Punishments, an article from Smith’s Bible Dictionary, taken from biblehub.com

Smith’s Bible Dictionary


The earliest theory of punishment current among mankind is doubtless the one of simple retaliation, “blood for blood.” Viewed historically, the first case of punishment for crime mentioned in Scripture, next to the Fall itself, is that of Cain, the first murderer. That death was regarded as the fitting punishment for murder appears plain from the remark of Lamech. (Genesis 4:24) In the post-diluvian code, if we may so call it, retribution by the hand of man, even in the case of an offending animal, for blood shed, is clearly laid dawn. (Genesis 9:5,6) Passing onward to Mosaic times, we find the sentence of capital punishment, in the case of murder, plainly laid down in the law. The murderer was to be put to death, even if he should have taken refuge at God’s altar or in a refuge city, and the same principle was to be carried out even in the case of an animal. Offences punished with death. — I. The following offences also are mentioned in the law as liable to the punishment of death:

  1. Striking, or even reviling, a parent. (Exodus 21:15,17)
  2. Blasphemy. (Leviticus 24:14,16,23)
  3. Sabbath-breaking. (Exodus 31:14; 35:2; Numbers 15:32-36)
  4. Witchcraft, and false pretension to prophecy. (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:27; 13:5; 18:20)
  5. Adultery. (Leviticus 20:10; 22:22)
  6. Unchastity. (Leviticus 21:9; 22:21,23)
  7. Rape. (22:25)
  8. Incestuous and unnatural connections. (Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 20:11,14,16)
  9. Manstealing. (Exodus 21:16; 24:7)
  10. Idolatry, actual or virtual, in any shape. (Leviticus 20:2; 13:8,10,15; 17:2-7) see Josh 7:1 … and Josh 22:20 and Numb 25:8
  11. False witness in certain cases. (19:16,19) II. But there is a large number of offences, some of them included in this list, which are named in the law as involving the,penalty of “cutting off from the people. On the meaning of this expression some controversy has arisen. There are altogether thirty six or thirty seven cases in the Pentateuch in which this formula is used. We may perhaps conclude that the primary meaning of “cutting off” is a sentence of death to be executed in some cases without remission, but in others voidable — (1) by immediate atonement on the offender’s part; (2) by direct interposition of the Almighty i.e., a sentence of death always “regarded,” but not always executed. Kinds of punishments . –Punishments are twofold, Capital and Secondary. I. Capital. (A) The following only are prescribed by the law:
  12. Stoning , which was the ordinary mode of execution. (Exodus 17:4; Luke 20:6; John 10:31; Acts 14:5) In the case of idolatry, and it may be presumed in other cases also, the witnesses, of whom there were to be at least two, were required to cast the first stone. (13:9; Acts 7:58)
  13. Hanging is mentioned as a distinct punishment. (Numbers 25:4; 2 Samuel 21:6,9)
  14. Burning , in pre-Mosaic times, was the punishment for unchastity. (Genesis 38:24) Under the law it was ordered in the case of a priest’s daughter (Leviticus 21:9)
  15. Death by the sword or spear is named in the law, (Exodus 19:13; 32:27; Numbers 25:7) and it occurs frequently in regal and post-Babylonian times. (1 Kings 2:25,34; 19:1; 2 Chronicles 21:4) etc.
  16. Strangling is said by the rabbis to have been regarded as the most common but least severe of the capital punishments, and to have been performed by immersing the convict in clay or mud, and then strangling him by a cloth twisted round the neck. (B) Besides these ordinary capital punishments, we read of others, either of foreign introduction or of an irregular kind. Among the former
  17. CRUCIFIXION is treated elsewhere.
  18. Drowning , though not ordered under the law, was practiced at Rome, and is said by St. Jerome to have been in use among the Jews.
  19. Sawing asunder or crushing beneath iron instruments. (2 Samuel 12:31) and perhaps (Proverbs 20:26; Hebrews 11:37)
  20. Pounding in a mortar , or beating to death, is alluded to in (Proverbs 27:22) but not as a legal punishment, and cases are described. 2 Macc. 6:28,30.
  21. Precipitation, attempted in the case of our Lord at Nazareth, and carried out in that of captives from the Edomites, and of St. James, who is said to have been cast from “the pinnacle” of the temple. Criminals executed by law were burned outside the city gates, and heaps of stones were flung upon their graves. (Joshua 7:25,26; 2 Samuel 18:17; Jeremiah 22:19) II. Of secondary punishments among the Jews, the original Principles were,
  22. Retaliation , “eye for eye,” etc. (Exodus 21:24,25)
  23. Compensation , Identical (restitution)or analogous payment for loss of time or of power. (Exodus 21:18-36; Leviticus 24:18-21; 19:21) Slander against a wife’s honor was to be compensated to her parents by a fine of one hundred shekels, and the traducer himself to be punished with stripes (22:18,19)
  24. Stripes , whose number was not to exceed forty, (25:3) whence the Jews took care not to exceed thirty-nine. (2 Corinthians 11:24)
  25. Scourging with thorns is mentioned (Judges 8:16) The stocks are mentioned (Jeremiah 20:2) passing through fire , (2 Samuel 12:31) mutilation , (Judges 1:6) 2 Macc. 7:4, and see (2 Samuel 4:12) plucking out hair , (Isaiah 50:6) in later times, imprisonment and confiscation or exile. (Ezra 7:26; Jeremiah 37:15; 38:6; Acts 4:3; 5:18; 12:4)

