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Friday, July 2, 2010

The Ten Commandments and the Death Penalty

The execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner on June 18, 2010, elicited protests from groups and individuals who oppose the death penalty. In the process, the Ten Commandments were used out of context in support of an anti-capital punishment position.

Rocky Anderson, former Mayor of Salt Lake, stated that the Ten Commandments were meant to be commandments and not merely suggestions. He further emphasized, quoting from the Book of Exodus: “Thou shalt not kill.”

The point which Mayor Anderson was likely trying to make is that to kill a killer is still to kill. This viewpoint is held by many who oppose the death penalty. They ask how we can discourage homicide when we espouse its use by our criminal justice system. An old adage says that you can’t teach a child not to hit by hitting. For opponents of capital punishment, the same principle applies: you can’t teach someone not to kill by killing.

The problem with an issue such as the death penalty is that evidence is sometimes taken out of context to enhance the emotional aspect of an argument. In particular, Rocky Anderson’s example of the Ten Commandments fails to consider the totality of the Law of Moses which was practiced during the times referenced in the Old Testament. The Law of Moses was a form of theocratic government. It is true that one of the Ten Commandments reads, “Thou shalt not kill.” But it is also true that the next chapter of Exodus goes on to prescribe capital punishment for a number of offenses. The context of the Ten Commandments clearly shows that while murder was forbidden during the time of Moses, it was also punishable by death.

Capital punishment is a sensitive issue. Strong arguments can be made—and have long been made—on each side of the debate. Rocky Anderson brings up an incredibly valid point when he infers that killing is killing, no matter who carries out the deed. The philosophical implications of capital punishment are profound and have tried the intellect of great thinkers across the world. The reality of capital punishment is even weightier, and tries not the intellect alone, but also the hearts of those involved. It could be said that there is nothing more sacred in life than life itself. It is therefore no surprise that the enforcement of the death penalty would generate a tremendous amount of passion and debate.

There are numerous and valid reasons for supporting either side of the death penalty issue. However, an issue of such importance deserves to have arguments which provide evidence in its proper context. Many a war has been fought by focusing on various biblical passages at the expense of setting aside the context. There is even debate today over the meaning of certain passages in the Koran which has given way to violence on a global scale. Controversy and holy writ often seem to be firmly intertwined. And yet to ignite passion by ignoring context is irresponsible. Yes, the Ten Commandments state, “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet the Ten Commandments are only ten out of 613 commandments found in the Law of Moses. And the violation of some of those commandments was punishable by death.

The death penalty is a sensitive issue which rightly demands our respect. While persuasive arguments can be found on either side of the capital punishment aisle, it is only ethical to take context into consideration when arguing for or against the death penalty.


  1. It is fairly well known that the translation "thou shalt not kill" is in error, as has been recognized since the Ten Commandments were brought down the mountain.

    The proper translation is "thou shalt not murder" or thou shalt not commit wrongful killings".

    In addition, soon after that commandement, God begins telling of those sins for which folks should be put to death.

    Proper translation and biblical instruction, in both the Old and New Testaments, illustrate that various types of killings are licit, just as there are many which are not.

    Synopsis of Professor Lloyd R. Bailey’s book Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says, Abingdon Press, 1987.

    All interpretations, contrary to the biblical support of capital punishment, are false. Interpreters ought to listen to the Bible’s own agenda, rather than to squeeze from it implications for their own agenda. As the ancient rabbis taught, “Do not seek to be more righteous than your Creator.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.33.).

    "Death Penalty Support: Christian and secular Scholars"

    Christianity and the death penalty

    God: 'Honor your father and your mother,' and 'Whoever curses father or mother must certainly be put to death.' Matthew 15:4

    Jesus: "So Pilate said to (Jesus), "Do you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?" Jesus answered (him), "You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above." John 19:10-11

    Jesus: Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us." The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, "Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." (Jesus) replied to him, "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Luke 23: 39-43

    Jesus: "You have heard the ancients were told, ˜YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER" and "Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court". But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, "Raca", shall be guilty before the supreme court and whoever shall say, "You fool", shall be guilty enough to go into fiery hell." Matthew 5:17-22.

    The Holy Spirit: God, through the power and justice of the Holy Spirit, executed both Ananias and his wife, Saphira. Their crime? Lying to the Holy Spirit - to God - through Peter. Acts 5:1-11.

    The Word of God: Numbers 35:16-21. Note the words "shall" and "surely". What do you think they mean?
    ‘But if he struck him down with an iron object, so that he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. ‘If he struck him down with a stone in the hand, by which he will die, and as a result he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. ‘Or if he struck him with a wooden object in the hand, by which he might die, and as a result he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. ‘The blood avenger himself shall put the murderer to death; he shall put him to death when he meets him. ‘If he pushed him of hatred, or threw something at him lying in wait and as a result he died, or if he struck him down with his hand in enmity, and as a result he died, the one who struck him shall surely be put to death, he is a murderer; the blood avenger shall put the murderer to death when he meets him.
    full context

  2. Kurt, you are correct "For opponents of capital punishment, the same principle applies: you can’t teach someone not to kill by killing."

    They are in error. We don't teach people that murder is wrong by executing them.

    Folks already know that murder is wrong, even when there is no sanction.

    The purpose of execution is the same as for all sanctions, which is to invoke a fair and appropriate sanction, proportional to the crime -in a word Justice.

    "Killing equals Killing: The Amoral Confusion of Death Penalty Opponents"