From the very earliest times man, made in the image of the God of justice (Ge 1:26; Ps 37:28; Mal 2:17), has possessed the attribute of justice. (Isa 58:2; Ro 2:13-15) Jehovah’s first pronouncement of a sentence as the enforcement of justice was given to the first human pair and to the serpent, representing the Devil. The sanction imposed for disobedience to God, which amounted to rebellion against the sovereignty of the Ruler of the universe, was death. (Ge 2:17) Later on, knowing that men possessed the attribute of justice, Cain realized that they would want to kill him to avenge the murder of his brother Abel. But Jehovah did not appoint or authorize anyone to execute Cain, reserving the administration of retribution to himself. This he carried out by cutting off Cain’s line at the Flood. (Ge 4:14, 15) About 700 years before the Flood, Enoch declared God’s coming execution against those who had committed ungodly deeds.—Ge 5:21-24; Jude 14, 15.
After the Flood. After the Flood, God issued further laws, among them being the first authorization to man to execute the penalty for murder. (Ge 9:3-6) Later Jehovah stated concerning Abraham: “For I have become acquainted with him in order that he may command his sons and his household after him so that they shall keep Jehovah’s way to do righteousness and judgment.” (Ge 18:19) This shows that patriarchal society was under the laws of God, with which they were familiar.
Jehovah revealed his view of adultery and the punishment for it when telling Abimelech that he was as good as dead for taking Sarah with intentions of making her his wife (although Abimelech did not know that she belonged to Abraham). (Ge 20:2-7) Judah decreed the death penalty for Tamar for harlotry.—Ge 38:24.
God’s Law for Israel. When Israel was organized as a nation, God became their King, Legislator, and Judge. (Isa 33:22) He gave them the “Ten Words,” or “Ten Commandments,” as they are often called, setting forth the principles upon which the body of about 600 other laws was based. He began the “Ten Words” with the statement: “I am Jehovah your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt.” (Ex 20:2) This serves as the primary reason for obedience to the entire Law. Disobedience was not only a violation of the law of the Head of government but also an offense against the Head of religion, their God, and blasphemy of God was lèse-majesté, treason.
Under the Law, the same principles applied as had governed patriarchal society. The Law, however, was more detailed and covered the whole scope of man’s activities. The entire Law, which is set forth in the Pentateuch, was of such a high standard of morality that no man could attempt to follow the complete Law without finding that he was convicted by it as being a sinner, imperfect. “The commandment is holy and righteous and good,” and “the Law is spiritual,” says the apostle Paul. “It was added to make transgressions manifest.” (Ro 7:12, 14; Ga 3:19) It was the whole law of God for Israel, laying down the principles and official decisions of Jehovah, not just a mere gathering of a set of cases that might arise or that had already arisen.
The sanctions under the Law, therefore, would help to show sin to be “far more sinful.” (Ro 7:13) The law of talion, requiring like for like, set out a standard of exact justice. The Law served for the peace and tranquillity of the nation, preserved the nation when Israel obeyed it, and protected the individual against the wrongdoer, compensating him when his property was stolen or destroyed.
The Ten Commandments, as stated at Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, do not expressly state the sanction for every violation. However, these penalties are definitely stated in other places. For a violation of the first seven commandments, the penalty was death. The punishment for stealing was restitution and compensation to the one whose property had been stolen; for false witness, retribution. The last commandment, against covetousness or wrong desire, carried with it no sanction enforceable by the judges. It transcended man-made laws in that it made every man his own spiritual policeman and got at the root, or source, of the violation of all the commandments. If wrong desire was indulged, it would eventually manifest itself in a violation of one of the other nine commandments.
