Death Penalty in Leviticus 24 from a NT Perspective

Chapter 24 of Leviticus starts off with the command to supply olive oil for the lamp in the tabernacle and bread there. Then in the second half of the chapter a man was stoned to death for blasphemy. And other verses demand the death penalty for taking a life. What does the New Testament say about all of this?

The interpretative method in this post is symbolic for verses 1-9 about oil and bread. Paul writes of festivals and religiously eating and drinking: “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col. 2:17). So he guides us to interpret symbolically such earth-bound items in the temple as olive oil and bread.

The second half of Lev. 24 (vv. 10-23) is about religious law and execution for violating it. In this case I look at what the New Testament says about the death penalty, if anything, with no symbolic interpretation.

Before we begin:

For a general overview of the interrelations between the Old Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant, click on:

What Does the New Covenant Retain from the Old?

How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law: Matthew 5:17-19

Many (not even close to all) elements are retained, and what is kept is improved on or streamlined.

The NIV is used here, unless otherwise noted. Readers are invited to go to biblegateway.com, choose their own translation, and open another window to follow along.

Now let’s begin.

There are magnificent videos on the structure of the tabernacle and furniture and tools in it. Please google them.

Verses 1-4

The lamp is the menorah with seven branches, and it was placed in the holy place or the ante-chamber inside the sanctuary. Priests had to keep it burning continually with an endless supply. People were to supply olive oil for the lamp, which was called the Menorah. The Menorah had seven branches.

From the New Covenant Scriptures (New Testament), let’s apply the meaning of the light, which is the main and obvious symbol of the Menorah.

God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7)

Jesus himself said: “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life‘” (John 8:12).

Then Jesus calls his disciples to be the light of the world:

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matt. 5:14-16)

The light shines by doing good works.

Many other verses in the NT pick up on the theme of light. It means truth over error, finding the way and not losing the way, clarity over confusion.

Further, the seven-branched lampstand symbolize the churches. Christ is the main center stand and the branches coming off of it represent various churches. Rev. 1:12, 16, 20 and 2:1 describe seven lampstands. Rev. 1:20 is significant because it explicitly says the seven churches in Asia Minor “are the golden lampstands.”

The arms or branches on the lampstand are of different lengths, indicating that churches have their own distinctive ways of worship and minor beliefs. And so it is with churches around the world. They have very similar essential doctrines (e.g. salvation by grace through faith and Christ’s deity and the full personhood of the Spirit), but they have different practical styles of worship: loud music and flashing lights or more liturgical church services, and somewhere in between for other churches. One typologist says that people should not go on rants against various denominations, if each denomination claims Christ as its center stand from the oil is supplied to the branches. The oil is the Spirit.

What does oil symbolize? As I do in every post that mentions the oil in the tabernacle, here’s a quick review of its symbolic meaning of anointing and the Spirit.

Oil speaks of the sacred anointing for consecrating the priests (Exod. 29:7; 30:22-33).

Next, Samuel took a flask of oil and anointed first Saul (1 Sam. 10:1) and then David (1 Sam. 16:1) to be kings. In 11 Sam. 6:3, we read: “So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David” (see Ps. 89:20). In Ps. 23:5, David proclaimed that God anointed his head with oil.

Heb. 1:9 says that God anointed his Son Jesus with the “oil of joy.”

Mark 6:13 says Jesus anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. James 5:14 says oil was used to anoint the sick.

In Luke 4:18 Jesus said God has anointed him to carry out the ministry of God. Acts 10:38 says God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit. Paul said that God anointed them (2 Cor. 1:21). “Christ” means “the Anointed One.”

We, God’s New Covenant people, are also have an anointing from the Holy One, who will guide his people to the truth (1 John 2:20, 27). The Holy One is the Holy Spirit (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13).

From these verses oil came to symbolize the Holy Spirit. Oil, the anointing, and the Spirit are linked. Being in Christ, we are all anointed by the Spirit.

