Nazarene Space

Stoning and The Death Penalty Explained from a Netsarim Perspective (Part One)

People in Heavenly Houses Throwing Stones

An Examination of Capital Punishment in the TaNaK and Brit Chadashah from a Netsarim Perspective

The Biblical command to stone someone to death is an unsettling subject and one that usually gets side-stepped or taught as being ‘done away with’ in many modern congregations who embrace Yahshua as their Moshiach. Before discussing this subject it is imperative to establish that the Torah, completely fitted out with all its punishments (Capital or otherwise) contains the most humane laws that have ever and will ever exist in the entire universe. No matter how unsettling a passage may read, a student must always keep in mind that the Torah has his best interests at heart. Murky matters in the Torah are there to instil the fear of Elohim thereby allowing a serious student to comprehend the beginning of true wisdom. Blessed is the one who reads the Torah and shudders.

Stoning as a Punishment for the Caster

יהוה fully intended the laws of capital punishment to be viewed as extremely unsettling and repulsive. Furthermore, their institution (in many instances) was intended as a punishment for both the executioners and the condemned. How so?

Consider יהוה’s decree that the entire community take part in stoning[1] one who blasphemes the Name in Leviticus 24:13-14,16; “Then יהוה said to Moshe, Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone himThe entire assembly must stone him. Whether an alien or native-born, when he blasphemes the Name, he must be put to death. If an Israelite is found guilty of a law that warrants the death penalty it exposes an unprecedented low spiritual condition inherent in all the Children of Israel. In other words, how could one individual be neglected for so long to stoop to such a low level to physically commit a sin that is punishable by death in the midst of such an anointed gathering? Take for example the sin of Achan in the time of Joshua. In the following passages keep in mind that only Achan sinned, yet notice how יהוה includes all Israel. (First read the underlined passages only, then the excerpts of the episode and if time permits read the whole encounter in your own time.) Joshua 7:1, 11, 20, 25; But the Israelites acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Carmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So יהוה’s anger burned against IsraelIsrael has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions…Achan replied, "It is true! I have sinned against יהוה, the Elohim of Israel. This is what I have done…Joshua said, "Why have you brought this trouble on us? יהוה will bring trouble on you today." Then all Israel stoned him…” Israel as a whole was held accountable for one sinner. The same was true with the worship of the Golden Calf. יהוה was willing to destroy everyone, yet Moshe’s intercession managed to route out the chief offenders. Still, the stain of the sin remained and the Tabernacle was required to give Israel a physical focal-point to concentrate their devotion as a perpetual remedy for this great transgression. Many rabbinical commentators cite the Tabernacle and Temple construction as being a necessary countermeasure to the Golden Calf. However, this is not to say that these structures were instituted as crisis measures, because יהוה has never and will never revert to ‘a plan B’ option. This is known as ‘Crisis Theology’ and is a heretical teaching unfounded in Scripture. All Elohim’s actions have been planned from before creation.

Whenever there is a period in Israel’s history where its citizens are being formerly executed it is to be considered as a time of great upheaval. This is why, “According to the Mishnah (tractate Makkoth 1:11) a court [of Israel] that administers capital punishment more than once every seventy years is called a ‘murderous court.’”

Though laws for the death penalty are very numerous in the Torah, it is only so to underscore the severity of certain sins. The laws that institute stoning are very specific and this is why it is very uncommon throughout the rest of Scripture. Whenever it almost happens or does happen, it is considered a very dark and difficult period in Israel’s history. Major upheavals or purges if you will, were usually accompanied with acts of stoning.

Yahshua and Capital Punishment

According to Torah the standards of proof required for application of the death penalty are extremely stringent (Babylonian Talmud Makkoth 7b). Because the standards of proof were so high, it was virtually impossible to inflict capital punishment. Rebbe Yahshua plainly demonstrates this stringency in his encounter with the adulterous woman and her accusers. Sadly, this episode is comely used as proof text of his annulling of capital punishment, yet in actuality it is proof text of his endorsement of it. Here’s the encounter according to John 8:1-11; “At dawn, he (Yahshua) appeared again in the Temple court, and all the people gathered around him; and he sat down to teach them. The scribes and Pharisees brought to him a woman taken in adultery and they made her stand in the centre of the group. Then they said to him, ‘Master, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now the law of Moshe commanded that such should be stoned: but what do you say?’ They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Yahshua bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger as though he didn’t hear them. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said to 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 and ending with the youngest: and Yahshua was left alone, and the woman standing in the centre. When Yahshua lifted himself up, he saw none but the woman, and he said to her, ‘Woman, where are your accusers? Has no man condemned you? She said, No Master. And Yahshua said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you: go, and sin no more.’”

