It is part of God’s Law – So, should we? As a means of showing the impracticality of God’s Law, many pose the question, “if we are keeping God’s Law, why don’t we stone adulterers and other sinners specified by the Law?”. A recent comment I received from a dear brother read “If we cannot pick and choose which ceremonial law applies to us, then when keeping the OT law after being saved, we should be sure to stone adulterers.” He went on to ask why Christ forgave the woman who was accused of adultery. And to reiterate the point by commenting that “We should stone. Stone, stone, stone.” While I completely understand the point of view, and the hint of frustration in this brother’s words, I believe this common view among Christians is quite a misinformed one at best. The “issue of stoning” is taken as one of the easiest argument against keeping God’s Law – in a haphazard way, with little to no understanding of how the Law functions.
But is it a pointless question to ask? Absolutely not. In fact, understanding this subject could bring any Christian who can look at theology in a critical fashion, a bit closer to God’s Word. While this post will focus on the “issue of stoning”, if you would like to read into God’s Law a bit further – please go here.
First of all, I must explain that I, myself as a Christian who was taught that God’s Law was done away in Christ, had the same opinion as the brother whom I mentioned earlier. I had little understanding of the Old Testament Scriptures, even though I had read parts of it – And was ready to defend my faith against who I believed to be “Judaizers” with comments such as “We don’t need to keep God’s Law. If we do, then we need to stone people”. So enough about me – on to the question in hand!
When God led the Children of Israel out of Egypt and gave them His Law, many commandments were set forth. There were commandments for land owners, men, women, soldiers, fathers, levites, aaronic priests, judges, witnesses, etc. – much like the laws that govern us in our own respective countries. Many countries have laws, that if broken can lead to capital punishment. This was the case with God’s Law. There were certain acts which were punishable by death – according to God’s Law. And it involved stoning as an act of putting fear in the Godless.
Can anyone stone a sinner?
Imagine a land which is run on a law that specifies that anyone can give the lethal injection to a person accused of murder or adultery. No trial? No judge? No witnesses? Immediate punishment! What sort of land would that be? But this is exactly how Christianity views the Land of Israel under God’s Law in the time before Christ. Barbaric. It is such a pity that we have been taught to view God’s Law which was called liberty by David(Psa 119:45) & James(Jas 1:25), in such a way. The critical question which needs to be asked is “can anyone stone a sinner?”. And as we will see below, similar to the Law of the secular world, God’s Law (when it came to public matters) was to be put to effect through a system of Law.
The making of a ‘system of Law’
When God led His people out of Egypt, at the helm was Moses. He was the only judge at that time, and did his duties from morning to evening (Exo 18:13). It was his duty to enact fair judgement according to God’s Law and statutes (Exo 18:16). Heeding the advice of his father-in-law, Moses chose God-fearing men of truth, and appointed them rulers of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens – teaching them God’s ordinances and Laws (Exo 18:19-21). These rulers were to judge the people under them, and bring any case which was hard for them to resolve, unto Moses (Exo 18:22). Moses in turn would bring any matter he was unsure about before God for resolution(Exo 18:23, Lev 24:12). This was the system of Law at the time – the god fearing rulers/judges would try the easy cases while bringing hard ones to Moses – the head judge, who in turn went to God, when he was unsure of a matter(Exo 18:26). God was supreme ruler and judge of the children of Israel at the time.
After Moses, the mantle of judge passed onto Joshua (Deut 31:14,23) and then to the judges mentioned in the book of judges(Judg 2:16-18) until the time of Samuel, when God gave the people a king at their request. From Saul onward, the kings acted as the head judge – to whom all hard cases were brought to(1King 3:16-28). This system established at the time of Moses was to continue(Deut 16:18) with the help of the priests according to God’s own command (Deut 17:8-12), and was even in effect after the return from the Babylonian exile(Ezr 7:25, 10:14).
The office of the judge
In the book of Deuteronomy, we see Moses recollecting the event where the judges were selected(Exo 18:13-26) with some more detail. In it, he makes an important statement (highlighted in bold with underlining for emphasis)
Deu 1:12-18 How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife? Take you wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you. And ye answered me, and said, The thing which thou hast spoken is good for us to do. So I took the chief of your tribes, wise men, and known, and made them heads over you, captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, and captains over fifties, and captains over tens, and officers among your tribes. And I charged your judges at that time, saying, Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between every man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him. Ye shall not respect persons in judgment; but ye shall hear the small as well as the great; ye shall not be afraid of the face of man; for the judgment is God’s: and the cause that is too hard for you, bring it unto me, and I will hear it. And I commanded you at that time all the things which ye should do.
Moses clearly states that the judges should judge righteously, for the judgement would come from God, if they acted/judged according to God’s Word/Law. This same idea is echoed again in 2Chr 19:6. The fact is that judges were to dispense the Law, when it came to public cases. We see this abundantly in the Scriptures – a few examples follow:
Exo 21:22 If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.
Exo 22:8 If the thief be not found, then the master of the house shall be brought unto the judges, to see whether he have put his hand unto his neighbour’s goods.
