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The cherem principle (biblical law and the death penalties)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016 6:15
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The Bounds of Love: An Introduction to God’s Law of Liberty

Master Table of Contents

The principle of cherem (KHE-rum) is perhaps the most significant aspect of discontinuity for our discussion. It is here, precisely, where general statements about continuity lead to many raised eyebrows: do you mean all those death penalties would be brought back? For blasphemy? For apostasy? For idolatry? For adultery? Ironically, even our best past authors have provided little direct discussion of modern application of these penalties, so this section of this book may in fact be its most important contribution.

Cherem means “devoted” in the sense of devoted wholly unto the Lord. In the instances most relevant to our discussion, it means specially devoted to destruction. To be devoted unto the Lord in this sense means to be separated from holiness of the Holy Land and immediately into God’s holy presence for judgment. This can refer to objects such as animals being devoted to the Lord for sacrifice and given to the priests as their food and inheritance, but even here the devoted animal was to be sacrificed. This means its purpose was primarily as a substitutionary recipient of God’s wrath. When in the context of a punishment for a crime against God’s holiness (idolatry, paganism, etc.), it meant to be put under the curse of immediate death. For this reason, cherem is often referred to as “the ban” or, in its verb form, as a command to “utterly destroy” or “devote to destruction” the person or objects.

Cherem is peculiar to the Old Testament administration because it functioned only in the context where God’s presence was in the physical temple/tabernacle, in the altar fire, the land itself was holy and was an agent of sanctions, and the inheritance of God’s covenant promises was through blood descent and external possession of the Holy Land. As we have seen, all of these realties have been drastically altered by the New Testament economy. The civil penalties based upon the cherem principle must be considered in this light as well.

First, where in the Old Testament do we see this cherem principle? It appears first in Exodus 22:20, although its meaning and importance are made clearer in later verses. This first instance says, “Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the Lord alone, shall be devoted to destruction.” Here the penalty of devotion to destruction [cherem] is applied to false worship. Deuteronomy elaborates on this particular crime:

If there is found among you, within any of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, in transgressing his covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, and it is told you and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abomination has been done in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones (Deut. 17:2–5).

If applied in New Covenant times, this law would seem to require the death penalty for merely leaving the Christian faith. A simple apostate would, under strict application of this passage, be required to die at the hands of the State. There can be no doubt this is what it meant for Old Testament Israel. Does it still abide today? We will see in a moment.

Also subject to the direct judgment as cherem were the original Canaanite tribes who were to be purged from the land. God invokes the term cherem when describing both the people and their idols (Deut. 7:2, 26) that should be utterly destroyed. He reiterates this special devotion to destruction in the laws of warfare (Deut. 20:16–18). This inclusion is very helpful specifically because it was special and not normal even for Old Testament Israel. In ordinary warfare, rules for seeking peace, allowing tribute taxes, and protecting innocents apply. But in the Canaanite cities “devoted to complete destruction,” nothing and no one was to be spared. This distinction in the Mosaic law itself shows that there was a special case already operative, and temporary, for those special commands that God applied under the cherem principle: some laws were just based upon the eye-for-an-eye rule (as we shall see); others were just based upon God’s immediate judgment under cherem.

There are other instances of cherem that illustrate its distinctiveness even more clearly. Numbers 21:1–3 relates how God answered the Israelites’ prayer to place Arad, a Canaanite king, under cherem.

And the LORD heeded the voice of Israel and gave over the Canaanites, and they devoted them and their cities to destruction. So the name of the place was called Hormah.

Hormah is derived from the word cherem and thus means “devoted.” In other words, the Israelites named this conquered territory after the principle itself. It was a memorial to God’s curse upon the Canaanites and the victory wrought thereby.

Similar stories are related concerning Sihon King of Heshbon (Deut. 2:30–34) and Og King of Bashan (Deut. 3:1–6). Both instances were not normal warfare, but rather warfare against peoples who were devoted specially to destruction before the Lord. Another instance appears in the destruction of Jericho. The city and all its property were dedicated to the Lord for cherem destruction. Achan violated cherem property and Israel suffering defeat for this (Josh. 7). Achan was ritually executed for his offense. Also, Saul’s failure came in response to a special application of cherem by God upon the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15). In each case, there was a special (not normal) application of the death penalty to unbelievers or apostates.

