Troublesome Topic: Why Did Some Sexual Acts Receive the Death Penalty?

Lesson 2 of 3

Under the Former Covenant various sexual activities were prohibited, all of which were punished severely and some even received the death penalty. Why the death penalty? Thank you for asking. I will get to that at the end of this lesson.

First, I need to remind you that the two major reasons God seems to have given for punishing sexual indiscretions were that they messed up the lines of authority He had set in place for the governing of society (starting with the family), and it caused confusion in key relationships.

In Leviticus chapter 20, verses 10-16, we find a list of sexual acts that were to incur the death penalty. At the end of this lesson I come back to this list and show you the details. Here I will give you a summary or the reasons for the death penalty in each case:

Vs. 11 Violation of Authority structures

Vs. 12 Violation of Authority structures

Vs. 13 Design violation

Vs. 14 Design violation and violation of authority structures

Vs. 15 Design violation

Vs. 16 Design violation

The word “dishonor” is found several times in Lev 20:10-21. It is found in verses 11, 17, 19,20,21. Usually it referred to an the effects of sexual sin on the authority structure; verse 17 referred to the type of relationship.

But Why the Death Penalty?

I believe the answer lies in the following:

How far those acts had deviated from God’s original plan

To what extent there was damage to the issues of authority and relationships

The natural consequences were much worse than they realized,

There was long term damage to society.

Therefore, he assigned to these acts some very harsh punishments so they would realize that He saw them as a big deal.

Most of us live in societies that are very free and open when it comes to sexuality. Most of the places that aren’t that way are Muslim countries where abuses by husbands or men in general are common. So we have no good picture of what this is supposed to look like when carried out correctly. The fact that we find it abhorrent that people would be put to death for having sex with the wrong person, does not mean it was an unfair rule. It is just so different from what we know that we can’t wrap their minds around it.

I do know of a couple pictures of a smoothly operating society. One is USA quite a few years ago. How far back one must go is up for debate, and whatever era you choose, you can find fault with our society at that time. But at least we can say that there were times in America where crime was low, respect was high, and strong families formed the foundation of our society.

The second picture I want to share with you is something my dad told us about. He got to Honduras in 1950, right after the 16-year presidency of Tiburcio Carías Andino. President Carías made the following very clearÑ

Crime Will be punished severely

Respect everyone

Accompany a woman safely to her destination

Don’t touch stuff that is not yours

Under his leadership, if a man was walking down the road and encountered a lady or girl walking by herself, he was required by law to accompany her and keep her safe until she reached her destination, even if it was in the opposite direction from where he wanted to go. The same was true if there were several men and they encountered a woman walking alone. Touching her or harming her was out of the question because of the severity of the punishments.

Theft was also punished severely. One time, Dad went to town in an open jeep to get supplies. He bought large burlap bags of food staples, and other supplies and just when he had gotten everything he wanted, he was met by someone who begged him to accompany them into the mountains on foot for some urgent reason I have never understood. So he left his supplies in the open jeep, and the keys in the jeep, and followed them into the mountains. It turns out he was gone for three days. When he got back to town, he found the jeep right where he had left it, with the keys still in it, and the supplies untouched. That is a picture of a well-ordered society.

When ancient Israel followed God’s way, it was characterized by the following:

Lines of authority were clear

Expectations and consequences were clear

There was safety for all

Respect for everyone was expected

Females were protected (although they were treated as property)

Because of these things, rape was quite rare

Few girls got pregnant outside of marriage

Divorce was also rare

Blended families and single parent families were unheard of

A woman who had fled form an abusive husband (whether through divorce or separation) would return to her parents who would help her raise the children. Remarriage was seldom considered an option.

This created a society where the authority structures were clear and did not shift. Children knew who was in charge, and it wasn’t them.

Like everything, there were positives and negatives about life in ancient Israel. It wasn’t a perfect society because humans are sinful due of our fallen nature. You may look at ancient Israel and be glad you did not live back then, but please realize there were many positive aspects of it as well.

What Did This Teach?

The further removed an act was from God’s plan for lines of authority and relationships, the more severely it was punished in order to teach them to be careful to follow God.

The Details of Leviticus 20:10-16

Vs 10. If a man had sex with a married woman, both would receive the death penalty. There is an assumption here that the woman was a willing partner; that is why both received the death penalty.

Vs 11. If a man had sex with one of his father’s wives that was not his mother, they both had to die. The reason given was that it was dishonoring to the man’s father, a clear reference to the issue of authority. 

Vs 12. If a man had sex with his daughter-in-law it was a “violation of nature and of the divine order,” that is what the Hebrew word means. It also means confusion, because it twists what God has established, turning it into something it was not intended to be. We see here a reference to the issue of authority and relationship.

Vs 13. If a man had sex with another man (homosexuality) they were both put to death.

The reason given in the text (vs 13), is that they have committed an act that is detestable to the Lord, something He finds abominable. Why? It does not say, but the answer is likely that it violates the way He created things, and God created things in nature to be a reflection of Himself. In nature we see lots of order, balance, purpose, beauty, functionality, and wisdom. We can learn from this that God is a God of order, balance, purpose, beauty, functionality, wisdom – and much more. So when something is detestable to God it means that it is far removed from His design and His purpose. Child sacrifice is one of the things that we are told is detestable to God because He never asks us to sacrifice our children in order to have our prayers answered. That is not how He works; it is contrary to His nature, thus it is detestable to Him. Homosexuality is so far from God’s design that it likewise receives the same designation.

Although not stated, this example also includes the issue of authority because men were designed to bear authority under God and have someone under them who can help train the next generation in how to use authority properly.

Vs 14. If a man married a woman and her mother at the same time, all three of them were put to death. This one is called a “wicked scheme, and a heinous plan.” God has a plan, and if we make our own plan that is vastly different from His plan, it won’t go well.

Vs 15. If a man had sex with an animal, both the man and the animal were killed.

Vs 16. Likewise if a woman was involved in bestiality, both the woman and the animal had to be put to death. In these last two cases, people have wondered why the animal had to be killed. The answer seems to be that it had been involved in a detestable act and was therefore unclean in an utterly polluted manner. There was no remedy for an animal that had become so extremely unclean, it had to be put to death.

Some other examples of stoning for sexual sins are found in Deuteronomy chapter 22.

For the short version of this study series, the next lesson is: Old Testament Motivation to Abstain from Sexual Misconduct.

For the medium and full length version of this study series, the next lesson is: Was God Harder on Some Sexual Deviations than Others?

The next lesson in Why Is That in the Bible? is: Why Was the Death Penalty for Sexual Acts Inconsistent? Part 1