According to Torah a woman caught in the act of adultery had to be seen by at least two or three adult Torah abiding men who knew both the oral and written commandments and had legitimate professions. Deuteronomy 19:15 “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.” The practitioner of the act and the witnesses had to both clearly see one another. The witnesses had to clearly warn the subject of the act within seconds of the performance of the sin. The witnesses had to be able to speak clearly and not posses any speech impediment or hearing deficiency. A response to the warning had to be clearly received in case the subject had not clearly heard the warning. The practitioner had to respond that they were familiar with the penalty of capital punishment, but they intended to sin anyway. This ruling is what enabled the zealot Pinchas to launch himself unannounced with a spear at the two fornicators Zimri and Cozbi. Zimri, being a prince of the tribe of Simeon, clearly knew the penalty and committed the sin as a public act of defiance against the Torah rather than to fulfill lustful desire alone. After the spear impaled them they were pinned in such a way that their act was plainly visible to whoever entered the tent fulfilling the command to be caught in the act. The Midrash enumerates between six and twelve miracles that occurred during Pinchas’ assault that enabled the outcome to fit all the requirements of the Torah whilst having the appearance of being carried out hastily. In all cases of sexual transgression a Beth Din (House of Judgment) consisting of at least 23 judges had to be present. Here again we see another requirement with well beyond 23 qualified judges present during the incident with Pinchas, though the order of some requirements came after the fact. Normally during the judgment a split verdict of 13 to 11 could only bring about a conviction. If the Beth Din arrived at a unanimous verdict of guilty the accused would be spared, because the idea that nothing positive could be raised about the accused exposed a deficiency in the court’s condition. Furthermore, the accused female is to undergo the ritual of the bitter cup according to Numbers 5:27-8; “And when he has made her drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she is defiled and has done trespass against her husband, that the mayim that causes the curse shall enter into her, and becomes bitter, and her belly shall swell and her thigh shall rot; and the woman shall be a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is pure, she shall be free and shall conceive seed.” Cosbi, being a foreigner and publicly forecasting her intentions, added an additional level to the transgression and was thus exempt from the bitter cup. Normally after the ritual of the bitter cup, if the accused was found guilty, the witnesses were appointed by the court to carry out the stoning.

So, as can be seen, it was next to impossible to convict someone of a capital offense according to Torah. Not surprisingly, it was virtually impossible to have someone stoned. However, Elohim was acutely aware of this fact and therefore allowed all such conditions to be met on rare occasions so that Israel wouldn’t get too complacent and think that such a punishment would never be handed down.

In Yahshua’s encounter we are told that the woman’s accusers had fled, having witnessed Yahshua writing their own sins (from the oldest to the youngest) in the dust according to Jeremiah 17:13 “O יהוה, the immersion of Israel, all that forsake You shall be ashamed; and they that depart from Me shall be written in the dust…” Yahshua then asks the woman, “Where are your accusers?” She responds by saying, “There are none Adonai (master).” According to the Torah of Moshe a woman cannot be stoned for adultery without witnesses. So this encounter, apart from the “He who is without sin, cast the first stone’ teaching, shows Yahshua’s strict adherence to Torah.

In addition, the requirement for an accuser to be without sin adds to the confusion, because of the teaching, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of Elohim” (Romans 3:23). However, if the prevailing interpretation that no one can ever cast a stone because all have sinned were true, no Israelite from any generation would ever have been allowed to cast a stone.

The answer is that a condition of sinlessness was arrived at constantly be an Israelite through frequent prayer, repentance, water immersion, good deeds, and Torah study. Upon receiving the Nefesh HaShamayom (the Birth from Above) aka being “Born Again,” an Israelite is in a renewed spiritual condition and is cleansed from all his past transgressions. If an Israelite is frequently asking and working toward returning to a purified state, he is eligible to carry out Capital Punishment. However, if he has not sought sufficient teshuva (return) daily he is not eligible to stand as an accuser and should step down. In other words being “Born Again” was never a one off action, it was constantly sought and received by Torah observers (sometimes as frequently as several times in one hour). So at any given time an Israelite my be in a state of sin, but at any given time he may also be in a freshly cleansed state, having no past sins attributable to him in his current state. Therefore, in addition to there being no witnesses, the accusers of The Adulteress Woman were neglectful of their own sins and ineligible to carry out a stoning. Rebbe Yahshua successfully had them depart the scene via an insight from Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) into each man’s sin. Otherwise they would have remained, denying that they had unrepentant sin in their lives.

The Deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in the New Testament

Perhaps one of the most solid pieces of evidence that exist for Capital Punishment in the Brit Chadashah is the case of Ananias and Sapphira, a wealthy couple who had pledged a sum of money for the sale of their property to the Netsarim community.

Acts:5:1-10: But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife's full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles' feet. But Kepha said, ‘Ananias, why has HaSatan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to Elohim.’ And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came over all who heard of it. The young men got up and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him. Now there elapsed an interval of about three hours, and his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Kepha responded to her, ‘Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ Then Kepha said to her, ‘Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Ruach of Elohim to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out as well.’ And immediately she fell at his feet and breathed her last, and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things.”