Verses 5-9

The priest is to put bread on the ceremonially pure table inside the Holy Place or the antechamber before the Most Holy Place, where the high priest entered only once every year. (Old translations call it the Holy of Holies.) The bread was put in two stacks, with six loaves of bread in each stack. The bread was unleavened, like pita bread. It was supplied each Sabbath, from Sabbath. The leftover bread was to be eaten by the priests in the holy place, for it was too sacred to be taken out into the world and shared with commoners.

Now what does the bread symbolize? As I noted in other posts in the Leviticus series, the basic function of bread was to nourish the body. And in the context of the tabernacle, the bread was sacred or holy. Jesus turned this basic function into a spiritual and holy purpose.

First, in the verses in John, 4 the food–literally bread–is the will of God. He said these next words in the context of ministering to the Samaritan woman, who repented. Then many Samaritans were converted to Jesus.

He said:

34 “My food [bread],” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

Doing the will of God is the right food, and this food is about the harvest and reaping  souls. Harvest and reaping is the first work so that souls can be nourished with the bread of heaven.

Second, let’s build on the idea that sacred bread from heaven nourishes the soul. After feeding the five thousand with bread and fish, Jesus said:

32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:32-35)

Then he added a lesson about his body and blood:

48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:48-51)

He expands on this idea by contrasting Manna (Exod. 16; Num. 11:4-35) in the wilderness with his being the bread that lasts:

53 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”

Many interpreters say the bread imagery includes the Eucharist or Communion bread, because it is all about feasting on the person and Spirit of Jesus, and then they shall live forever. However, as we shall see below, the bread at the Lord’s Table (Communion or Eucharist) is never explained to allow the partaker to live forever, unless one imports a prior belief of a miracle into the bread eaten at the Last Supper.

Further, Jesus did not say here in John 6 that his body was literal bread, but this is metaphorical language for intimacy and lifelong connection to him. Only daily life in Christ and walking in the Spirit can do that, not a doctrine that mystifies literal bread at the Eucharist or Communion.

Third, speaking of the Eucharist or Communion, Jesus here takes the bread and breaks it and distributes it.

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” (Mark 14:22)

This post is about the bread in the Holy Place in the sanctuary being symbolic of New Testament truth that Christ is the bread of heaven. And in this case Paul guides us clearly in Col. 2:17, quoted above. We can symbolize things from the Old to the New Testaments.

Now let’s combine the typological reading of bread and oil, in a simple equation:

Bread + Oil = Nourishment of Christ by the Power of the Spirit

By extension, therefore:

Bread + Wine = Nourishment of Christ by his Blood and the Power of the Spirit

Christians depend on the Spirit when they take Communion. He is always active, particularly when they remember his death.

More equations:

Bread + Oil ≠ Miraculous Transformation of Those Two Elements

By extension:

Bread + Wine ≠ Miraculous Transformation of Those Two Elements

One has to import into the latter two equations a prior belief of the miraculous transformation of the bread’s substance.

Rather, the transformation happens in our hearts, by the Spirit.

However, I won’t quarrel about how to interpret metaphors. If someone believes in a miraculous transformation under the bread’s and wine’s appearances, then so be it. But that statement about the Spirit transforming the heart represents the beliefs of millions of other Christians.

Verses 10-23

Now we come to the death penalty for blasphemy.

A son of an Egyptian father and Israelite mother got in a fight with an Israelite. The man blasphemed the Name with a curse. They brought him to Moses and placed him in custody until the will of the Lord was clarified. It was revealed that they were to take him outside the camp, and those who heard him blaspheme were to lay their hands on him (indicating either testifying against him or transferring the pollution they caught back on to him, so says BTSB’s note on 24:14), and then the entire community is to stone him. This punishment holds for a native born or foreigner. No one must gets away with blaspheming or cursing God. They took him outside the camp and stoned him.

Then in vv. 17-22 the principle is announced: life for life and eye for eye and fracture for fracture. The principle is one of equal punishment, not to be carried out literally, except in the case of the death penalty.