Another important instance of cherem is found in Deuteronomy 13. This case describes the destruction of even a Hebrew city that is nevertheless led away by faithlessness or apostasy. Shall a whole city be destroyed in modern times if it follows ungodly leaders and departs from the faith?

This instance is helpful in that it further clarifies the nature of cherem “devotion.” In this case, in Old Testament Israel, a city had been led away by either false prophets or false worship (see Deut. 13:1–17). In such a case, the whole city was to be devoted and destroyed, including all the property within it. All the property was to be burned specifically “as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God” (13:16). This detail is crucial. The “whole burnt offering” is a reference to the ordinary substitutionary sacrifice for atonement (Lev. 1:9, 13, 17). When that society had rejected the true God, however, and started to worship false gods, there remained no substitutionary sacrifice for them. The penalty that would normally fall upon the substitutionary sacrifice would now fall upon them. They themselves were therefore devoted to destruction: destroyed and burned for their apostasy.

Cherem in the New Testament

This principle is obviously continued in the New Testament, but with the change in temple, priesthood, and land administration comes a transfer of the seat of judgment from the earthly land to the heavenly throne of Christ. God’s consuming fire is no longer on earth in an altar. It was removed. Thus, the same principle of apostasy can be declared in the New Testament, but the sanction is no longer by earthly civil government, it is from the throne of Christ. In light of the change from shadow to substance (Heb. 10:1), the book of Hebrews makes this change fairly clear:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? (Heb. 10:26–29).

Keep in mind, the author was writing to Hebrews about the change from Old Covenant to New Covenant under Christ. The issue here would have been mass apostasy. The Hebrews who remained in unbelief after Christ would have been committing idolatry (false temple worship) and apostasy (denial that Christ had come in the flesh). Under the Mosaic administration, they would have been devoted to destruction (Ex. 22:20; Deut. 13; 17:2–5) by the civil government. The author of Hebrews acknowledges this. Yet he does not prescribe a cherem death penalty administered by the civil government. He prescribes an even worse judgment that will come from the throne of grace. This judgment fell, in history, in God’s providence, in A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was utterly destroyed in the greatest demonstration of cherem devotion to destruction ever. This was carried out by God Himself in history, not by human civil governments (although Rome was used as God’s providential agent).

With the New Covenant, therefore, the cherem principle is entirely changed. Its locus of authority has been removed from earth to heaven. God no longer calls upon the civil government to carry out cherem penalties. He still carries them out by punishing societies for idolatry and apostasy, but He does so through Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

Why this change? The discontinuity encountered in regards to the cherem principle is directly related to the difference in nature of the Old Covenant compared to the New. Just read God’s basic description of the change:

For he finds fault with them when he says:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah,
not like the covenant that I made with their fathers
on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
For they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more”
(Heb. 8:8–12; cp. Jer. 31:31–34; Heb. 10:15–18).

The New Covenant is said specifically to be “not like” the Old. We know there are many differences already, but what is the fundamental difference in view here? The law continues, as we have noted already, but it is now written on the minds and hearts of God’s people, not merely on stones and books. It is that the New Covenant is administered by the Spirit, from heaven, not from the letter on earth. It is also marked by permanence: whereas the Israelites broke the Old Covenant and God cast them away for it, this New Covenant is wrought by God Himself in our hearts and cannot be broken. It is also marked by general forgiveness as opposed to the call for immediate cherem death.

Paul discusses the difference in precisely these terms:

And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory (2 Cor. 3:3–10).

This is hardly to say that the law in its entirety is brought to an end, but to show the difference in the nature of the two covenants and their administrations. The first was a ministry of the letter and death, the latter a ministry of the Spirit and life.