The Levite Barnabas who was one of the first Jerusalem converts to the Netsarim sect of the faith selflessly sold a plot of land in Cyprus and gave the proceeds to the Shluchim (Apostles). Barnabas was originally known as Joseph, but after his generous donation he was known as bar na, which means ‘son of consolation.’ This offering was very well received and it was the esteem this generated, which caught the attention of Anania’s and his wife. In secret this couple conspired to sell their estate and donate the proceeds to the congregation yet keep some of the money for themselves. In doing this they hoped to gain the same level of recognition as Barnabas and at the same time secretly retain independent wealth. This deed aligned with Helel Ben-Shachar’s (HaSatan’s) initial order of action in what later led to an attempted coup on the heavenly realms. He began misdirecting incoming praise and accumulated his own resources to gain additional wealth. Overtime he began to feel confident enough with what he had amassed to challenge Elohim Himself. The sin of Korah also has relevance here as he was one of the wealthiest Israelites to come out of Egypt and it was his love of wealth and influence that eventually led to his downfall. 1 Timothy 6:10; “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

Did Ananias and Sapphira Deserve Instant Death?

"When everything depends on just one tiny lie, we forget that in order to correct one lie, seven others have to be told." (Shevat Yehudah)

The hurdle that some have with the incident of Ananias and Sapphira is the degree of punishment they received – instant death. The key to understanding the extreme nature of Ananias and Sapphira’s punishment lies in the deeper Torah teaching that lying is worse than murder. Lying can set an ongoing false pretext that can rob and kill thousands of generations of people and ultimately deny them a place in the World to Come. The fate of Ananias and Sapphira was no different to that of Achan’s. However, Achan’s sin had lingered within the community for some time, whereas Ananias and Sapphira’s sin was dealt with at a much earlier stage. Achan’s eventual confession brought him a moment of time to repent, but Ananias and Sapphira who chose to lie after being questioned, had no such opportunity and died immediately after Kepha spoke.

Capital Punishment in a Perfect Spiritual Climate

It is important to bear in mind that Capital Punishment cannot be handed down within any community of Israel in the Diaspora or in the Land without a fully functional Torah observant Sanhedrin. Only when the climate is such that the community is depending on Elohim for all its needs (as was the case in the wilderness), or with a council who truly fears heaven can the death penalty be enacted. In the case of the Adulterous Woman we find that though a Temple and Sanhedrin functioned, the spiritual condition of her accusers was inadequate to affect the strictest degrees of judgment in the Torah. A decree that will cause a normally irreversible state, such as death, can only be executed by the most impeccably stringent Torah abiding court, totally saturated with a unified devotion to Torah.

When a Torah observant community pleases Elohim, causes His presence to dwell with it, the eligibility of enforcing Capital Punishment returns to its charge. Normally the majority of the community is not fixated on this fact, because in such a high spiritual state sin is considered the same as drinking an instantly fatal poison.

Occasionally an individual or group of individuals rebel, but to do this in such a spiritually supportive environment takes extreme effort and is hardly a haphazard decision. Consider the fate of the one collecting wood on the Sabbath in the wilderness. Numbers 15:32-37; “While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moshe and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then יהוה said to Moshe, ‘The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.’ So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as יהוה commanded Moshe.” This man would have certainly known what was constituted as work and what the consequences of engaging in it would bring. The quandary over what should have been done to him was not over whether he should be put to death, but in what manner. Exodus 31:15; “For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to יהוה. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death.” The stoning of the wood collector is another Achan scenario, with the whole community commanded to partake in the stoning. As discussed earlier, this would have also been a punishment on the whole community, because a single individual somehow thought it advantageous to do the equivalent of drinking instantly fatal poison.

The Dangers of Being Glad that No Death Penalty Can be Enforced

While the death penalty cannot be instituted in this current climate it is extremely important to remove any notion of feeling less fearful of committing relevent sins due to Capital Punishment’s absence. Rather, an Israelite who considers flirting with grave sins is to have the mindset that this law is always present, so that when such a climate is restored he will be able to avoid such a judgment.

What We Overlooked About the Stoning of Stephen

Acts 7:57-58; “At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him (Stephenos), dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Sha’ul.” The stoning of Stephen is an interesting case because it is an example of an unjust execution of the law of Capital Punishment. In addition it is noteworthy that it took place when Yakov HaZaddik (James the Just), Yahshua’s brother, was in office in the Sanhedrin. This fact is not often observed by many Netsarim who study the Scripture today. Some of those who have studied this have also observed that Yakov’s eventual martyrdom was a result of failing to come to Stephen’s defence.

Josephus wrote that the Sanhedrin, under the instigation of Hanan ben Hanan, put Yakov HaZaddik to death by stoning.

It has also been observed that Stephen’s Hellenistic appearance was a needless contributing factor in getting him killed. While Stephen’s martyrdom was not lawful, the recording of the episode leaves an extra bitterness in the mouth of most Netsarim readers toward the act of stoning because here one of their own is being ‘picked off’ so to speak. But this incident should never be cited as a case for Capital Punishment’s abolishment anymore than a case for nullifying a judicial system just because wrong people may be punished from time to time.

End of Part One

[1] Also known as lapidation.

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