Please see my post:

Revenge in the Old and New Testaments: Eye for Eye, Tooth for Tooth

The point of that linked post is that revenge did not exist back then. Just the opposite. The misdeed was taken out of the hands of the public and put in the hands of the court. This stopped the personal vendetta.

How does the New Covenant deal with the death penalty?

First, no one is to be put to death for blasphemy. Religious law must not be confused with civil law.

Next, a radio teacher said that the New Covenant does not cancel out the death penalty. After all, Paul was willing to suffer the punishment, including death, if necessary. “If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die” (Acts 25:11). But this radio teacher does not quite have things right. Paul was willing to submit to Roman law, and his if-then clause was hypothetical. In fact he had done nothing deserving death, said Governor Felix (Acts 23:29).

To amplify Paul’s willingness to undergo the death penalty, he lived under Roman law, which allowed for the death penalty. However, the New Testament is neutral about the death penalty as such and leaves civil punishments in the hands of the government. Paul writes about civil authorities:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. (Rom. 13:1-5, emphasis added)

That passage is a general statement. God set up government to implement justice on law breakers. Sometimes the agent of the state uses the sword (v. 4), which implies the use of lethal force, including the death penalty. We should not de-emphasize the lethality of sword in v. 4. So in an indirect way Paul endorsed the death penalty. It’s just that the church itself has no business implementing it.

Peter agrees, but in briefer terms:

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. (1 Peter 2:13-14)

Which punishment does the state impose on criminals? If a state has the death penalty, then the New Testament does not oppose it. That’s the way it is. In contrast, if contemporary law were not to have the death penalty, then the New Testament is actually silent on its absence. Therefore, in America today, proponents or retentionists of the death penalty should argue that the state should implement the death penalty, and the abolitionists can argue against it. The New Covenant Scriptures leave the issue in the hands of the government, not the church as some sort of governing authority over society.

How does this post help me grow in my knowledge of God and his Word?

James and John asked Jesus whether he should call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village. This was a real possibility, much like it was in Elijah’s day (2 Kings 1:9-14). “But Jesus turned and rebuked them” (Luke 9:55). Then they simply went to another village. In other words, Jesus wanted to reach people, not condemn them with execution, during his ministry. However, this case was not about anyone in the Samaritan village committing murder, so his merciful response was not dealing with a capital crime. But it does deal with religious rejection or religion, and religious freedom must be allowed, even when people reject the gospel.

Further, Christ never clearly taught about the death penalty; he never said, “I support the death penalty.” Instead, he was willing to die on the cross. He worked within the current Roman penal system without denouncing the death penalty as such and in a clear way. So an interpreter is certainly permitted to apply these biblical data as he sees fit within reason.

So once again the New Testament is neutral about the death penalty, other than allowing for it and not condemning it in Roman law. This silence and neutrality makes sense because the kingdom of God which Jesus was establishing made all the difference. The goal of Jesus and his disciples was not to establish a political government, but to spread the gospel of the kingdom and convert people and guide them towards righteousness, one soul at a time. God’s kingdom goes beyond political jurisdictions that come and go from one century to the next, from one region to the next.

Given the silence of the New Testament about the death penalty, its advocates will have to argue for it on theological and moral grounds from the Old Testament.

And therefore, on further reflection, as I re-read Rom. 13:1-5 carefully, particularly v. 4, the death penalty does indeed express justice for the most heinous of crimes–murder with aggravated circumstances (like serial killers). We should not ignore the Torah on this matter of justice. Therefore, although the New Testament does not clearly and explicitly oppose the death penalty, its silence may indeed be an endorsement of it on some level and may assume it to be a legitimate punishment because of the background of the Torah, which speaks loudly on the topic, for murder. The Torah’s teaching on it may explain why Jesus, Paul or Peter–three Jews–never discussed it but seem to have assumed its legitimacy. That counts for something.

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Works Cited

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