“The Wicked Must be Put to Death”

David Lazarus

The brutal slaying of a teenaged girl, Ori Ansbacher, has stirred government officials and Israelis across the nation to call for the death penalty for the 29-year-old Palestinian who murdered her in cold blood.

Unlike most modern democracies that reject the death penalty, in Israel there are two specific crimes that are punishable by death: crimes against the Jewish people and humanity (the law for the punishment of Nazis and their accomplices), and murder in the context of a terrorist act (under the emergency regulations act).

According to Israeli law, the death penalty requires a unanimous vote by the Supreme Court. The caution against rashly implementing the death penalty in Israel is based in large part on Jewish tradition, in which, despite the existence of this punishment, it is almost never invoked. As it is written: The Sanhedrin that kills one person every seven years is considered damaging.In other words,Jewish law requires moderation in dealing with murder cases.

In scripture, God provided Israel with a detailed toolbox for determining the crime and punishment in murder cases (see for example Numbers 35). As the Children of Israel were about to enter the Land, knowing that setting up a nation would require dealing with the complexities of human sin, cities of refuge were established to which a murderer could flee until the case was properly judged.

A major breakthrough in the laws that governed ancient civilization came with the biblical allowance for Israel to discuss a person’s intent in crime, not only the results of his or her action. The Bible makes a distinction between malicious and accidental murder. The concept is found first in Leviticus 4, where the person who acted without intent is given an opportunity to pay for the murder, but not with his life. Today, we distinguish between manslaughter and murder, wrongdoing and malice. Incredibly, the Bible had recognized all these scenarios a long time ago.

The basis of the Bible’s approach to these laws is to protect the sanctity of life, while also taking into consideration the weaknesses and complexities of humanity. Yet,the biblical guidelines would not be considered “humane” by modern politically-correct standards. In the Book of Numbers, chapter 35, we have the clearest standards for judging murder. The chapter concludes with a strong warning not to go easy on the “wicked criminal.” There is a severe prohibition against any kind of plea deal, payment or political considerations to ease the punishment of a convicted murderer.  The murderer “which is wicked must be put to death.” However, it is also commanded that the murderer will be executed, not killed for revenge.

All of the scriptural regulations were given to protect the “sanctity of the land,”to maintain personal security for the individual and the public, and to prevent further bloodshed. What will happen to a society whose leaders renounce their responsibility to protect the sanctity of life when there is “wickedness in the land”? Perhaps it is the chaos, mayhem and anger we see on the streets of Israel, and around the world. God help us in these troubling times.

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