Finally, we see this difference manifested in how the New Testament applies the principle of cherem. We have already seen it transferred from earth to heaven in Hebrews 10:26–29. We see the same elsewhere as well. The word to look for is anathema. This is the Greek word used to translate the Hebrew word cherem in the Greek version of the Old Testament. Most of the passages we have covered use this word in the Greek version (Lev. 27:28; Num. 21:3; Deut. 7:28; 13:16; 20:17; Josh. 7). Where it appears in the New Testament, we should consider its equivalence. Sure enough, where it appears, it generally refers to religious sanction (Rom. 9:3; 1 Cor. 12:3; 16:22; Gal. 1:8–9). Consider these two examples that relate directly to the First Table of the law:

If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed [anathema] (1 Cor. 16:22).

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed [anathema]. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed [anathema] (Gal. 1:8–9).

It is clear that Paul is still applying the cherem/anathema principle in relation to First Table offenses, but the only sanction here is ecclesiastical. This in itself does not prove that the civil penalties no longer apply, but when taken together with the lessons from Hebrews, the change in the nature of administration of the covenants, and the transfer of temple/priesthood/land to Christ in heaven, it is illustrative.

Which laws does cherem cover?

It is my conclusion that civil governments no longer have authority to apply cherem punishments in the New Covenant. So, which laws does this cover? In general, these are all First Table offenses: false worship, apostasy, idolatry (Ex. 22:20; Deut. 13; 17:2–5). Further, there can no longer be any concept of holy war (Deut. 20:16–18), but the general laws of warfare abide.

The cherem principle indicates that certain other death penalties related to the First Table would also no longer apply. It would include laws relating directly to inheritance in the land, even when it crosses into family matters. This is why, for example, the death penalty was required for incorrigible sons (Deut. 21:18–21). (While not traditionally considered so, the Fifth Commandment is part of the First Table. It is a general principle but was also directly tied to inheritance in the land.) Under Old Testament law, a son would inherit the land by mandate, not by choice of the parents. A rebellious, incorrigible son was therefore a threat. His wicked influence and legacy was to be permanently purged “from your midst” (21:21). (Note that this law is not said to apply to daughters, who could be just as wicked and rebellious, and just as incorrigible, yet could inherit the land only in rare circumstances). While the word cherem is not used here, the principle is the same. The evil son was devoted to destruction to prevent the Holy Land and Holy people from being defiled. In the New Testament, the land/seed/inheritance principles are all superseded. While a general principle against incorrigibility in regard to crime may still stand, the need to execute rebellious sons in this way has passed away. In the New Covenant, the parents can by decision simply disinherit him, shun him, and leave him to God’s judgment.

The same would apply to the death penalty for an engaged woman discovered not to have been a virgin before her wedding. Such is not simply an extension of the laws against adultery. Her crime is said to be that of “whoring in her father’s house” (Deut. 22:21). Whoredom in general received no civil government sanction at all in Old Testament law. Simple prostitution had no penalty other than its own: social disgrace, lack of inheritance for her children, lack of male protection, and bastardy of whatever sons may be born. In this case, however, the daughter had presented herself as a representative of her father, and of the heirs of her future husband. Her whoredom could mean that a bastard would inherit the land. This was an abomination in Old Testament Israel because it profaned the seed and the land. The penalty here was like a cherem penalty, even though the word cherem is not invoked.

Cherem and stoning

One way it becomes clear that these First Table offenses and similar offenses are akin to, if not a part of, cherem law is by the prescribed method of execution: stoning. Popular banter about Old Testament law may lead you to think that stoning was prescribed frequently as the default death penalty and for a wide variety of offenses. Whatever the source of this impression, however, it is wrong. Sometimes the method of execution is prescribed: it could be stoning, fire, hanging, or the sword. But the majority of death penalties prescribe no particular form, only death. We cannot take this for granted, as if God was random in giving such specifications. We need to look and try to understand why some are specified as opposed to others, and more importantly, what is meant by the specified forms in their particular cases.