Major crimes under the Law. Capital crimes. Under the Law the death penalty was prescribed for (1) blasphemy (Le 24:14, 16, 23); (2) worship of any god other than Jehovah, idolatry in any form (Le 20:2; De 13:6, 10, 13-15; 17:2-7; Nu 25:1-9); (3) witchcraft, spiritism (Ex 22:18; Le 20:27); (4) false prophecy (De 13:5; 18:20); (5) Sabbath breaking (Nu 15:32-36; Ex 31:14; 35:2); (6) murder (Nu 35:30, 31); (7) adultery (Le 20:10; De 22:22); (8) woman marrying with false claim of being a virgin (De 22:21); (9) intercourse with engaged girl (De 22:23-27); (10) incest (Le 18:6-17, 29; 20:11, 12, 14); (11) sodomy (Le 18:22; 20:13); (12) bestiality (Le 18:23; 20:15, 16); (13) kidnapping (Ex 21:16; De 24:7); (14) striking or reviling a parent (Ex 21:15, 17); (15) bearing false witness, in a case where the penalty for the one testified against would be death (De 19:16-21); (16) coming near to the tabernacle if not authorized (Nu 17:13; 18:7).
In many instances the penalty named is ‘cutting off,’ usually executed by stoning. Besides this being prescribed for willful sin and abusive, disrespectful speech against Jehovah (Nu 15:30, 31), many other things are named that bear this penalty. Some of them are: failure to be circumcised (Ge 17:14; Ex 4:24); willful neglect of the Passover (Nu 9:13); neglect of Atonement Day (Le 23:29, 30); making or using the holy anointing oil for ordinary purposes (Ex 30:31-33, 38); eating blood (Le 17:10, 14); eating a sacrifice in an unclean condition (Le 7:20, 21; 22:3, 4, 9); eating leavened bread during the Festival of Unfermented Cakes (Ex 12:15, 19); offering a sacrifice in any place other than at the tabernacle (Le 17:8, 9); eating of communion offering on the third day from the day of sacrifice (Le 19:7, 8); neglect of purification (Nu 19:13-20); touching holy things illegally (Nu 4:15, 18, 20); intercourse with menstruating woman (Le 20:18); eating fat of sacrifices.—Le 7:25; see CUTTING OFF.
Punishments imposed by the Law. Punishments under the Law given by Jehovah through Moses served to keep the land clean from defilement in God’s sight; those who practiced detestable things were cleaned out from among the people. Also, the punishments deterred crime and maintained respect for the sanctity of life, for the law of the land, for the Lawgiver, God, and for one’s fellowman. And, when obeyed, the Law preserved the nation from economic failure and from moral decay with its subsequent loathsome diseases and physical deterioration.
There were no barbarous punishments prescribed by the Law. No man could be punished for another’s wrongs. The principles were clearly set forth. The judges were granted latitude, considering each case on its own merits, examining the circumstances, as well as the motives and the attitudes of those accused. Justice had to be strictly rendered. (Heb 2:2) A willful murderer could not escape the death penalty by any payment of money. (Nu 35:31) If a man was an accidental manslayer, he could flee to one of the cities of refuge provided. Confined within the boundary of the city, he was forced to realize that life is sacred and that even accidental killing could not be taken lightly, but required some compensation. Yet, working productively in the city of refuge, he was not a financial burden on the community.—Nu 35:26-28.
The sanctions for offenses were designed to give relief and compensation to the victim of a thief or of one who damaged his property. If the thief could not pay the stipulated amount, he could be sold as a slave, either to the victim or to someone else, thus reimbursing the victim and making the criminal work for his upkeep, so that the state would not have him on its hands, as is the case where imprisonment is practiced. These laws were just and served toward the rehabilitation of the criminal.—Ex 22:1-6.
Under the Law, the death sentence was carried out by stoning. (Le 20:2, 27) The sword was occasionally used, especially where a large number were to be executed. (Ex 32:27; 1Ki 2:25, 31, 32, 34) If a city turned apostate, all in the city were to be devoted to destruction by the sword. (De 13:15) At Exodus 19:13, death by the spear, lance, or possibly the arrow, is alluded to. (See Nu 25:7, 8.) Beheading is mentioned, although it may be that execution was carried out by another means and the corpse beheaded. (2Sa 20:21, 22; 2Ki 10:6-8) For the more detestable crimes the Law prescribed burning and hanging. (Le 20:14; 21:9; Jos 7:25; Nu 25:4, 5; De 21:22, 23) These sentences were carried out only after a person had been first put to death, as the cited scriptures plainly state.
