Troublesome Topic: Why Was the Death Penalty for Sexual Acts Inconsistent? Part 1

Lesson 4 of 9

Some acts of sex brought the death penalty, but others did not. Why the difference?  

In cases that did not bring the death penalty, the issues of authority or relationship were different from those cases that did incur the death penalty.

That seems to hold true in the example that follows:  

Leviticus 19:20


If a man goes to bed with, and has sexual relations

Go to footnote number

with a woman who is a slave or servant and is promised to a man, but a ransom has not yet been paid for her freedom or she has not been given her freedom, there must be an investigation and restitution

Go to footnote number

shall be paid, but they shall not be put to death because she was not free.


If a man rapes a young lady who is a under the authority of a master and is engaged to be married to a man, but her fiancé has not yet paid for her freedom, or she has not been granted her freedom by her master, there must be an investigation to see how much the man owes in reparations, but they shall not be put to death because she was not free.

Leviticus 19:21


Then he must bring his restitution offering to YHVH (read Adonai), to the door of the tent of meeting (the tabernacle); it must be a ram given as a restitution offering.


Then he must bring his offering for wronging someone to THE ETERNAL AND PERSONAL GOD, to the entrance of the tabernacle; it must be a ram given as an offering for wronging someone.

Here is the situation: Let’s imagine that a certain man had a slave girl,

Go to footnote number

whom he acquired before she was of marriageable age. When she did become old enough to marry (13, 14, maybe 15) the owner had three options: he could choose her as one of his wives, give her to one of his sons as a wife, or find another man who was willing to pay the price to ransom her from her slavery so she could be his wife. This money took the place of the bride price, but it was given to her owner, not her father.

The situation described in Leviticus 19:20-21 was that the owner found a man outside his family who agreed to pay the ransom price. An agreement was struck between the two men as to how much that would be. The would-be-husband needed to save the money required for the ransom price. This might take some time. If, during that time, the owner chose to have sex with the girl he would lose out on the money because the man who agreed to take her as his wife would refuse to accept a girl who was not a virgin. So we can be sure that the owner would control himself and not risk losing a chunk of money by having sex with this girl.

But in the scenario given in this passage, another undescribed man, an interloper, decided to either seduce the girl or rape the girl (it was probably rape). It is not stated, but can be assumed, that the girl got pregnant and that was how they found out about the sexual act.

Now they all had a problem! The would-be husband would surely refuse to accept the girl and the owner had just lost the money he was expecting to receive from her ransom.

So what happened? They would find the interloper who had to go to the tabernacle and sacrifice a ram, and rams were not cheap. This was what I call a “restitution offering,” i.e. one that accompanied the payment of restitution, reparation, or compensation. In this case the payment was given to the owner. How much did the interloper have to pay? He paid whatever the owner and the would-be-husband had agreed on for the ransom price. In that way the owner did not lose out on the money he had been promised. Beyond that, the interloper did not even get to keep the girl! If he wanted to marry her, he would have to come up with the ransom price a second time!

Go to footnote number

Wow! That is a high penalty he had to pay for not being able to control his lust.

The would-be-husband would have to find another girl to marry, and the girl who got pregnant usually ended up staying under the care of her master, raising the child, but never having a husband because she had been disgraced.

In ancient Israel, a young girl’s most valued possession was her virginity!

Go to footnote number

She would not give it away, but protect it because if she did not protect it, she would likely end up living the rest of her life in disgrace and without a husband. Therefore, in the situation described above, one can safely assume she was raped because it was not common for a girl to give away her virginity.

So, why were some sexual acts punished with the death penalty and some not?

In this case, authority was violated, but it was not the authority of a husband, rather, that of a master over his servant. Also there was no marriage relationship that was violated. I think those are the reasons why no death penalty was prescribed. Instead the punishments for the man were restitution (possibly a year’s wages), a sacrifice, and much shame.

The next lesson in the full-length version of this series is: Why Was the Death Penalty for Sexual Acts Inconsistent? Part 2.

The next lesson in Why Is That in the Bible? is: Why Was the Death Penalty for Sexual Acts Inconsistent? Part 2



The situation described in these verses was most likely a case of rape.


What I have rendered as “an investigation and restitution” is translated in a wide variety of ways, from “scourging, punishment” or “penalty,” to “payment or compensation” to “investigation, inquisition, or distinction.” The best I can determine is that it involved both an investigation and then punishment in the form of restitution or reparation payments. Hence my translation and paraphrase convey both those elements.


This story may make you angry because it allows slavery with no penalty; it talks about slavery as if it were no big deal. If you are bothered by that, I encourage you to read what I have written about slavery in the Bible. I may not settle all your emotions, but it might answer some of your questions. Here is the  link: Why Did God Allow Slavery?