Why does God order capital punishment for certain sins?
Leviticus 20 has a list of sins and their punishments; almost all of them have a resounding theme: death.
However, if you look back throughout earlier passages in Leviticus, you’ll find detailed descriptions for sacrifices that atoned for different sins (Leviticus 4-6:7). So, my biggest question was this: why were the sins in Leviticus 20 deserving of death while other sins could be paid for through sacrifice? Why were there no second chances for these sins? (Not that we deserve second chances for sin—but still, what made these situations any different?)
I went back to look at the instructions for sin and guilt offerings, and noticed that they were all for unintentional sin. For example, the sin offering instructions in Leviticus 4 is prefaced by:
“When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands…”
This makes the assumption that the people this applies to are attempting to follow God. When they realize their guilt, they can make an atonement for their sin.
Now, let’s take a quick look at the sins referenced in Leviticus 20.
Anyone who curses their parents
Anyone who sacrifices their children to gods
Anyone who is a medium/spiritist
Anyone who follows a medium/spiritist
Anyone who practices sexual immorality (adultery, incest, bestiality and gay sex)
I think it’s helpful—for me anyway—to temporarily look beyond the death punishment and focus instead on what these sins say about the decisions and hearts of the people committing them.
What common thread ties these sins together?
Well, they all indicate a decision to disregard God’s view or the value he places on certain things.
Cursing parents shows deep disrespect for the very ones who brought you life, through God’s power. Parents are intended to represent the Lord’s relationship with us; directly dishonouring and wishing evil on them seems akin to rejecting God’s good gift of life.
Sacrificing children to another god devalues human life; it also indicates extreme worship of something other than the one true God, because no one in their right mind would kill their child for a power they didn’t believe was real.
Being a medium or following one means distrusting God and hanging on false hope, believing it to have more power than God.
Having sex outside of the Lord's intent hurts our souls and can damage our bodies as well. It takes a beautiful image of God’s tenderness and union with us and twists it.
Let’s stop here for a moment.
Before I move on, I want to talk about sex, since most of the sins listed here are sexual ones. To me, this fact alone says a lot about how highly God views sex and wants it to be protected.
Why? Well, because doing so is deeply and fundamentally in our best interest.
Here’s a quote that has stayed with me ever since I read it. Sean McDowell, in a public discussion with Matthew Vines, describes what the world would be like if everyone lived according to what Jesus taught about sex and marriage:
“There would be no sexually transmitted diseases. No abortions. No brokenness from divorce. Every child would have a mother and a father and experience the love and acceptance each parent uniquely offers. There would be no rape, no sex abuse, no sex trafficking, pornography, and no need for a #MeToo campaign. Think of the healing and wholeness if people simply lived Jesus’s life-giving words regarding human sexuality.”
Sexual sin is rebellion against God that involves both soul and body. I think that is why Satan uses it to screw us over so often—the consequences can be devastating.
To understand why it's a big deal, this video gives a brief but powerful description of what sex means in the Christian context.
I know there is so much more I could say on sex. Sexuality is complicated and has been deeply misrepresented by both our culture and by the Church. I don’t say this lightly or callously. I will certainly write more on this issue, because I deeply believe that we keep settling for so much less than what God wants to offer us when it comes to sex.
But for now, let’s go back to the common theme of all the sins in Leviticus 20.
Ultimately, each of them represents a decision to distrust and ignore God, choosing our will as better than his. It is intentional rebellion.
All the Israelites were given God’s law. So, if any of them chose to disobey that law, they chose to rebel against the Lord; what’s more, they were fully aware they were doing so, and thus have condemned themselves anyway.
I know that sounds severe. But, I have also pursued sins I didn't want to give up. I cannot do that and say I’m a follower of Christ at the same time. I know the difference between disregarding God’s law and choosing to actually stop in my tracks, ask for forgiveness and actively pursue his will instead of the sin I want.
Early on, God established for the Israelites how important it is to love and follow him sincerely. The call to Christians today is exactly the same. Christ died so that even willful sin can be forgiven. But we are still called to give up our own ways and pursue holiness.
Honestly, I still find passages like this hard to read; I still don't fully understand them, or the greater picture of what God is doing here. There is certainly a lot of death in the narration of the Israelite wanderings in the desert.
But, I think the clear distinction I've made in looking at this more closely is that people don’t accidentally commit a sin for which they are condemned to death.
Moreover, none of the things listed in Leviticus 20 will fulfill us or give us joy. That is the point, and the very reason why God doesn’t want us to do them.
God’s law is not meant to restrict us so much as invite us to live the way he designed us to live from the start.
If you want to dig deeper, this article goes more in-depth into the context surrounding this topic.