I have read the five books of Moses cover to cover many times. It was by reading them in the Jerusalem Bible that it was impressed on me that God is very definitely a person, that He has a will, and that He has a very distinct idea of what is right and what is wrong. He expects us to agree with Him. How He deals with us when we don’t agree, and when we do things our way, seems to change over time. This, however, I think is an illusion. I don’t think God changes, but our perceptions of Him, and how we interpret what happens to us, changes. This can’t be helped. He humbled Himself from the beginning in His dealings with us, taking up our limited understanding and still speaking to us through it. Eventually and inevitably, He ‘bent the heavens and came down’ not by setting the mountains and sky on fire, but in utter humility flowing His divine nature into our human one by becoming one of us. Meanwhile, there are still people who don’t quite get it when they hear Him say, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the father.’
One thing I’ve noticed in my reading is how severe the punishments were for offenses committed while the people of Israel were wandering in the desert. No less than ten offenses earned the punishment of death by stoning: Touching Mount Sinai while God was giving Moses the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:13); an ox that gores someone to death should be stoned (Exodus 21:28); breaking the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36); giving one’s seed (presumably one’s offspring) to Molech (Leviticus 20:2-5); having a familiar spirit (or being a necromancer) or being a wizard (Lev. 20:27); cursing God (Leviticus 24:10-16); engaging in idolatry (Deuteronomy 17:2-7), or seducing others to do so (Deuteronomy 13:7-12); rebellion against parents (Deuteronomy 21,21); getting married as though a virgin, when not a virgin (Deuteronomy 22:13-21); sexual intercourse between a man and a woman engaged to another man (both should be stoned, Deuteronomy 22:23-24).
The foregoing are just those offenses whose punishment was explicitly defined as death by stoning. There were a great many others for which the punishment was just ‘death,’ without specifying how the condemned were to die. Later, the rabbis finished the work of defining exactly what was to take place in the cases of capital punishment. The strange thing is, however, that there are very few mentions of such punishments being actually inflicted. There are three cases in the Bible in which a person was legally stoned to death as a punishment, and there are also five or six cases where someone was stoned by a mob, not in a legal fashion. A detailed case of stoning occurs in Joshua 7:24-26 when a man named Achan (עכן) was found to have kept loot from Jericho, a conquered Canaanite city, in his tent.
The time of Israel’s migration to the Promised Land was when Torah was given. At this time, there was no such thing as Judaism or Jews, only the Hebrew people, whom the living God, Yahweh, had chosen as His special possession. Not just Torah, but particularly these laws of punishment, were given and followed during that stage in the process when God was fashioning Israel into His unique people, using a sort of shock treatment to winnow and purify them, because He knew that over time they would eventually stray and devolve back into living like the other nations. So there had to be a very severe beginning to ensure that at least a faithful remnant would still exist on earth at the appointed time, through whom would be born the Ransom for the sins of the nations—Jesus the Messiah, the Word of God in human form.
Even though the laws of punishment, such as death by stoning, were still ‘on the books,’ by the time Judaism emerged as the religion of the Jews (as the people of Israel came to be known after the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom), the legal infliction of these punishments was rare. Doubts in Jewish society about the morality of capital punishment in general and stoning in particular were growing. For example, according to Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel in the time when the religious courts had authority over capital punishment, a court that executed more than 1 person in 70 years was considered a ‘bloody court.’ The incident recorded in the Gospel (John 7:53-8:11) of the woman caught in adultery has to have been an instance of illegal infliction of the penalty of death by stoning, which was still probably rather common in the time of Jesus, at a grass roots level. So also would have been the stoning of the first Christian martyr, the deacon Stephen. Remember, even the Jewish authorities could not legally execute Jesus for committing what to them was blasphemy. ‘We have no law to put a man to death’ (John 18:31).
Modern-day Judaism is almost unanimous in rejecting the severe punishments found in the Torah, though with various explanations and justifications. Perhaps there are some Jews who today would revive these ancient punishments, but they are in the minority. Again, these punishments were ordered by the living God for a specific purpose, to fashion Israel His people. They were never intended for the nations, as can be seen if one studies the Talmud, where it states that they apply only to the people of Israel. Seeing that even for themselves their purpose has been achieved, Jews of today do not apply the severe penalties found in Torah.
From a Christian viewpoint, the death of Jesus Christ put an end not only to the laws of sacrifice in the Jewish Temple, but also to the whole body of Jewish laws. Again, the account of the woman caught in adultery cited above is an example of where Jesus was heading, along with His famous sayings, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27) and, ‘The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath’ (Luke 6:5). Some would see this as religious evolution, others as the plan of salvation of the living God, whose purposes are not revealed to man all at once, but only as He wills, who Himself is changeless, though we learn more of Him as we encounter Him again and again.
What of death by stoning in today’s world? Perhaps there will always be instances of such punishments inflicted illegally by irrational mobs anywhere in the world where memory of such cruelty survives, but surely no civilized nation on earth would sanction it or enshrine it in its legal system. Think again. That which is called ‘the third great monotheistic religion’ has such punishments enshrined not only in the legal systems where it holds sway, but in its very scriptures. This religion, claiming to be the last and greatest revelation of God to man, supplanting not only Christianity but Judaism as well, holds up and holds to a penal code more severe than even that of the ancient Hebrews.
The living God, the Only God there is, crafted them He chose as His own hereditary people and shaped and formed them by means of these severe statutes, in order to chasten, purify, strengthen and preserve them, who were also going to be the mother and brothers of His Son, the Saviour Jesus Christ. There is only one Israel the heir to the promises, and only one Christ, who come of the seed of Abraham through Isaac. Yet another came claiming to be a prophet, who reversed the story, seized the promise given to Isaac and laid it on Ishmael, taking for his own tribe the rôle of God’s hereditary people, and imitating the rigor and severity of the ancient laws.
If inflicting the penalty of death by stoning is the sign of the true faith, then we all know which true faith that is, and we should hurry to embrace it. Doubtless, such severe punishments will craft us into a perfectly pure, sinless and moral society as it has crafted many another people before us. It doesn’t matter that we will not be free, because look what freedom, what free will, has bought for us—societies impure, riddled with vice and sin, idolatrous beyond imagining. It would be for our own good, it would be worth it, to submit to the loss of freedom, if it meant an earthly paradise, where everyone would be happy, healthy, safe, at peace. Everyone, of course, except those who disobey the law—the divine law that comes from the prophet and his followers—everyone who deserves to die.
Yes, for them, death by stoning is really no less than their just reward from ‘God, the compassionate, the merciful, owner of the Day of Judgment.’
Ah, but what if the real God shows up?