Captives of war were usually executed by the sword if they were persons devoted to destruction by God’s command. (1Sa 15:2, 3, 33) Others who surrendered were put to forced labor. (De 20:10, 11) Older translations of the passage at 2 Samuel 12:31 make it appear that David tortured the inhabitants of Rabbah of Ammon, but modern translations indicate that he merely put them to forced labor.—See NW; AT; Mo.
Precipitation, that is, throwing one off a cliff or high place, was not enjoined by law, but King Amaziah of Judah inflicted this punishment on 10,000 men of Seir. (2Ch 25:12) The people of Nazareth attempted to do this to Jesus.—Lu 4:29.
Strict justice was enforced by the law of talion or retaliation, like for like, where injuries were deliberately inflicted. (De 19:21) There is at least one recorded instance of the execution of this penalty. (Jg 1:6, 7) But the judges had to determine on the basis of the evidence whether the crime was deliberate or was due to negligence or accident, and so forth. An exception to the law of retaliation was the law dealing with a situation in which a woman tried to help her husband in a fight by grabbing hold of the privates of the other man. In this case, instead of her reproductive organs being destroyed, her hand was to be amputated. (De 25:11, 12) This law demonstrates God’s regard for the reproductive organs. Also, since the woman was owned by a husband, this law mercifully took into consideration the right of the husband to have children by his wife.
The Mishnah mentions four methods of inflicting the death penalty: stoning, burning, beheading, and strangling. But these latter three methods were never authorized nor commanded under the Law. The methods prescribed in the Mishnah are part of the traditions that were added, overstepping the commandment of God. (Mt 15:3, 9) An example of the barbarous practices to which it led the Jews is their method of executing the penalty of burning. “The ordinance of them that are to be burnt [is this]: they set him in dung up to his knees and put a towel of coarse stuff within one of soft stuff and wrapt it around his neck; one [witness] pulled one end towards him and the other pulled one end towards him until he opened his mouth; a wick [according to the Gemara (52a) it was a strip of lead] was kindled and thrown into his mouth, and it went down to his stomach and burnt his entrails.”—Sanhedrin 7:2; translated by H. Danby.
Since man has been governed by law from the beginning, either by divine law or by the law of conscience divinely implanted, it has been true that the closer men held to true worship, the more reasonable and humane were the punishments administered by their laws, and the farther away they strayed, the more corrupt their sense of justice became. This becomes evident when the laws of ancient nations are compared with those of Israel.
Egyptian. Little is known about the punishments imposed by the Egyptians. They administered beatings (Ex 5:14, 16), drowning (Ex 1:22), beheading and afterward hanging on a stake (Ge 40:19, 22), and execution by the sword, as well as imprisonment.—Ge 39:20.
Assyrian. Punishments under the Assyrian Empire were very severe. They included death, mutilation (as by cutting off ears, nose, lips, or by castration), impalement upon a stake, deprivation of burial, strokes of the rod, payment of a certain weight of lead, and royal corvée (forced labor). Under Assyrian law a murderer was handed over to the next of kin of the one murdered, and according to his choice, he could put the murderer to death or take his property. This could lead to blood feuds, for there was little control of the matter, and no cities of refuge were provided, as in Israel. The punishment for adultery was left to the husband. He could put his wife to death, mutilate her, punish her as he saw fit, or let her go free. As he did to the wife, he was required to do also to the adulterous man. Many prisoners of war were flayed (skinned) alive, blinded, or had their tongues torn out; they were impaled, burned, and put to death in other ways.
Babylonian. Hammurabi’s code (so called, but not a code as defined by lawyers today), admittedly based on earlier legislation, is a collection of decisions or “casebooks” on clay tablets, copied later (perhaps in a different style of writing) on a stele placed in the temple of Marduk in Babylon. Copies were probably placed in other cities. This stele, carried later to Susa by a conqueror, was discovered there in 1902.
