Sunday, December 17, 2006

Religion: Genesis 9:6 and the Death Penalty

I don't have any study bibles at my disposal, only http://www.bible.cc/, so I'll quote the three commentary sources there on Genesis 9:6 which reads (RSV-CE): Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image. Here are the three commentaries (emphasis mine):

9:6 Whoso sheddeth man's blood, {f} by man shall his blood be shed: for in the {g} image of God made he man.

(f) Not only by the magistrate, but often God raises up one murderer to kill another.

(g) Therefore to kill man is to deface God's image, and so injury is not only done to man, but also to God.

9:6 Whoso sheddeth man's blood - Whether upon a sudden provocation, or premeditated, (for rash anger is heart - murder as well as malice prepense, Mt 5:21,22), by man shall his blood be shed - That is, by the magistrate, or whoever is appointed to be the avenger of blood. Before the flood, as it should seem by the story of Cain, God took the punishment of murder into his own hands; but now he committed this judgment to men, to masters of families at first, and afterwards to the heads of countries. For in the image of God made he man - Man is a creature dear to his Creator, and therefore ought to be so to us; God put honour upon him, let us not then put contempt upon him. Such remains of God's image are still even upon fallen man, that he who unjustly kills a man, defaceth the image of God, and doth dishonour to him.

9:4-7 The main reason of forbidding the eating of blood, doubtless was because the shedding of blood in sacrifices was to keep the worshippers in mind of the great atonement; yet it seems intended also to check cruelty, lest men, being used to shed and feed upon the blood of animals, should grow unfeeling to them, and be less shocked at the idea of shedding human blood. Man must not take away his own life. Our lives are God's, and we must only give them up when he pleases. If we in any way hasten our own death, we are accountable to God for it. When God requires the life of a man from him that took it away unjustly, the murderer cannot render that, and therefore must render his own instead. One time or other, in this world or in the next, God will discover murders, and punish those murders which are beyond man's power to punish. But there are those who are ministers of God to protect the innocent, by being a terror to evil-doers, and they must not bear the sword in vain, Ro 13:4. Wilful murder ought always to be punished with death. To this law there is a reason added. Such remains of God's image are still upon fallen man, that he who unjustly kills a man, defaces the image of God, and does dishonour to him.
And now my question. Do you see Genesis 9:6 as a decree from God -- that is, does it give us permission to avenge murder? Or is it rather God (or the author) recognizing man's desire to hold that sort of power over one another? What I mean is, how should one paraphrase it? "You shall repay a slain man's blood with the blood of his killer, for I have made you in My own image" or "For, since man is made in God's image, man will take it upon himself to repay slaughter with slaughter."

Is it a permission being granted us? Although vengeance is the Lord's (Romans 12:19), surely societies are required to impose punishments on criminals. But does that include the taking of life?

Or is it a sad commentary on man's usurping of God's authority for himself? This concept is found throughout the first chapters of Genesis. The serpent tells Eve that, upon eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she shall become like God (Genesis 3:5). Lamech (of Cain's lineage) decrees that whoever kills him will be met upon with great vengeance, assuming upon himself the power God owns (Genesis 4:24, cf. Genesis 3:15). The builders of the Tower of Babel seeked to unite themselves through a great city and a tower, lest they be spread across the earth (Genesis 11:3-4); although it was God's desire for them to fill the earth, not to cling together for fear of dispersion (Genesis 9:1). In light of this, Genesis 9:6 appears to be a statement of inevitability: man is made in God's image, but instead of aspiring to be like God in mercy and love and creativity (which God certainly wishes us to display), man will lust for that which God reserves for Himself: judgment, power over all life, and worship.

I open the floor. I'm curious to hear your thoughts and be pointed to any Bible Commentaries you might have access to.

9 comments:

Velcro said...

I've always thought the death penalty was wrong by principle. "Don't kill or we'll kill you."

How absurd is that?

And take into account the success rates for defendants with court appointed attorneys vs privately hired attorneys and the scales weigh heavily in favor of those who hire their own attorneys.

How is this justice?

Good post, way to make me think.

japhy said...

One way I've heard that Genesis 9:6 supports capital punishment is that it implies that, because humans are made in the image of God, when one human kills another (dishonoring God by destroying something in His image) that human must die, or else we're not standing up for the sanctity of being made in God's image.

