The punishments are not pretty, but we can still learn some basic principles of how seriously God takes sin. An extended discussion on the death penalty from a New Testament perspective is included here, at the end.
Before we begin:
For a general overview of the interrelations between the Old Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant, click on:
What Does the New Covenant Retain from the Old?
How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law: Matthew 5:17-19
One Decisive Difference Between Sinai Covenant and New Covenant
Many (not even close to all) elements are retained, and what is kept is improved on or streamlined.
The NIV is used here, unless otherwise noted. Readers are invited to go to biblegateway.com, choose their own translation, and open another window to follow along.
Now let’s begin.
The foundational verses are 7 and 8: “Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the Lord your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the Lord, who makes you holy.” God makes us holy. The whole chapter on punishments could be unnecessary if the ancient Israelites were to allow God to make the holy. They could be made holy by personal devotion and law keeping, but Leviticus is also about animal sacrifices achieving atonement.
Here are the sins and crimes that get the death penalty.
1.. Sacrificing children to Molek or Baal in some cases (vv. 1-5).
Even modern American law would agree that killing children deserves the death penalty.
The worst offense happened when the Canannites sacrificed their children to the bloodthirsty satanic deity called Molek who was the god of the Ammonites. Children come from sex and are sacred to the Lord, so the Israelites must not profane his name. It fits the logic of holiness and cleanness that God would say no to sacrificing children. No modern critic should complain about it, since God gave the Canaanites time to repent. Verse 26 says that foreigners living among the Israelites must not do those things, either. They could be a member of blessed Israel, but they had to live by God’s rules.
If it is any (ironic) comfort to critics of the Bible about God declaring war on the Canaanites, then Israel did not succeed in driving them out, and the land became polluted and the people of the Sinai covenant corrupted.
Here are verses that show Israelites sacrificing to the god Molek.
5 He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. 6 So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done. (1 Kings 11:5-6)
On a more positive note, Josiah would not allow the sacrifices and removed the religious accouterments where the Israelites sacrificed children to Molek:
10 He desecrated Topheth, which was in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, so no one could use it to sacrifice their son or daughter in the fire to Molek. (2 Kings 23:10)
The words “Ben Hinnom” over the centuries may have morphed in “Hinnom” Valley, which in turn changed to Gehenna at the time when Jesus lived, and this became a depiction of hell. No wonder, since it was a dump with an endless smoke and children having died there.
Here’s the place near Jerusalem:
The king also desecrated the high places that were east of Jerusalem on the south of the Hill of Corruption—the ones Solomon king of Israel had built for Ashtoreth the vile goddess of the Sidonians, for Chemosh the vile god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the people of Ammon. (2 Kings 23:13)
Josiah was a good (enough) king, but his successors went back to the old satanic ways. Jeremiah, a later prophet, denounced the people of Jerusalem, with a tinge of sadness in this prophecy:
34 They set up their vile images in the house that bears my Name and defiled it. 35 They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin. (Jer. 32:34-35)
It never “entered my [God’s] mind” means he never planned or endorsed such sacrifice. So the people cannot claim God told them to do such things.
It is a good thing Solomon was not executed!
How does this relate to us in the New Covenant? We have to deal ruthlessly with our sins. We have to eliminate corrupt influences. “33 Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character. 34 Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame. (1 Cor. 15:33-34). The clause “Bad company corrupts good character” comes from pagan comedy playwright Menander. It is great that Paul borrowed from a pagan to teach Spirit-filled Corinthians!
2.. Anyone who curses father or mother.
Commentators say this must be decided by a court of law, not the whim of the parents. So this ruling takes it out of the hands of angry parents and puts it into the the hands of a neutral third party, trained in the law..
3.. A man or woman who commits adultery, both the adulterer and adulteress are to be put to death.
4. A man who has sex with his father’s wife (stepmother and of course natural mother). Both the man and woman were to be put to death. Their blood being on their own heads means that the community that executed the person will not be responsible for shed blood.
5.. A man who has sex with his daughter-in-law. Both of them are to be put to death.
6.. A man who has sexual relations with another man as he has sex with a woman. Both of them are to be put to death. Some progressive Christians say this verse appears in the context of temple prostitution, but this is far from clear. God made humankind male and female and in his image (Gen. 1:27), and the two shall become one flesh (Gen. 2:24). Two men or two women disrupts God’s order out of chaos. And the homosexual agenda certainly created chaos. Studies show that children raised by two men or two women don’t fare was well.
7.. A man who married a woman and her mother. All three must be burned in the fire. This is a severe punishment.
8.. A man who has sexual relations with an animal. Both the man and animals must be put to death.
9.. A woman who approaches an animal to have sex with it; both are to be put to death.
10.. The medium or spiritist himself or herself shall be put to death (Exod. 22:18; Lev. 20:27)
Next, these relations hold the person responsible. It is not clear what the punishment of them is. What does it mean to hold the people “responsible”? BTSB says that this means they did not have the sacrificial system to achieve atonement and to be forgiven, so the man had to be removed (note on 20:17). Or they shall be cut off, which means execution or more likely excommunication.
1.. A man who has sexual relations with his aunt. They will die childless, which apparently means they were not allowed to marry someone else and certainly not each other.