ATS Bible Dictionary


The penalties inflicted in ancient times for various crimes and offences, varied in different nations, and at different times. Capital punishment for murder is generally agreed to have been permanently instituted at the origin of the human race; and Cain was only saved from it by a special interposition of God, Genesis 4:14-15. It was reenacted, with reasons, after the deluge, Genesis 9:5-6, and in the wilderness, Numbers 35:9-34; and was early and widely recognized among mankind.

The mode of capital punishment usual among the Hebrew was stoning, De 13:9-10 Joshua 17:18 John 8:7; but various other modes became known to them by intercourse with other nations: as decapitation, 2 Kings 10:6-8 Matthew 14:8-12; precipitation from rocks, 2 Chronicles 25:12 Luke 4:29; hanging, Joshua 8:29 Esther 7:10; burning, Daniel 3:1-30; cutting asunder, Daniel 2:5 3:29 Hebrews 11:27; beating, on a wheel-like frame, Hebrews 11:35; exposure to wild beasts, Daniel 6:1-28 1 1 Corinthians 15:32; drowning, Matthew 18:6; bruising in a mortar, Proverbs 27:22; and crucifixion, John 19:18. Minor punishments were scourging, Le 19:20 2 1 Corinthians 11:24; retaliation in kind for an injury done, Exodus 21:23-25 De 19:19; imprisonment, 2 Chronicles 16:10 Matthew 4:12; the stocks, Acts 16:24; banishment, Revelation 1:9; and personal torture, 2 Chronicles 18:26 Isaiah 50:6 Matthew 18:30 Hebrews 11:37.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia


pun’-ish-ments (‘awon, “fault,” “iniquity,” “punishment for iniquity,” “sin” (Genesis 4:13 Leviticus 26:41 Job 19:29 Psalm 149:7 Lamentations 4:22 Ezekiel 14:10 margin; Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; Amos 2:1, 4, 6), `onesh, “tribute,” “fine,” “punishment” (Lamentations 3:39), chaTa’ah, or chaTTa’th, “sin” and its retribution, “penalty,” “expiation” (Zechariah 14:19); kolasis, “punishment,” “torment” (Matthew 25:46), epitimia, “poll tax,” hence, “penalty” (2 Corinthians 2:6), timoria, “vindication,” hence, “penalty” (Hebrews 10:29), ekdikesis, “vindication,” “retribution” (1 Peter 2:14 the King James Version)): A court could inflict for a crime against the person, a sentence of

(1) death in the form of stoning, burning, beheading, or strangling, etc.;

(2) exile to one of the cities of refuge in case of manslaughter (Numbers 35); or

(3) stripes, not to exceed 40, in practice 39 or less (Deuteronomy 25:3 2 Corinthians 11:24).

Offences against property (theft, fraudulent conversion of deposit, embezzlement, robbery) were punished by exacting more than the value of the things taken (Luke 19:8), the excess going to the injured party, thus differing from a fine, which goes into the treasury of the community. The housebreaker was liable to be slain with impunity (Exodus 22:2). A fine in the modern sense is unknown in the Scriptures, unless Leviticus 5:6-19 be interpreted as referring to such.

1. History of the Hebrew Law concerning Punishment:

The earliest theory of punishment seems to have been that of retaliation-“blood for blood”-and to some extent this principle appears even in the Law of Moses (Leviticus 21:19, 20 Matthew 5:38). Early in the history of the race, punishment was administered for sin and crime. Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden, and Cain, the first murderer, though not executed in retaliation for his deed, had a mark set on him. The words of Lamech (Genesis 4:24) indicate that death was regarded as the fitting punishment for murder, and the same thought apparently was in the minds of the brethren of Joseph (Genesis 42:21). Judah, as head of his family, seems to have had power of life and death (Genesis 38:24), and Abimelech threatens his people with the extreme punishment in case they injure or insult Isaac or his wife (Genesis 26:11). Similar power is ascribed to Pharaoh (Genesis 41:13).

