Sunday, September 25, 2011

Numbers 35:30-34 - Is Capital Punishment Biblical?

Opening thought:
This past Wednesday night, Georgia inmate Troy Davis was executed for the 1989 murder of Mark MacPhail, an off-duty Savannah police officer. The execution was about four hours later than initially scheduled, because prison officials waited for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Davis' request for a stay. After 10 p.m. ET, the Supreme Court, in a brief order, rejected Davis' request. His supporters had sought to prevent the execution, saying seven of the nine witnesses against him have recanted or contradicted their testimony. Davis died at 11:08 p.m. ET, according to a prison official.[1]
While cameras were focused on Georgia, the state of Texas quietly executed Lawrence Russell Brewer, a white supremacist who killed a black man in 1998 by dragging him behind his pickup truck. Brewer was the first of two to be put to death for the crime, while a third man received a life sentence. He spoke no last words, and tears formed in his eyes as he died, according to the Houston Chronicle. Brewer’s execution came after the Supreme Court issued stays to halt Texas’s two previous scheduled executions.[2]
man convicted of the 1994 execution-style shooting of a store clerk in Alabama was put to death on Thursday by lethal injection in the third U.S. execution carried out this week. Derrick O'Neal Mason killed 25-year-old Angela Cagle during the attempted robbery of a convenience store in Huntsville, Alabama. Authorities said he forced Cagle to strip naked and shot her twice in the face at close range. Mason, 37, was pronounced dead at 6:49 p.m. local time. Mason had spent 16 years on death row. He was the fifth inmate executed in Alabama this year, and the 36th in the United States in 2011.
"We'll miss Angie until we see her in heaven," her family said in a written statement. "We are grateful for the prayers and support we have received in these 17-1/2 years in dealing with having her ripped from our lives but never from our hearts."[3]
Usually I have my preaching calendar planned several weeks ahead. For example, I know with some certainty what I will be preaching through the end of January. It is sometimes strange how I can plan well ahead that preaching calendar, and the topic that I had planned weeks ago is current in the culture when it comes time to preach it. That happened this week on the question, “Is Capital Punishment Biblical?” from Numbers 35. Let’s turn to that chapter in the Old Testament and let me give you some background on the passage.
Contextual Notes:
As Moses continues laying down principles for the occupation of the Promised Land, he has spoken about driving out the Canaanites (Num 33:50-56), defined the boundaries of Canaan (Num 34:1-15), and selected men to supervise the land distribution (Num 34:16-29). Now in chapter 35, Moses sets aside 48 towns for the Levites within the other tribes’ territories, and they were to be scattered among all the tribes so that they would know the Torah of the Lord (Num 35:1-8). He establishes six cities of refuge, all within a day’s walk for every Israelite to find sanctuary (Num 35:9-15), and he sets principles for dealing with homicide, defining murder (Num 35:16-21) and accidental killing (Num 35:22-29), so that the Promised Land will not be defiled with blood (Num 35:30-34). This chapter thus becomes a key to understanding the Scripture’s outlook on murder and capital punishment.

Key Truth: Moses wrote Numbers 35:30-34 to teach Israel the importance of human life and capital punishment.
Key Application: Today I want to show you what God’s Word says about being capital punishment.
Key Verse: Num 35:33
Pray and Read:  Numbers 35:30-34

Sermon Points:
1.   Capital punishment requires multiple testimony (Num 35:30)
2.   Capital punishment forbids special privileges (Num 35:31-32)
3.   Capital punishment cleanses the land of defilement (Num 35:33-34)