Exo 22:9 For all manner of trespass, whether it be for ox, for ass, for sheep, for raiment, or for any manner of lost thing, which another challengeth to be his, the cause of both parties shall come before the judges; and whom the judges shall condemn, he shall pay double unto his neighbour.
Deu 19:17,18 Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days; And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother;
The judge who dispenses sentences according to God’s Law needs to be a properly appointed God fearing, righteous person with a thorough knowledge of the Law. Every person could not act as a judge, as it was a position of authority presented to a person, similar to the appointment of a King.
The calling of Witnesses
A judge could not simply put someone to death without hearing a case against him/her. There had to be witnesses called forth, especially in the case of capital punishment. NO ONE COULD BE PUT TO DEATH WITHOUT HEARING 2 TO 3 WITNESSES.
Num 35:30 Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die.
Deu 17:6 At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.
Deu 19:15 One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.
Not only was a judge to hear the case with adequate evidence before putting someone to death, the witnesses had to cast the first stone, when it came to punishment.
Deu 17:7 The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you.
Following proper procedure
Each case was to be judged according to God’s Law – and proper procedure was to be followed for each case. For example, in the case of adultery, both the man and woman had to be punished (Deut 22:22, Lev 20:10) – the case would be heard with 2 to 3 witnesses present, and if found guilty by the judge, both of them would be stoned. If the man had forced himself on the woman, the man would be stoned, while the woman was set free. If the woman was not betrothed or married to another, the man would have to marry her and not be permitted to divorce her till his death. (Deut 22:23-29). Without adequate witnesses or following of proper procedure, the Judge would not be able to give a proper sentence.
With the above information in hand, we can see that stoning or any other punishment could not have been dispensed without the use of the proper authorities. According to God’s Law, the common man could not take any action against a sinner without the judge and proper witnesses. Two to three witnesses needed to provide testimony for a judge to dispense proper justice. Anything outside these boundaries would have been “vigilantism”, which was not approved by God. No person could take the Law unto his/her own hand, much like the law of the secular world today. Just like we cannot give a ticket to a drunk driver or put a murderer on the electric chair, God’s Law did not allow everyone to judge & punish the guilty.
Why did Christ let the woman accused of adultery go free?
Many Christians believe that Yeshua(real name of Jesus) reinterpreted or changed God’s Law against adultery, when he let the woman accused of adultery go free. Let us review the words in John 8:2-11.
And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them. And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
A few important facts to point out:
1. The pharisees say that the woman was taken in the act of adultery – but the man with whom the act of adultery was committed is not present (both man and woman should be produced before the judge for proper sentencing – Deut 22:22/Lev 20:10)
2. They point to God’s Law given through Moses, and the connected punishment of death by stoning, as part of punishment for adultery – even though without a proper hearing it cannot be determined what action should be taken (the woman would be stoned if it was consensual along with the man/ the woman would be set free, while the man was stoned if she was forced upon / the woman would be given in marriage to the man with no ability of divorce if she is not betrothed to anyone – Deut 22:23-29)
3. Yeshua asked the one without sin to cast the first stone (the one who is familiar with God’s Law would have known that the person to cast the first stone needed to be the witnesses – Deut 17:7) – in light of this, whether any real witnesses were present would have been questionable, and even if they were present, the fact that they were sinful as much as the woman, made it impossible for them to judge anyone.
4. Yeshua asks whether no one passed sentence on the woman, and tells her that neither will He – to go and sin no more (The fact is that Yeshua was not an appointed judge who could carry out a death sentence, let alone punish anyone. He even denies to being any kind of judge in Luk 12:14. This was not the court, the partner who should be accused alongside the woman was missing and whether there were any real witnesses is questionable. It is important to highlight that the Pharisees and Scribes could not put anyone to death under Roman rule anyway, as it was prohibited by Roman Law(Joh 18:31) – this would have been why this situation was used as a way of finding fault with Christ. If Yeshua said “no”, He would have gone against God’s Law. If He said “yes”, He would have gone against Roman Law. Just as with the case of “paying taxes to Rome”, in this situation He showcased God’s Wisdom, in unraveling the plot and silencing the hecklers while putting them to shame by their own acts.
Stoning the guilty, much like the rest of God’s Law, is misunderstood by most. While this specific part is used to make God’s Law look ancient, impractical and even barbaric – it must be noted that dispensing of God’s Law when it came to a public matter, was not open for everyone. People could not stone each other haphazardly for every accusation. There was a system in place for this purpose with witnesses providing testimony and judges determining the verdict – all done according to specifics pointed out in God’s Law. If we stoned someone outside these instructions, our actions would go against God’s Law. For example, Stephen was stoned against God’s Law, as they produced false witnesses(Acts 6:11-14) against him and stoned him without a proper trial or verdict (Acts Chapter 7). While there were many such instances of kangaroo courts, mob attacks & vigilantism – none of it is in accordance to God’s Law, which systematically produces righteous judgement and unbiased punishment. Let us be thankful that Christ has taken on Himself the punishment for sins, which we should be stoned for, and have granted us to live a life full of Grace through walking in His ways/Words/Laws.
Could anyone in Old Testament times, take “an eye for an eye”?
Is God’s Law a curse?
Defining the terms Sin, Law & Grace