The Webster’s dictionary describes “capital punishment” as having reference to or involving life punishable by death. The word capital means “head” therefore capital punishment means” head punishment”. Historically the most common means of carrying out the death penalty was to remove the head from the body, hence the term “capital punishment”. Very early in human history, just after the great flood, GOD clearly decrees to Noah capital punishment upon a murderer. Genesis 9:6 “Whoever sheds human blood, by a human being will his own blood be shed; for GOD made human beings in His image.” The same Torah that decrees capital punishment upon those who shed innocent blood also commands in Exodus 20:13 that “though shall not kill”. As believers who hold fast to G-D’S Torah how do we justify this apparent contradiction in Scripture? Let’s look at some other areas of scripture that can be used to help clarify Scriptural intent. In the Torah of Moses GOD gives at least 15 other instances in which the death penalty was to be invoked. Leviticus 20:10 is but one example “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife, that is, with the wife of a fellow countryman, both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.” The 16 instances can be divided into 3 groups. There are four instances which are primary civil in nature, 6 which are religious in nature, and 6 which are sexual in nature.
A look at the Hebrew text of Exodus 20:13 reveal something vastly different than the English translation implies. The Hebrew term “ratsach” usually translated “kill” is used 49 times in the Tanakh and in every case it carries the implied meaning “murder” as opposed to kill. Exodus 20:13 is better read “though shall not murder”. Those who were called to carry out capital punishment under lawful regulations were not considered murderers but the bringer of justice by GOD’S divine hand according the Genesis 9:6. This is the very point The Apostle Paul is teaching us in Romans 13:4 “For he is the minister of GOD to thee for good. But if you do that which is evil, be afraid; for he bears not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of GOD, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that does evil.” This passage clearly states that the civil authorities have been given the G-D ordained responsibility to keep law and protect its citizens against evildoers. “Sword” here is obviously used in reference to capital punishment.
What about Yeshua’s teachings in Matthew 5:39 to “turn the other cheek”. In context this is referring to someone taking personal revenge by engaging in vigilante tactics. It is not appropriate for someone to take justice into their own hands. The 16 instances in which GOD ordains capital punishment must be proved beyond any question. The accused person must have been witnessed by at least two other people committing the crime in question. It also must be shown that the accused committed the crime with premeditation or with criminal neglect, “because of the gravity of the crime it must be established beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant’s assault was the direct and natural cause of the death.” This can be described as intentional wrongful acts, whether the crime occurred at the hands of the accuser or by his actions. An example would be hiring someone to commit murder or not restraining an ox that has been known to gore. If it be decided that the deceased met death by negligent homicide or lack of proper care the offense was not a capital offense. It was in this case that cities of refuge were established so that the accused can flee from the vengeful wrath of a relative of the deceased.
Capital punishment was considered such an extreme case that 1 death sentence in 70 years were considered a murderous court. The sages also record that capital cases can only be tried by the High Sanhedrin and only when the Temple stood. That being said; the sages also decreed that the law of the land is the supreme law, which is to say Jews are subject to the authority of the land they reside in.
What about Yeshua’s exoneration of the women caught in adultery, this was a capital offense? John 8:3-5,10-11 “ The Torah teachers and the Pharisee’s brought in a women who had been caught in the act of adultery and made her stand in the center of the group. Then they said to Him, Rabbi this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in our Torah, Moses commanded that such a woman be stoned to death. What do you say about it?””Standing up, Yeshua said to her, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She said, no one sir. Yeshua said neither do I condemn you. Now go and don’t sin any more.”
This in no way teaches against capital punishment. When we examine how the events unfolded it is obvious that the accusers were not following the standards of Torah or the elders but were trying to set Yeshua up for a fall. First Torah states that capital punishment can only take place if there were at least two witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15). The text states the women was caught in the act of adultery but makes no mention of witnesses. There is also the question of where is the man she had committed adultery with; he too is subject to capital punishment? It also seems that this group was engaged in vigilante behavior. As mentioned earlier capital punishment must come from the High Sanhedrin, a constituted court of law. In this case obedience to Torah required that the women be let go.
In conclusion capital punishment is clearly ordained in the Scriptures as appropriate justice for rebellious sin and innocent blood shed however great care is to be taken in exacting justice for the sake of the kingdom and in protecting the innocent from wrongful accusations.