Was Hammurabi’s code an “ancestor” of the Mosaic Law?
Unlike the Mosaic Law, it does not seek to establish principles. Rather, its object appears to be to help the judges to decide certain cases by giving them precedents or altering previous decisions to show what ought to be done in future cases. For example, it does not set forth a sanction for murder, because there was already a recognized punishment for that, and doubtless for other common crimes. Hammurabi was not attempting to cover the whole scope of law. Each of the rules of the “code” starts off with the formula: ‘If a man does thus and so.’ Because it relates to specific instances, rather than laying down principles, it merely tells what judgment must be given to fit a certain simple set of facts. It is based mainly on laws already in existence, merely particularizing to fit certain difficult situations current in Babylonian civilization at the time.
In no way does Hammurabi’s code prove to be an ancestor of the Mosaic Law. For example, there existed in Hammurabi’s code a “sympathetic” punishment. One of the rules states: “If [a builder] has caused the son of the owner of the house to die [because the house is faulty and collapses], one shall put to death the son of that builder.” God’s law through Moses, to the contrary, stated: “Fathers should not be put to death on account of children, and children should not be put to death on account of fathers.” (De 24:16) The penalty for theft of valuables was generally not restitution, as in the Mosaic Law, but death. In certain cases of theft, restitution up to 30-fold was required. If the man was unable to pay, he was to be put to death. Nebuchadnezzar employed dismemberment, also he used punishment by fire, as in the case of the three young Hebrew men whom he threw alive into a superheated furnace.—Da 2:5; 3:19, 21, 29; Jer 29:22.
Persian. Under Darius the Mede, Daniel was sentenced to the lions’ pit, and his false accusers suffered retribution when they, their sons, and their wives died by this means. (Da 6:24) Later on, King Artaxerxes of Persia instructed Ezra that he could execute judgment upon everyone not a doer of the law of Ezra’s God or of the king, “whether for death or for banishment, or for money fine or for imprisonment.” (Ezr 7:26) Ahasuerus used a stake 50 cubits (22 m; 73 ft) high to hang Haman. Ahasuerus also hanged the two doorkeepers who had conspired against his life.—Es 7:9, 10; 2:21-23.
A few tablets have been found that contain the laws laid down by Darius I of Persia. In them the punishment prescribed for the man who attacked another with a weapon and injured or killed him was lashing with a whip, from 5 up to 200 stripes. Impalement was the punishment sometimes administered. According to Greek writers on Persian laws, offenses against the state, the king, his family, or his property usually carried the death penalty. These punishments were often horrible. For ordinary crimes there is not much information, but mutilation of the hands or feet or blinding appears to have been common punishment.
Other Nations in the Palestine Area. Aside from Israel, the other nations in and around the Promised Land used imprisonment and bonds, mutilation, blinding, killing captives of war by the sword, ripping up pregnant women, and dashing their little ones to death against a wall or a stone.—Jg 1:7; 16:21; 1Sa 11:1, 2; 2Ki 8:12.
Roman. Besides execution by the sword, which included beheading (Mt 14:10), among the more common punishments were: beating; scourging with a whip that was sometimes knotted with bones or heavy pieces of metal, or that had hooks at the ends; hanging; throwing one off of a high rock; drowning; exposure to wild beasts in the arena; forcing one into gladiatorial contests; and burning. Prisoners were often confined in stocks (Ac 16:24) or chained to a soldier guard. (Ac 12:6; 28:20) The Lex Valeria and the Lex Porcia exempted Roman citizens from scourging—the Lex Valeria, when the citizen appealed to the people; the Lex Porcia, without such appeal.
Greek. Greek punishments were in many cases the same as those imposed by the Romans. Precipitation off a cliff or into a deep cavern, beating to death, drowning, poisoning, and death by the sword were inflicted on criminals.
For further details, see crimes and punishments under individual names.