(1) death in the form of stoning, burning, beheading, or strangling, etc.;

(2) exile to one of the cities of refuge in case of manslaughter (Nu 35); or

(3) stripes, not to exceed 40, in practice 39 or less (De 25:3; 2Co 11:24).

Offences against property (theft, fraudulent conversion of deposit, embezzlement, robbery) were punished by exacting more than the value of the things taken (Lu 19:8), the excess going to the injured party, thus differing from a fine, which goes into the treasury of the community. The housebreaker was liable to be slain with impunity (Ex 22:2). A fine in the modern sense is unknown in the Scriptures, unless Le 5:6-19 be interpreted as referring to such.

1. History of the Hebrew Law concerning Punishment:

The earliest theory of punishment seems to have been that of retaliation--"blood for blood"--and to some extent this principle appears even in the Law of Moses (Le 21:19,20; Mt 5:38). Early in the history of the race, punishment was administered for sin and crime. Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden, and Cain, the first murderer, though not executed in retaliation for his deed, had a mark set on him. The words of Lamech (Ge 4:24) indicate that death was regarded as the fitting punishment for murder, and the same thought apparently was in the minds of the brethren of Joseph (Ge 42:21). Judah, as head of his family, seems to have had power of life and death (Ge 38:24), and Abimelech threatens his people with the extreme punishment in case they injure or insult Isaac or his wife (Ge 26:11). Similar power is ascribed to Pharaoh (Ge 41:13).

2. The Mosaic Law concerning Punishment:

It has been noted that capital punishment is extensively prescribed by the Mosaic Law, and undoubtedly the Law was carried out. This circumstance has been explained by reference to the fact that the nation consisted of newly emancipated slaves, and therefore required harsh measures to keep them in check.

Under the Mosaic Law, the offenses that made one liable to the punishment of death were:

(1) striking or reviling a parent (Ex 21:15,17);

(2) blasphemy (Le 24:14,16,23; 1Ki 21:10; Mt 26:65,66);

(3) Sabbath-breaking (Ex 31:14; 35:2; Nu 15:32-36);

(4) witchcraft and false pretension to prophecy (Ex 22:18; Le 20:27; De 13:5; 18:20; 1Sa 28:9);

(5) adultery (Le 20:10; De 22:22);

(6) unchastity:

(a) before marriage, but detected afterward (De 22:21),

(b) in case of a woman with someone other than her betrothed (De 22:23),

(c) in a priest’s daughter (Le 21:9);

(7) rape (De 22:25);

(8) incestuous and unnatural connections (Ex 22:19; Le 20:11,14,16);

(9) man-stealing (Ex 21:16);

(10) idolatry, actual or virtual, in any form (Le 20:2; De 13:6; 17:2-7);

(11) false witness in capital cases (De 19:16,19).

A large number of offenses come under the law of punishment by cutting off from the people, the meaning of which expression has led to some controversy. It may signify excommunication or death, and occurs in connection with the following offenses:

(1) breach of morals, such as willful sin in general (Nu 15:30,31); incestuous or unclean connections (Le 18:29; 29:9-21);

Of capital punishments that are properly regarded as of Hebrew origin, we note:

(1) Stoning

(2) Hanging

Hanging is mentioned (Nu 25:4; De 21:22), probably not as a mode of execution, but rather of exposure after death. It may have been a Canaanitish punishment, since it was practiced by the Gibeonites on the sons of Saul (2Sa 21:6,9).

(3) Burning

Burning, before the age of Moses, was the punishment of unchastity (Ge 38:24). The Law prescribes it as a punishment in the case of a priest’s daughter (Le 21:9), and in case of incest (Le 20:14), but it is also mentioned as following death by other means (Jos 7:25), and some believe it was never used except after death. That it was sometimes used as a punishment on living persons among the heathen is shown by Da 3.

(4) The Sword or Spear

(5) Strangling

Strangling as a form of punishment has no Scripture authority, but according to tradition was frequently employed, and is said to have been performed by immersing the convict in clay or mud, and then strangling him by a cloth tied around the neck.

