Capital punishment? (Genesis 9:6)

Genesis 9:6 (NIV)
Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.

In re-establishing his kingdom after the flood, the divine sovereign made some concessions designed to head off the anarchic violence that wrecked the previous world:

  • He permitted humans to kill and eat animals, provided we respect the life we’re taking by draining out the creature’s blood (9:4).
  • He legislated that human death be investigated, authorizing the community to take the life of a killer who failed to respect the divine breath in their victim.

So, does Genesis 9:6 justify capital punishment? Should our governments kill the killers?

God has placed the power of the sword in human hands. You need to know that governments do not bear the sword in vain. They are always willing to use the power of death. If you are wise, you will be very careful how you stand against the power of earthly governments. Read history: there is no shortage of people who faced death because they resisted governments. It is even possible that, in opposing government, you may be resisting something God set in place to limit violence.

Yet, earthly governments ought to be extremely cautious about using the power of death. Humans are not omniscient, so our murder investigations are partial and incomplete. We never can know “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” We have executed the wrong person on many occasions. Remember Jesus? Wasn’t he tried and condemned and executed by the rulers of his land? Does that give you cause for pause before you call on governments to use capital punishment? Human motives are never pure, especially where power is involved.

So human government is a necessity, and yet it is nothing like divine government (the kingdom of God). Think back to the moment when YHWH had a murder to investigate. How did he treat the murderer? Did he terminate Cain’s life? He investigated the crime, for Abel’s blood demanded a response. Yet YHWH did not take Cain’s life. Instead, he placed Cain under royal protection to prevent the community taking Cain’s life!

If that’s the picture of how divine government operates, surely human government should think twice before it actually employs the power placed in its hands in Genesis 9:6. Apparently God’s government is a great deal more gracious than humans governments are.

And perhaps that gives us the right balance:

  • If someone is found guilty of intentional murder in a country where the death penalty is used, do not cry, “Injustice!” for God has given authority to human governments.
  • If someone is found guilty of murder and the death penalty is not used, do not cry, “Injustice!” Consider what kind of God you represent.

We are called to live peacefully in our earthly nation, but the goal of our life is to represent the graceful governance of our heavenly king. Only then can the nations see and recognize our sovereign.

Update (2016-06-08): For an example of how governments are only too willing to use the power of death against those who resist them, see this story:
PNG police shoot four protesting university students dead in Port Moresby, Parliament told.


What others are saying

Tomorrow is the release of Shane Claibone’s new book, Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us (HarperOne, June 2016). Jen Pollock Michel’s review at Christianity Today includes:

Early on, Claiborne engages familiar biblical texts to dispute the well-worn notion that the death penalty is God’s idea. Among his contentions: In the Bible, murderers like Cain, Moses, and David are not executed but spared. The Old Testament’s eye-for-eye standard of justice was not license for death, but a limit on retribution (Lev. 24:14–23). … Christ’s death on behalf of fallen humanity lets mercy have the final word (James 2:13).

… Claiborne writes, “One of the most powerful arguments against the death penalty is the simple fact of how disproportionately it is applied to race.” …

Perhaps most troubling is how many innocent men have been sent to die. Since 1976, about one of nine death row inmates has been exonerated, usually after languishing for decades in a cell. “Even if you believe that the death penalty is right in principle,” writes Claiborne, “knowing that innocent people are being sentenced and sometimes executed should give you pause. There is no redress once someone has been executed.”

Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 153

After the flood a central divine priority was to control human violence, so the first law enacted forbade the consumption of blood and instituted capital punishment for murder (Gen 9:4–6). Here, as in many laws and narratives dealing with violence, the implied authors would surely agree that ‘in the beginning it was not so, but for the hardness of human hearts’ God allowed punishment, which is a violent response, of individual offenders, and even war against sinful nations, including Israel. In other words, God tolerated violence although his long-term goal was peace.

Christopher Marshall, “Capital Punishment,” in Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics edited by Joel B. Green, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 118:

The death penalty is entrenched in OT law and narrative, and it is attested, though not necessarily endorsed, in NT teaching as well. Given the diversity and complexity of biblical material on the subject, it is unsurprising that Christian opinion on capital punishment is divided. On the one hand, the support of churches for the elimination of the death penalty often has been a critical factor in those countries that have abolished it. On the other hand, strong approval for capital punishment among conservative religious voters is a significant factor in explaining why the United States stands alone among Western democracies in retaining its use.

Update 2017-02-03: It is now fifty years since the death penalty has been used in Australia.

Update 2018-08-03: Pope Francis changes teachings to oppose death penalty in all cases.



Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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