Exposition:   Note well,

a.   In Num 35:9-15, the Lord ordained that murderers be punished, but not until their guilt could be established. Murder must not be taken lightly. Anyone who murders deserves death, but the death penalty is not to be meted out lightly. More than one witness to the crime is needed before it can be applied. Capital punishment is Biblical only on the basis of multiple testimony (cf. Deut. 17:6; 19:15).
b.   The Heb. word for personal killing is rasah, and it includes premeditated murder, manslaughter, and accidental homicide. Num 35:16-21 defines premeditated murder and gives responsibility for revenge to the goel, the kinsman-redeemer or avenger (Ruth 3:12; Lev. 25:25). Num 35:22-25 make clear that God expects the authorities to examine intent in the case of homicide. Killing involving hostility must be treated much differently from accidental deaths. The passage makes clear that hostile intent must be established by several witnesses before anyone can be put to death, and that it must always be more than one (Num 35:30). Both kinds of murder pollute the land (causing it to become unclean and unacceptable to the Lord and in need of atonement). But only the murderer who kills with intent is to be executed. The accidental murderer may live untouched in a city of refuge until the natural death of the high priest (Num 35:25; Lev 8:12; 16:32; 21:10). Until the monarchy, there were no court systems for justice.
a.   Some would argue against the death penalty for the “seamless garment approach, a position held by Roman Catholics. This approach says that if you are pro-life then you should also be against the death penalty. Eugene Cho, a second generation Korean-American and lead pastor of Quest Church in Seattle, asks in an article this week, “Who would Jesus execute?” He goes on, “We know Christ was brutally executed but who would Jesus execute? Some will criticize the oversimplification of the above question and my thought process but perhaps, we are overcomplexifying the fundamental truth that “life is sacred.” Those that are religious that support the death penalty often quote verses from Scripture “supporting” capital punishment. Please. You don’t have to quote Scripture to me. I have read those verses. I have studied those verses. But to elevate isolated verses and isolated stories to contend that God allows and even commands capital punishment is dangerous. To not be open to the remote possibility that the Scriptures is written within a social construct and with subjectivity and always interpreted through some sort of human lens is dangerous.”
b.   Then Cho makes what I view as a fatal error in his argument: He shies away from the inerrancy of Scripture. He says, “Umm, interpreting the Bible as the Word of God is serious business.  Anytime we attempt to speak on behalf of God is serious. Period. But more importantly, we celebrate the Scriptures as God’s revelation but certainly, not as the ultimate or exclusive expression of God’s revelation.”[4] Cho is moving toward the argument that Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s revelation. Cho is right about that. Jesus is in fact God, but the only way we know anything about Jesus the ultimate revelation is through the inerrant Word of God, and though he says that Scripture is hard to interpret, this passage in Numbers 35 is mighty plain.
c.   What actually is dangerous is lowering the objectivity of Scripture to something that is subjective (my own personal interpretation). But let’s take up Cho’s question, “Who would Jesus execute?” In Luke 23:41 the repentant thief said he and the other offender had justly receiving the death sentence but Christ was guiltless. "And we indeed [justly]; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss." Jesus did not disagree with the thief on their just reward of capital punishment for their crimes, but welcomed him into Paradise. But since this is an argument from silence, we acknowledge its weakness. But before that, in John 8, when the Pharisees brought Jesus the woman caught in adultery to trap him into rejecting either the Roman or Jewish laws. Jesus did not answer them, but instead, "So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her’” (John 8:7). This is hardly a rejection of capital punishment. While some would say that Jesus is here condemning capital punishment because we all have sin, he is actually accepts the legitimacy of capital punishment and instead rejects the self-righteous lynch mob mentality without due process and circumvents their own trap for his words.
d.   But what about the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exod. 20:13). The verb used there in Hebrew and the one used in the Greek in the NT quoting the commandment both mean “premeditated murder,” not the judicial process of punishing one who committed that crime.