The cases specifying stoning are actually quite few:

  • Molech worship, including the sacrifice of infants (Lev. 20:2)
  • False worship or apostasy (Deut. 13:6–11; 17:5)
  • Spirit mediums (Lev. 20:27)
  • Blasphemy (Lev. 24:10–16, 23)
  • Sabbath-breaking (Num. 15:31–36)
  • Incorrigible rebellious sons (Deut. 21:18–21)
  • Engaged daughters committing whoredom in their father’s house (Deut. 22:20–21)
  • Fornication with an engaged daughter (Deut. 22:22–23).

In two other specific instances, the relationship between God’s holy presence and the punishment of stoning is made clearer. First, at Mt. Sinai, God set a boundary at the foot of the mountain and forbid anyone to touch it upon pain of death. The penalty: to be stoned with stones (Ex. 19:12–13). Secondly, for Achan’s violation of cherem property, God prescribed death by stoning (Josh. 7:25).

This is the full list of laws for which death by stoning is prescribed. All of them have one thing in common: they are exclusively First Table offenses, or are prescribed death because of an overlap of a First Table principle.

While few may not seem like First Table offenses, remember that the honor of parents is a First Table offense. Likewise, the treatment of daughters was directly tied to inheritance in the land, not to mention a keen image of spiritual adultery often used by God Himself (Jer. 3; Hos. 1; Rev. 17–18). The reason these instances receive death by stoning is because they partake of First Table principles. Other laws pertaining to sexuality do not necessarily receive the death penalty, let alone stoning, and some are not even punished by the civil government at all.

Why this connection between First Table offenses and stoning? Because of the basic redemptive promise of God: to crush the head of the serpent. The punishment of offenses against God Himself, therefore, was specially marked by crushing with stones—the crushing of the head by stones cut out without hands. Stoning was, therefore, a ceremonial aspect to the law. While there are judicial aspects of it that continue—such as the need for involvement in executions by the accusers themselves and by the community—stoning itself was symbolic and is no longer binding.

Thus, even when the word cherem is not included in the Old Testament passage, the presence of stoning as a punishment makes clear that the principle is in effect. Cherem and stoning penalties were reserved only for First Table offenses. Civil government no longer has jurisdiction over First Table offenses. These punishments, as regular mandatory punishments, are no longer in effect. Only in extreme or aggravated cases in which blasphemy or false worship aims to lead to revolution, sedition, terrorism, or treason would civil government intervention be appropriate.

Sex and Land/Seed Laws

We cannot stress enough how intricately God’s cherem presence was tied to the priestly, temple, land, separation, and inheritance laws. We have already seen how they were tied together with certain stoning penalties. There are other death penalties involved in such overlap as well. These include the death penalty for certain types of adultery (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22) as well as bestiality and homosexual sodomy.

It is easy to conclude that all such sexual sins resulted in the confusion or defilement of the seed, or the defilement of inheritances, and were thus assigned the death penalty on such grounds—not merely on the grounds of their nature as sexual sins. We can tell in each of these cases that the death penalty was invoked not because of the nature of the sin or crime itself, but because it occurred in overlap with these particular sacred boundaries in the Old Covenant administration.

First, this is clear in the fact that while there are numerous detailed instances of such defilements specified (see Lev. 18; 20 for just some examples), there are yet others which are conspicuously absent. Consider, for example, the references to adultery just mentioned. One case involves a married man sleeping with a married woman (Lev. 20:10). The other involves any man sleeping with a married woman (Deut. 22:22). Each could receive the death penalty. But what of a case between a married man and an unmarried woman? There is no mention of it, although the law regularly specifies when any particular law applies to a man, a woman, or both. The silence here is therefore evidence of a non-law. In fact, the law allowed for more than one wife, and in the case of the Levirate marriages (Deut. 25:5–6), a married man could be expected to go in unto his deceased brother’s wife and cohabit. This was not only not punishable by death, it was not even considered adultery. Why not? Because in that Old Testament administration, the seed laws and inheritance laws superseded sex and marriage law in terms of the importance to the purpose of that system.