3. Punishments of Foreign Origin: Besides these, which are to be regarded as the ordinary capital punishments, we read of some that were either of foreign introduction or of an irregular kind, such as:

(1) crucifixion (which see);

(2) drowning (Mt 18:6 parallel);

(3) sawing asunder or crushing (2Sa 12:31; Heb 11:37);

(4) torturing (1Ch 20:3; Heb 11:35);

(5) precipitation (2Ch 25:12; Lu 4:29);

(6) suffocation (2 Macc 13:4-8).

The Persians are said to have filled a high tower a great way up with ashes, and then to have thrown the criminal into it, and continually stirred up the ashes by means of a wheel till he was suffocated (Rawlinson, Ancient Monarchy, III, 246).

See also HEROD, II, 100.

Secondary forms of punishment not heretofore mentioned are to be noted as follows:

(1) Blinding or Putting Out of Eyes

Blinding or putting out of eyes in the case of captives (Jud 16:21; 1Sa 11:2; 2Ki 25:7).

(2) Chaining

Chaining by means of manacles or fetters of copper or iron, similar to our handcuffs fastened on the wrists and ankles and attached to each other by a chain (Jud 16:21; 2Sa 3:34; 2Ki 25:7); also alluded to in the life of Paul (Ac 28:20; Eph 6:20; 2Ti 1:16); and in the case of Peter (Ac 12:6).

(3) Confiscation of Property

(4) Dashing in Pieces (Psalms 2:9; Isaiah 13:18).

(5) Divine Visitation.

See Visitation.

(6) Exposure to Wild Beasts (Leviticus 26:22; 1 Samuel 17:46; Daniel 6).

(7) Flaying

(Rawlinson, Ancient Monarchy, I, 478; Nineveh and Babylon; mentioned figuratively in Mic 3:3).

(8) Forfeiture (Ezra 10:8).

(9) Gallows

Gallows in the modern sense probably were unknown to the ancients. Where the word occurs in Es 5:14; 6:4; 7:9,10; 9:13,15, it probably refers to a beam or pole on which the body was impaled and then elevated to a height of 50 cubits as an object of warning to the people (see "Hanging").

(10) Imprisonment

See Prison.

(11) Indignities.

In this term may be included all those outbursts of vengeance or other evil dispositions that were practiced in times or under circumstances when liberties with the prisoner were permitted on the part of bystanders or those who had charge beyond the execution of the judicial decree. Instances are found in the life of Christ (Mt 26:59,67; Lu 22:63 ff; Joh 18:22); also in the life of Paul (Ac 23:2).

(12) Mutilation (Judges 1:6,7; Ezekiel 23:25; 2 Maccabees 7).

The Law was opposed to thus treating any Israelite, and Samuel, when referring to the arbitrary power of the future king (1Sa 8:10 ), does not say that he would thus treat "their sons." It was a barbarous custom of the East (see Eunuch; Polygamy), evidently regarded, among the Hebrews, as a heinous practice (De 23:1). The only act authorizing mutilation (except in retaliation) is mentioned in De 25:11.

(13) Plucking Off the Hair

Plucking off the hair is alluded to as a mode of punishment in Ne 13:25; Isa 50:6.

(14) Prison Garments

Prison garments were in vogue to mark the convicts (Jer 52:33).

(15) Restitution

Restitution has been alluded to in the general introduction to this topic.

(16) Retaliation

Retaliation was recognized by Moses as a principle, but the application of it was left to the judge (Le 24:19-22). A fine example of it is found in the law of De 19:19.

(17) Scorpions, Chastising with.

Probably the use of thongs armed with pointed pieces of lead or other metal (1Ki 12:11; 2Ch 10:14).


(18) Scourging.

See separate article.

(19) Slavery.

See separate article.

(20) Stocks.

See Prison.

Frank E. Hirsch

See also

  • Crimes and Punishments