2.. A man marries his brother’s wife (while he is still alive). They are to die childless, which presumably means they are not allowed to marry someone else.
3.. A man who married his step-sister or half-sister, the daughter of his father or sister. They shall be publicly removed. This means excommunication.
4. A man who has sex with his wife during her period. He is to be “cut off,” which means removed. In some instances, it means execution, but not here.
5.. Anyone who turns to mediums and spiritists, to prostitute himself or herself after them. This means that God intends to guide his people, but when the turn to demonic spirits, they have had an affair on God with another god. The person will be cut off, which means excommunication. The medium or spiritist himself or herself shall be executed.
See my post: Magic, Witchcraft, Sorcery, and Fortunetelling
God gave the land as his inheritance to the Israelites. Obedience brought down blessing. The land would flow with milk and honey.
However, there was a warning. The nations God was driving out from the land do those practices. The Israelites must not live by those customs. Because the nations did those things, God abhorred them. Individually any Canaanite, like Rahab the harlot, could repent and join the new nation. But as a whole grouping, God said to uproot them and chase them out. If the Israelites do in fact practice those things, the land will vomit them out also. This happened when Assyria conquered and exiled the northern kingdom and the Babylonians conquered and exiled the southern kingdom.
Next, a sign of holiness is to distinguish between clean and unclean animals. The Israelites needed discernment and training. For how the New Covenant Scriptures treat clean and unclean animals ceremonially, see this post:
Clean and Unclean Food in Leviticus 11 from a NT Perspective
How do the New Covenant Scriptures view these punishments?
A radio teacher said that the New Covenant does not cancel out these punishments. After all, Paul was willing to suffer the punishment, including death, if necessary. “If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die” (Acts 25:11). But this radio teacher does not quite have things right. Paul was willing to submit to Roman law, and his if-then clause was hypothetical. In fact he had done nothing deserving death, said Governor Felix (Acts 23:29).
The New Covenant Scriptures leaves civil punishments in the hands of the government. Paul writes about civil authorities:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. (Rom. 13:1-5, emphasis added)
This is a general statement. God set up government to implement justice on law breakers. Sometimes the agent of the state uses the sword (v. 4). Therefore the death penalty is an open question in the New Testament. The early church itself never put anyone to death, but handed the sword over to the state.
Peter agrees, but in briefer terms:
13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. (1 Peter 2:13-14, emphasis added)
Which punishment does the state impose on criminals? If a state has the death penalty, then that’s the way it is, unless abolitionists change the law. If it does not have the death penalty, then so be it, unless proponents or retentionists argue to change the law and implement the death penalty. The New Covenant Scriptures leave the issue in the hands of the government, not the church as some sort of governing authority over society. Yes, the church can counsel the state, but not lord it over the state.
Ancient Israel was a theocracy. Even in Lev. 20 holiness and discerning between ceremonially clean and unclean things were part of behaving holy. In a theocracy civil law was merged with holy or unholy behavior. Sexual misconduct was raised to the level of a capital crime.
In the New Covenant sexual misconduct was forgivable, even after excommunication. In the church at Corinth, Paul rebuked the church for permitting a man to sleep with his mother, probably his stepmother.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? (1 Cor. 5:1-2)
Roman law strictly outlawed incest like this. Why would Christian tolerate it? Paul’s solution was to excommunicate the man, so that he would come under the attack of Satan. His body may be killed, but his spirit would be saved. But Paul did not recommend the death penalty, even to be carried out behind the Roman authorities’ back, in a kind of rough “Christian” street justice. The sinning man may have repented (2 Cor. 7:8-13).
Further, the cross of Jesus took the penalties for all of our sins. Paul writes:
Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:9-11)
This vice list in vv. 10-11 matches up with some of the capital crimes in Lev. 20. To judge by the old Sinai Covenant, the Corinthians deserved the death penalty. Instead, Paul warned them that they would be excluded both from the kingdom down here on earth and the coming kingdom. However, the good news is found in v. 11. These same sinners were washed, sanctified and justified (put right with God upon their repentance and being in Christ). Now they became ex-sinners in those things. No, this does not mean that the sin nature has been completely eradicated, but that the power and dominion of sin has been broken over their lives (Rom. 6:14). They no longer do those things.
Rather than demanding civil law in a theocracy implement the death penalty, Paul was no longer in Israel. He was mixing it up with pagans–ex-pagans. He saw the work of the Lord in their lives. They deserved new life in Christ.
How does this post help me know God and his Word better?
At this point some readers may feel anxiety about all the talk of sin and punishment. Can they live up to holy standards? No, they cannot in their own strength. Instead, they must yield their bodies to King Jesus and let the Spirit flow through them.
These verses explain: first the works of the sin nature and then life in the Spirit:
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Now for the good part:
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (Gal. 5:19-25)
Crucify the sin nature (flesh) with its passions because you belong to Christ. Cling to the cross each day. My prayer: “Father, I cling to the cross and surrender all. My flesh (sin nature) is crucified with its passions and desires. I now live for you.” That simple prayer has changed things for me. It works!
Unlawful Sexual Relations in Leviticus 18 from a NT Perspective
Moral and Other Laws in Leviticus 19 from a NT Perspective