We know, again, that the Mosaic Covenant was added to the promises of Abraham in order to ensure the promised seed would come about as promised (Gal. 3:19). This temporary addition was also tempered “because of transgressions” (3:19). Jesus makes it clear that divorce and remarriage is one area where such was the case:

And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark. 10:2–12; emphasis added).

Notice two things. Jesus says that the original creation mandate for marriage does not allow for divorce for [just] any [old] cause. Deuteronomy 24:1–5 allowed men to do this to wives because of hardness of heart. But this was obviously temporary. Divorce was only originally allowed due to fornication. Secondly, Jesus applies this principle to both wives and husbands. Both can now initiate a lawful divorce for lawful reasons.

Altogether this means that Jesus reinstated the original power of marriage. Divorce for any reason is now prohibited, but the right of divorce is now equal between men and women.

The ramifications of this are profound. It is clear now that marriage is no longer tied to the old seed laws and inheritance laws—those being abolished. The fact that only certain cases of adultery which violated those laws received the death penalty indicates that the reason was not because of the adultery itself, but because of the other violations. Further, the fact that the “adultery” of Polygamy or Levirate marriage was not punished by death shows the same principle. In the New Testament, however, the land/seed/inheritance rules are gone, and thus so are the death penalties in regard to sex and marriage that were bound to them. But the right of divorce for infidelity is expanded and equalized to include women—which is how it was originally designed. The changes were only for the Mosaic period which was added “because of transgressions.”

What about sodomy? First note that this was a male-only law as well (Lev. 18:22; 20:13). There was no civil law mentioning lesbian acts. Although surely a sin, it was no crime as was sodomy, and thus there was no penalty, let alone death. This alerts us again that something more than just the homosexual sin was in play. What is that issue? It pertained to the promised seed. There was no greater purpose for the Mosaic Covenant than to guard and protect the promise to Abraham until it came to pass. The most important part of this promise was, of course, the promised seed. In this light, the act of sodomy was not mere sexual perversion, not even merely the height of sexual perversion. It was open defiance of the natural use of sex through which the seed was promised. It was a defiance of the created order, but of God’s plan of redemption at that time. To engage in sodomy was therefore to deny Christ, and not only to deny him, but symbolically to attempt to prevent His coming. To engage in sodomy was, therefore, not just a sexual sin but an act of blasphemy. (The same argument can be made for Onan, who refused to perform the duty of Levirate marriage for Tamar—Gen. 38:8–10. The Lord punished Onan with death, and the reason for it was directly connected to refusing the seed.)

And what of bestiality? Unlike same-sex acts, this law specifically applied to both men and women (Ex. 22:19; Lev. 18:23; 20:15–16; Deut. 27:21), and both would receive the death penalty. Interestingly, however, the beast was also assigned the death penalty. This, again, suggests that there may be more being punished here than a mere sexual decision on the part of the person. What could this be? It seems to me that the same principle as with male sodomy is in play in either case. With a male zoophiliac, the parallel to a sodomite is clear enough. With a woman, the crime lies but in entertaining foreign, animal seed. This is as great a defiance of the promised Seed as the sodomite act, and thus was to commit blasphemy as well. (It is not surprising that bestaility was most commonly found in idolatrous rituals of Canaanite and other ancient religions.)

While all of these sexual sins—adultery, sodomy, and bestiality—remain abominable sins, with the coming of Christ and the abolition of the Old Covenant administration, they can no longer be said to be capital crimes. As revolting as any of them they may be, the reasons they were earlier given the death penalty was not merely sexual perversion, but for violating sacred boundaries that at the time were placed under the jurisdiction of the civil government. With these boundaries now removed, the civil government no longer has authority to impose death.

In light of this, I have revised my earlier published views that adultery and homosexual sodomy are punishable by the death penalty. There are still, however, sanctions that can be imposed. Divorce is obvious. This is covenantal death of family. It would also possibly have some economic ramifications that would be enforceable by the civil government. Covenantal death from the church would also apply: excommunication. I also do not see why local civil governments would not be warranted to punish flagrant cases with loss of citizenship or banishment.

Purchase The Bounds of Love.

Next section: Fulfilled and forever

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