This is the second installment of a special series TheBlaze is running called “Inside the Bible.” We will be exploring controversial issues as they are framed in the book to better understand their context and meaning. This week’s subject is stoning.
TheBlaze’s Carly Hoilman contributed to this report.
Atheist activists, many times, claim that the Bible -- a book that is revered, loved and deemed holy by more than two billion people around the world -- condones horrific acts, such as slavery or stoning. As for the latter form of capital punishment, TheBlaze spoke with two members of our expert faith panel who explained the phenomenon and its placement in both history and scripture.
Their conclusion? Context is key.
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Rabbi Aryeh Spero, author of “Push Back: Reclaiming Our American Judeo-Christian Spirit,” told TheBlaze that the Bible speaks openly about stoning, however he said that the Judeo-Christian texts differ greatly from "the procedures we see today in Islamic countries."
Rather than burying people in the group up to their necks and then stoning them for a long period of time in an effort to embarrass them, Spero says that the death penalty described and practiced in Jewish culture was a bit different.
"Any Biblical death penalty procedure had to be accomplished in one instantaneous stroke," he explained. "For while the death penalty may have been administered, it was not done in a way to prolong agony or suffering, nor in a manner of public humiliation that degraded the human being created in the image of God."
This in mind, Spero said that there was no humiliation or entertainment value imbued by the stoning process.
Theologian R.P. Nettelhorst added that capital punishment is seen in the Bible for a variety of offenses: Murder, adultery, rape, Sabbath breaking, disobedience to parents, witchcraft, and idolatry. While the codes were similar to other legal constructs in the Ancient Near East, he agreed that there were some notable differences.
"The laws are applied equally to all members of society. There are not different laws for different classes," he told TheBlaze. "Second, the laws were intended to be proportional. The lex talionis 'eye for eye, tooth for tooth' was designed to limit punishments to being no worse than the offense."
At the time, this was actually considered lenient, Nettelhorst argues, compared to what was practiced by many of the other cultures of the time.
Adding to the apparent leniency, Spero also claims that stoning was likely not rampant and that ancient rabbis attempted to abolish its use by making capital punishment a rarity.
"Whereas they believed in capital punishment, they saw these procedures not so much as punishments but protecting society from recidivism, further threats and dangers to the public from criminals or those whose public and brazen immorality threatened the wholesome nature of society if allowed to go uncensored or un-reprimanded -- doing so with some sort of excision from society," he added.
For those who struggle with the notion that everything in the Bible is God's word and should be taken literally, Spero explained that the Old Testament includes certain societal practices and occurrences that were meant to -- and have -- changed as mankind has matured and evolved.
When it comes to perceived Biblical mandates or issues like stoning, the rabbi noted that it's important to view the holy book through a specific lens.
"It is our duty to, with reverence and humility, demarcate between that which God intended as eternal and that which was a time-period-necessity later to be eased-out-- animal sacrifices, for example," he continued. "Things regarding human nature and sexual discipline and limitations undoubtedly are eternal, as are the Sabbath and need for holiness."
Outside of this though, Spero said that certain procedures were never meant to be permanent and were, instead, based on the habits and mindsets of the original society that God spoke to. The culture, thus, had a major impact on how these procedures were implemented and played out.
And in an explanation provided to TheBlaze, Nettelhorst also highlighted his belief that the Bible oft-times showed the difference that existed between the law (which called for capital punishment for a wide array of offenses, as noted) and practice.
He ultimately concludes that stoning and capital punishment, when looking at the Bible in its entirety, are not cast in the most positive of lights:
"An individual who breaks the Sabbath (by gathering firewood on Saturday) shortly after the Sabbath was instituted by the Ten Commandments, is soon dispatched after a brief consultation with God. It is the only instance in the Bible of someone being executed for violating the Sabbath. For instance, Nehemiah, after the Babylonian captivity, simply berates the leaders of Jerusalem for their violations of the Sabbath, though he later does threaten “arrest.” (see Nehemiah 13:15-22)
For other crimes, for instance murder, the Bible describes several people who were guilty of it who nevertheless were not executed, ranging from Cain in Genesis 4 (before the Law was given), through Moses (who killed an Egyptian) to David, guilty of both murder and adultery. One might argue that their status protected them, though the law specified that the kings were no better than anyone else, and that they were subject to the same laws as anyone else (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).
Despite the condemnation of blasphemy in Leviticus 24:16, most of the stories of blasphemers being condemned show up in the New Testament, where we see criticisms by the religious establishment against Jesus and against the first Christian martyr when he was stoned. Stoning (and capital punishment in general) is not placed in a good light, for the most part, in the Bible, despite the law."
Nettelhorst said that, while idolatry was, indeed, considered a capital crime, that people were rarely killed for it.
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He also detailed 2 Kings 10:18-28, noting that, while it appears that God's blessing is upon Jehu, who gathers servants, priests and prophets of Baal and executes them for worshipping other gods, this may not actually be the case. After these deaths -- and a coup against the former king and royal family -- God seemed anything but pleased.
"Then the Lord said to Hosea, 'Call him Jezreel [Hosea’s son], because I will soon punish the house of Jehu for the massacre at Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel [Hosea 1:4]," Nettelhorst explained. "This would suggest that God was not pleased by what Jehu had done, despite the fact that the incident, as described in 2 Kings 10:18-28 seems to have God’s blessing at the time."
The contradiction, the theologian says, might be rooted in the notion that there was a disconnect between what ancient Israelites thought God wanted verses what the Lord really requested of them.
As for those who point to specific examples and hold them up to claim that the Bible condones stoning and other horrors, Nettelhorst warns that the book must be taken in its entirety. Rather than proof-texting, he said that it is essential to understand the context held in each story as it relates to the holy book's overall message.
"The problem with the Freedom From Religion Foundation and those who like to criticize the Bible as being evil, is that they entirely miss the point that the Bible is trying to make," he said. "They are like people who mispronounce words by putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable. They, to misappropriate Jesus’ words, 'strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.'"
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Read our first installment of "Inside the Bible," which focused on rape and polygamy.