e.   The Apostle Paul assumed legitimacy of capital punishment in Acts 25:1-12. The key verse in this section is Acts 25:11, "For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar." What Paul is saying certainly is clear enough is it not? He says, "if I have committed a crime deserving of the death penalty then I will not fight it. But I have not and so I appeal to Caesar."[5]
f.    Bargaining or ransom for a murderer’s life is not Biblical. In other ancient cultures a murderer could avoid another penalty by paying a ransom to the victim’s family. The Q’uran for example (Sura 2:173-174), permits the payment of a ransom even if the murder was premeditated! Paying money for a life was widely prevalent and acceptable at this time. The ICC says, “Mohammed suffered the ancient practice of making a money payment to continue even in the case of willful murder.”[6] The net result meant that a rich man’s life was more valuable than a poor man’s because he could kill and pay his way out of it. But the Bible teaches much differently in Num 35:31. Although a death is accidental, nothing must be done to minimize its seriousness. Otherwise the land would be polluted (Num 35:33-34; Lev 18:24-25; Deut. 21:22-23).
g.   What is the rationale here? The Bible teaches the sanctity of human life. It teaches that there is something special about human beings – that they are all made in God’s own image and likeness. Therefore, every human being not only special, each person’s life is of ultimate value. In Genesis 9:5-6, when the Lord made covenant with Noah, hundreds of years before a Mosaic Law, God said, “From each man, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” Therefore, the Bible teaches that capital punishment is pro-life. The demand for capital punishment in the case of murder is intended to uphold the value of life. That means that capital punishment is pro-life. Only a society which requires the murderer be put to death shows a proper respect for the sanctity of human life.
h.   In the New Testament’s teaching on God’s design for government, Romans 13, we learn that God ordained the civil magistrate to punish those who do evil and reward those who do right, adding in Romans 13:4, that the civil magistrate bears not the sword in vain. The Greek word used for sword is the the type of sword used to execute Roman citizens found guilty of capital crimes. Paul is clearly is granting the civil magistrate the use of lethal force to punish evildoers -- in the case of domestic criminals, the police force, and in war, the military. Just War theorists have cited this passage for centuries to give biblical justification for the use of government-authorized lethal force in warfare.[7]
i.    The director of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Richard Land, wrote in the Washington Post this past week, “If one is going to support the death penalty, one also has to support its just and equitable application. Historically, in the United States we have not justly and fairly applied the death penalty. You have been much more likely to be executed if you were poor rather than wealthy, if you were a man rather than a woman, and if you were a person of color rather than white. Those who support the continued option of the death penalty as a biblically authorized option in heinous crimes must also work for its just and equitable application. While the imbalance concerning race, ethnicity and sex have been significantly reduced, it still remains true that a wealthy person is much less likely to be executed than a poor person. O.J. Simpson is perhaps the classic example--a man who most people would accept as being guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of having murdered his wife and another person but was let off because he could hire the best lawyers available.”[8]
j.    The president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary agrees with Richard Land. Al Mohler said in a podcast on Friday, “The death penalty is not about retribution. It is first of all about underlining the importance of every single human life.” Mohler, in speaking of Genesis 9:6, where capital punishment is mandated for murder, “it is precisely because the taking of one human life by another means that the murderer has effectively, morally and theologically, forfeited his own right to live. The death penalty is intended to affirm the value [and] sanctity of every single human life, and thus by the extremity of the penalty to make that visible and apparent to all,” Mohler said. Mohler said the differing reactions to two executions carried out a day earlier illustrated “how fickle we are in terms of our understanding of justice.” Thousands of people protested Georgia’s execution of Troy Davis, a black man convicted of murdering a white police officer on evidence his supporters said was shaky. At the same time, an execution in Texas of a white supremacist for the infamous dragging death of an African-American 13 years ago received far less attention.  "It seems that even those who oppose the death penalty outright believe there are some cases that ought to be opposed more than others,” Mohler said. “And even those who support the death penalty almost always support the death penalty within certain, very clear, parameters. Even if those parameters are not defined by policy, they are defined by moral intuition. There is something within us that cries out for the fact that murder must be punished and that the lives of the innocent, in terms of being the victims of these crimes, must indeed be vindicated.”[9]
k.   THE GOSPEL - Notice also that there are no special privileges or ransom for those who commit murder (Num 35:31-32). There is only one way to do things here – the right way, and everyone is equal before this Law. The Gospel is in this idea. If capital punishment was not Biblical, then Jesus would not have had to die for your sin. There was only one way for us to receive salvation, and it was through the capital punishment of our Lord for our sin. Remember Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Sin brings the death penalty, but Jesus took that death penalty for us. Further, note that even one who murders accidentally must remain in their city of refuge until the death of the high priest. It is thus the high priest’s death that eliminates the blood guilt attached to the homicide (Exod 28:36-38; Lev. 16:16). In the same way, when our High Priest died on a cruel cross, we were set free from our imprisonment. Hallelujah! And our blood guilt was eliminated by His death!
a.   God’s presence in the land demands holiness (Num 35:34). Defilement is the effect of sin which erodes or spoils that holiness, thus making God’s presence unwelcome. When we defile someone or something or a place, we make it unclean. People become defiled by sin. Places become defiled by sin, and things become defiled by sin. Wounds on the land from defilement: Genesis 4:8-12
b.   The Bible teaches that five things defile the land. I can teach a whole hour on these five, but let me just mention them here to give murder a context. Defilement takes place in a community or a person through the following ways:
                    i.        IDOLATRY – Exod. 20; 34:5-14; Deut. 12:2-3; Judges 2:1-3; 1 Kings 14:15ff; 15:11-15; 2 Kings 17:9-13; 23:3ff; Jer. 7:21-26, 30 (Witchcraft); 16:18
                  ii.        IMMORALITY – Lev. 18, esp.:22-25, 28, 30; Jer. 2; 3:1-10; 7:6
                iii.        SHEDDING OF INNOCENT BLOOD – Gen. 4:8-12; Num. 35:33-36; Psalm 79:1-3 (Martyrs); Isa. 59:2-3; Jer. 7:6; Hab. 2:12; Jer. 22:17
                 iv.        BROKEN COVENANT – Isa. 24:4-6; (See also bribes/covenant – Exod 23:8; Deut. 16:19; Psalm 26:10); Cursing God’s house (Psalm 74:7)
                   v.        INJUSTICE or Oppression – Amos 1; Prov 23:11
c.   How do we heal the defilement on the land? It’s nothing you don’t already know. There are no spiritual secrets. Confession (1 John 1:9), Repentance (1 Chron 7:14), Forgiveness, and declaring the truth directly to the defiled: Ezek 36:1ff; Job:12:8; Heb 12:24.
d.   What is the future of capital punishment? Al Mohler predicts the death penalty will become more and more controversial in the years ahead because the “general trend of secularization and moral confusion has undermined the kind of moral and cultural consensus that makes the death penalty make sense.” He says societal attitudes about issues such as abortion and euthanasia indicate “we really do not now have the bedrock shared consensus that every single human life is a life made in the image of God and that every single human life at every stage of development is to be honored and protected and preserved.”  That more than anything else explains today’s confusion about the death penalty,” he said.[10]

[1] “Troy Davis put to death,” CNN,
[2] “Texas executes racist killer,” The Daily Beast,
[3] “Alabama carries out third execution this week,” news,;
[4] Eugene Cho, “Who would Jesus Execute?”;
[6] G.B. Gray, Numbers, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh, 1903).
[7] Richard Land, “The Death Penalty Can be Pro-life” Washington Post, September 15, 2011;
[8] Richard Land, “The Death Penalty Can be Pro-life” Washington Post, September 15, 2011;
[9] Bob Allen, “Baptist leader says executing murderers is pro-life,” Associated Baptist Press, Sept. 22, 2011.
[10] Bob Allen, “Baptist leader says executing murderers is pro-life,” Associated Baptist Press, Sept. 22, 2011.