An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth—what does Judaism really have to say about crime and punishment?
Parashat Emor ends with the story of a half-Israelite man who pronounces God’s name in blasphemy while engaged in a fight with another Israelite.
And Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the community leadership stone him (Leviticus 24: 13-14).
Did stoning really take place during the times of the Hebrew Bible and would a merciful God really have commanded humans to take the life of another as punishment for disrespect of the Divine? Is God trying to sternly warn the people or does God really want the Israelites to stone the man to death?
The text continues with a seemingly contradictory message from God:
If anyone kills any human being, that person shall be put to death…If anyone maims another: what was done shall be done in return—fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth…one who kills a human being shall be put to death” (Leviticus 24:17-21).
Aren’t the Israelites, who stone the man to death at the end of the parashah, committing murder? God commands an act of capitol punishment but then immediately goes on to talk about the ramifications of killing another human being. Did the Israelites misread God’s mixed message? Does God attempt to retract God’s anger and wrath in verses 17-21?
While capitol punishment is a concept illustrated in the Hebrew Bible, we learn from our sages that it really didn’t happen—at least in rabbinic times. If one can be certain of anything in a discussion of Judaism’s views regarding capital punishment, especially those held in a public forum, it is that the following statement in the Mishna (Makkot 1:10) will be quoted:
A Sanhedrin that executed [more than] one person in a week is called a “murderous” [court]. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya states: “[More than] one person in 70 years [would be denoted a murderous court].” Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva state: “If we had been members of the Sanhedrin, no defendant would ever have been executed.”
Why then, might the biblical text, illustrate capitol punishment? It’s for each of us to answer.