Call To Die

Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)

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Follower of Christ, husband of Abby, member of Kosmosdale Baptist Church, and tutor/staff member at Sayers Classical Academy.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Death Penalty and the Noahic Covenant

[In discussing the biblical basis for an assertion that human governments are required by God to execute the death penalty against murderers, the primary passage to which Christian thinkers turn is Genesis 9:5-6, a portion of the Noahic covenant. These verses read as follows in the NKJV: 5 “Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man's brother I will require the life of man. 6 Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man.” Recently, I have read a suggestion from one scholar that verse 6 is to be understood as a proverb, and that this passage has no real bearing on the issue of the death penalty. But is this explanation plausible under a close examination of the biblical text? The following passage from O. Palmer Robertson in his classic The Christ of the Covenants helps to answer this question.]

Does God’s covenant with Noah sanction the taking of the life of a murderer under any circumstances? … Does the covenant with Noah in itself offer divine sanction to capital punishment?

Genesis 9:5,6 might be interpreted simply as stating a fact that shall occur. If a man sheds blood, his blood shall be shed. On the other hand, the verse might be understood as offering divine sanction for the taking of the life of a murderer.

The first consideration in deciding between these optional understandings relates to the precise meaning of the phrase which may be rendered literally “from the hand of (man or beast) I shall require it.” In this case, man would be the instrument by which God would bring the murderer to account. Thus the principle of capital punishment would be established.

However, this interpretation of this particular verse runs into immediate difficulty. For the verse says that “by the hand of beast” as well as “by the hand of man” God will require life. It would be rather difficult to imagine a wild beast serving as instrument of God’s judgment in the same sense in which a man would function in this regard.

The more likely interpretation of this phrase “by the hand of (man or beast) I shall demand an accounting” is: “From (man or beast) I shall demand an accounting.” That is, God will exact justice from either man or beast that murders.

This interpretation of the phrase “from the hand of (man or beast) I shall require” is supported elsewhere in Scripture. The prophet Ezekiel states that God shall “require from” the hand of the watchman the blood of the unwarned, using the identical phraseology found in Genesis 9:5,6 (Ezek. 33:6; 34:10).

Genesis 9:5 in itself would not appear to settle the question as to whether or not God intends man to be his instrument in the execution of justice on the murderer. Indeed, God shall require the life of the manslayer. But does he require it specifically from the hand of another man?

Genesis 9:6 answers the question in the affirmative. Both the parallelism in the structure of the verse and the indication of the instrument for executing justice point in this direction.

The parallelism of phraseology as found in the original text of Scripture may be represented as follows in English translation:
a. He who pours out
b. the blood of
c. man
c. by man
b. his blood
a. shall be poured out (Gen. 9:6)
... The one who sheds man’s blood shall have his blood shed by a man. More specifically, man is indicated as the agent by which the murderer’s blood shall be shed. When this though is combined with the affirmation in verse 5 that God shall “demand an accounting” of the murderer, it becomes clear that the intention of the passage is to designate man as God’s agent in the execution of judgment on the murderer.

This conclusion is supported by subsequent scriptural legislation. Exodus 21:28 indicates that the animal that takes the life of a man must have its life taken by man, In addition, Israel is charged explicitly with the responsibility of executing capital punishment on the murderer (Exod. 21:12; Num. 35:16-21).

In conclusion, this text indicates that man has a responsibility respecting the murderer given to him by God. The requirement is unmistakable. The person who takes the life of a man must have his life taken by man.

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