The Death Penalty as Delineated by the Old Testament: From Adam and Eve to Cain and Abel to Noah and the Flood to Abraham and Sodom to Moses and the Ten Commandments, Biblical Passages Trace the Roots for How Modern Society Deals with the Execution of Killers

By Blecker, Robert | USA TODAY, November 2004 | Go to article overview

The Death Penalty as Delineated by the Old Testament: From Adam and Eve to Cain and Abel to Noah and the Flood to Abraham and Sodom to Moses and the Ten Commandments, Biblical Passages Trace the Roots for How Modern Society Deals with the Execution of Killers


Blecker, Robert, USA TODAY


AN OVERWHELMING MAJORITY of Americans support a death penalty for those--and only those--who deserve to die. These same citizens also embrace the Constitution, which ensures equal protection under the law, commands due process, and forbids "cruel and unusual" punishment. For the past half-century, the Supreme Court has agreed that these fundamental concepts, these Constitutional limits on death as punishment, are not fixed. Rather, their meaning is informed "by the evolving standards of decency of a maturing society."

Certainly, our standards have evolved and our practices have been refined since 1972 when the Court began the modern era by tossing out all death penalty statutes as administered, and effectively demanding carefully structured laws guiding the jury's discretion in a bifurcated trial, where they first find a defendant's guilt, and then, in a separate sentencing proceeding, determine whether this aggravated murderer deserves to die.

While standards do evolve, we continue more fundamentally than we change. It is a strange tree, this death penalty. The long view shows it growing smaller, limited to fewer crimes, and imposed more and more rarely. States are pressed from all sides either to reform or reject it--and soon. Can the differences between those who do and do not die be explained and predicted, applied rationally and without emotion? Can a maturing society discern its own evolving standards of decency? Perhaps, perhaps not. One thing is clear, though. We never can hope to identify new growth without appreciating the living roots which sustain it.

Whether we end up limiting the punishment of death appropriately, or eliminating it entirely, seems far from settled. Meanwhile, sampling the soil, stepping back 2,500 hundred years or so, when the Old Testament was being assembled and genius flowered in ancient Greece, examining and interpreting the core of Western culture--even cursorily and eccentrically--in the light of" today's debate, would seem to nourish past and present. If it cannot enable us to predict precisely our future shape, it may at least help guide us in pruning well to grow better.

The first sin--or crime (in the Beginning there was no distinction)--was capital. The Sovereign had warned Adam not to eat the apple lest he "surely die on that day." Found guilty, Adam and Eve were condemned. By the time they did die, hundreds of years later, it seemed as if the original sin had been forgotten, if not forgiven. With long procedural delays, while the condemned live out their lives in prison, it still seems that way today.

What took the Sovereign so long to execute this first death sentence? Perhaps, on reflection, God accepted some responsibility for the environment that produced the crime, having placed the tempting tree smack in the middle of the Garden of Eden. In any case, so long delayed, disproportionate, and with no deterrent effect, from the Beginning, the death penalty seems to have failed miserably.

When Cain killed his brother Abel, God not only spared, but protected, him. Abolitionists embrace this story--a leading group of death-penalty opponents has named itself Hands Off Cain. Just as God declined the death penalty, even for this intentional premeditated killing, they argue, so too humankind, made in the image of God, should show mercy and spare intentional murderers.

Why did Cain kill Abel? When God rejected Cain's offering but praised Abel's, Cain must have felt humiliated and resentful. Cain was "very angry'," the Scripture tells us, and depressed--"his countenance fell"--but he did not snap. Feeling disrespected by God, Cain must have stewed on it. Sometime later, in the field, Cain "arose" and intentionally slew his brother.

It may have been premeditated, but perhaps also provoked and passionate. We can imagine an anguished Cain cuing as he killed Abel. In traditional common law, such brooding would not mitigate murder, unless the deadly act was a sudden reaction in the heat of passion. …

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