Why the Death Penalty for the Israelites?
Q. I've been reading through Exodus. Last night, I read all the rules God gave to the Israelites. The punishment always seems to be death—even for things like disobeying your mom and dad. Why would God say this? And do any of these rules even count anymore since Jesus came?
A. I appreciate your question. It's not easy to understand Old Testament laws written some 3,000 years ago. In addition to laws about relationships between people, there are laws about diet, ritual cleansings, observing holy days and more. Some of these laws seem odd—and so do the penalties for breaking those laws. After all, should disobeying your parents really require the death penalty? What was God thinking?
The New Testament tells us that the law prepared the way for the coming of Jesus. "Before the law was given, sin was in the world," Paul writes in Romans 5:13. "But sin is not taken into account when there is no law" (NIV). In other words, the law was necessary for people to recognize the truth: We've been contaminated by a toxic substance—sin. Laws reveal that sin to us. People couldn't know they were going against what God wanted without a definition of what he wanted.
The laws showed that God wasn't like the other gods that people worshiped back then. Pagans tried to appease these gods with all sorts of rituals, hoping for help in fighting wars and in harvesting plenty of crops. But they were never sure how to make their gods really happy or pleased with them. This is not the kind of God we see in the Bible. He loved his people enough to clearly communicate what pleased him and what displeased him.
Through the laws of the Old Testament, God demonstrates that he's interested in all of life—not just crops and war. He's even interested in the way children interact with parents. He shows that sin is serious—a matter of life and death. It can't just be ignored. Sin is a terminal condition. We'll die—eternally—if our sins are not forgiven. Fortunately, God gave instructions for forgiveness.
Ultimately, the laws of the Old Testament show us that the way we live our lives isn't about us; it's about God. And God provided the solution for our dilemma: "When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons" (Galatians 4:4-5, NIV). That's what Jesus did.
So do these rules count anymore? Not in the sense that you should be killed if you disobey your parents. Jesus' death and resurrection—and the new life he offers anyone who trusts him—covers our sin. But the Old Testament rules do remind us that God cares about all of life, and everything we do should be done with full awareness of God's presence in our lives.
Marshall, a former pastor, is now editor of Leadership Journal, a magazine for pastors.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Ignite Your Faith magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Ignite Your Faith.