Not that I agree with that, it's just an explanation I've heard.

Weekend Fisher said...

The U.S. justice system is messed up, no doubt. That's a separate question from whether capital punishment is ever right. In the Law of Moses (which we're not under), the capital offenses were considered to be the fault of the offender.

Playing devil's advocate here, what, now we say "Don't kidnap someone and hold them against their will or we'll kidnap you and hold you against your will"? Are we ready to get rid of prisons -- and arrest -- because of the similarities to kidnapping?

Justice means that turnabout is fair play. A kind of domino effect is a huge problem, even seeking justice. Mercy is higher than justice; failing to stop the evil is lower than justice. Tricky stuff.

Velcro said...

Great points all around. To a person who uses Genesis 9:6 to support their views, I would say that the Bible also encourages that adulterers & adultresses be publically stoned. Do we really want to go back to that primitivity?

So many Christians judge the Koran because it reads "Kill all the Infidels" yet they fail to see all the passages of Scripture in the OT that are harsh against the Insraelite offenders.

Great debate here, Japhy.

japhy said...

I'm not against punishment for crimes. Forgiveness and punishment are not mutually exclusive. I have no problem with life imprisonment; I don't see a need to ever repay murder with murder.

If one man kills another in cold blood, then he has indeed dishonored a man made in God's image. But shouldn't we honor that part of the murderer which he can never sully or lessen by keeping him alive -- by which I mean the fact that, no matter how evil that man is, he has been made in God's image?

Velcro said...

Japhy,
One of the many things I admire about the Catholic Church is their stance on the Consistent Ethic of Life. (I just typoed accidentally and almost left Lice in place of Life. Glad I caught it... Lol).

It's not consistent to be against abortion and for the death penalty.

I know we probably agree on these things...

Weekend Fisher said...

Aww, I gotta do another round of devil's advocate here though. I think I'll break it up to this one (side note on the Koran) and then devil's advocate on the ethic of life.

As a side note, on the Koran, the disturbing part is that in Islam there are not later revelations about mercy to show them a more excellent way. Christians aren't really in any danger of reverting to Moses because Jesus has come since. The Muslims, on the other hand, think that what Mohammed said in the Koran is the definition of morality, and that there is none higher than that. Not only was Mohammed far harsher than Moses (e.g. maim a thief rather than requiring repayment), but he hasn't been surpassed by one greater than him (in their eyes) either ...

Weekend Fisher said...

I just split the comments so they'd be one topic each. Back to devil's advocate on the consistent ethic of life.

<< It's not consistent to be against abortion and for the death penalty. >>

What if the ethic was "Don't take innocent life" or "don't take life without due process of law"? There are plenty of people who are against abortion but for the death penalty because the death penalty is exactly that, a penalty - it applies only to murderers and the babies aren't murderers. So I don't have any problem with people who would allow the death penalty but not abortion. I have a far harder time seeing how someone would allow abortion (taking an innocent life) but not the death penalty.

But the death penalty is *certainly* messed up in the U.S. I'd be glad to see the standards of proof made far stricter in death penalty cases; not merely "beyond a reasonable doubt" but "beyond any doubt" would be a bare minimum. (Which may be an argument for making standards of proof stricter all around, but it's most urgent in cases where someone's life is on the line.)

codepoke said...

The debate is over, but I see this verse as requiring that blood be spilled as justice for blood split.

When you kill a man, you separate him eternally from the world. No one can reach him now, nor can he reach anyone else to be of help or to bring joy. Every potential is ended. There is no way to repay for this. Almost everything else can be repaid. This cannot.

Justice demands death.

The issue is not deterence, either. It is justice. Justice rises several levels above punishment. Moses' standard (which, of course, was God's) repayment or death. When I hear of a thief repaying 7 times, I feel good about the world. When I hear about him jailed for 5 years, I do not. Caging is not good for anyone. But, that's just me.

As for abortion, where is the justice in abortion? How can abortion and the death penalty be spoken of in the same sentence? To steal an entire life, not to allow a single breath of a living being to be breathed, how can this be equated to justice for a murderer?

No equivalence.