a lesser one, and divine forgiveness, was always available to repentant sinners.
Third, the violation of the sexual laws could adversely impact the social world by ignoring the seriousness of the offense, thus relaxing moral integrity. Such violations were considered mortal wounds to the family and to the social order because they threatened God’s intention for humanity.
Fourth, sexual promiscuity damaged the two persons by transforming them into instruments of personal pleasure in the absence of the mutual respect, responsibility, and accountability provided by marriage. Sexual intercourse within marriage unifies a man and a woman in the bonds of divine love; otherwise it shows no respect for others and damages the couple’s self-image.
Fifth, sexuality is not our exclusive property. In a sense, it belongs to the human race, and its misuse damages all of us in one way or another.
Sixth, virginity is a divine gift to be protected until it finds its goal within the loving parameters of the divine institution of marriage. This goal is not always achieved, but the gift must be preserved in submission to the Lord.
These ideas are foreign to our contemporary world. When dealing with questions of sexual morality, we have to ask: Who determines what is morally right and good? Is it the legal system of a secular society, or the permissiveness that characterizes it (“Everyone is doing it!”)? For Christians the answer is clear: God has revealed His will in the Scriptures. When legal systems betray Christian morality, we must obey God.
To those who may have wandered away from the divine intention for human sexuality, I will only quote the Scripture: “Go now [forgiven] and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11, NIV).