2. The Mosaic Law concerning Punishment:

Under the Law of Moses, the murderer was to be put to death without mercy. Even if he took refuge at the altar in a sanctuary or in an asylum city, he would not be immune from arrest and execution, and the same principle was applied in the case of an animal (Exodus 21:12, 14, 23, 28, 36 parallel). But punishment under the Mosaic Law was not to be entailed or transmitted (Deuteronomy 24:16), as was the case among the Chaldeans (Daniel 6:24) and the kings of Israel (1 Kings 21 2 Kings 9:26).

It has been noted that capital punishment is extensively prescribed by the Mosaic Law, and undoubtedly the Law was carried out. This circumstance has been explained by reference to the fact that the nation consisted of newly emancipated slaves, and therefore required harsh measures to keep them in check.

Under the Mosaic Law, the offenses that made one liable to the punishment of death were:

(1) striking or reviling a parent (Exodus 21:15, 17);

(2) blasphemy (Leviticus 24:14, 16, 23 1 Kings 21:10 Matthew 26:65, 66);

(3) Sabbath-breaking (Exodus 31:14; Exodus 35:2 Numbers 15:32-36);

(4) witchcraft and false pretension to prophecy (Exodus 22:18 Leviticus 20:27 Deuteronomy 13:5; Deuteronomy 18:20 1 Samuel 28:9);

(5) adultery (Leviticus 20:10 Deuteronomy 22:22);

(6) unchastity:

(a) before marriage, but detected afterward (Deuteronomy 22:21),

(b) in case of a woman with someone other than her betrothed (Deuteronomy 22:23),

(c) in a priest’s daughter (Leviticus 21:9);

(7) rape (Deuteronomy 22:25);

(8) incestuous and unnatural connections (Exodus 22:19 Leviticus 20:11, 14, 16);

(9) man-stealing (Exodus 21:16);

(10) idolatry, actual or virtual, in any form (Leviticus 20:2 Deuteronomy 13:6; Deuteronomy 17:2-7);

(11) false witness in capital cases (Deuteronomy 19:16, 19).

A large number of offenses come under the law of punishment by cutting off from the people, the meaning of which expression has led to some controversy. It may signify excommunication or death, and occurs in connection with the following offenses:

(1) breach of morals, such as willful sin in general (Numbers 15:30, 31); incestuous or unclean connections (Leviticus 18:29; 29:9-21);

(2) breach of covenant, brought about through uncircumcision (Genesis 17:14 Exodus 4:24), neglect of Passover (Numbers 9:13), Sabbath-breaking (Exodus 31:14), neglect of Atonement Day (Leviticus 23:29), work done on the Atonement Day (Leviticus 23:30), children offered to Molech (Leviticus 20:3), witchcraft (Leviticus 20:6), anointing an alien with holy oil (Exodus 30:33);

(3) breach of ritual, committed by eating leavened bread during Passover (Exodus 12:15, 19), eating fat of sacrifices (Leviticus 7:25), eating blood (Leviticus 7:27; Leviticus 17:14), eating sacrifices while unclean (Leviticus 7:20, 21; Leviticus 22:3, 4, 9), offering too late (Leviticus 19:8), making holy ointment for private use (Exodus 30:32, 33), making perfume for private use (Exodus 30:38), general neglect of purification (Numbers 19:13, 20), not bringing offering after slaying a beast for food (Leviticus 17:9), slaying the animal at a place other than the tabernacle door (Leviticus 17:4), touching holy things illegally (Numbers 4:15, 18, 20).

Of capital punishments that are properly regarded as of Hebrew origin, we note:

(1) Stoning

Stoning, which was the ordinary mode of execution (Exodus 19:13 Leviticus 20:27 Joshua 7:25 Luke 20:6Acts 7:58; Acts 14:5). The witnesses, of whom there were at least two, were required to cast the first stone (Deuteronomy 13:9 John 8:7). If these failed to cause death, the bystanders proceeded to complete the sentence, whereupon the body was to be suspended until sunset (Deuteronomy 21:23).

(2) Hanging

Hanging is mentioned (Numbers 25:4 Deuteronomy 21:22), probably not as a mode of execution, but rather of exposure after death. It may have been a Canaanitish punishment, since it was practiced by the Gibeonites on the sons of Saul (2 Samuel 21:6, 9).

(3) Burning

Burning, before the age of Moses, was the punishment of unchastity (Genesis 38:24). The Law prescribes it as a punishment in the case of a priest’s daughter (Leviticus 21:9), and in case of incest (Leviticus 20:14), but it is also mentioned as following death by other means (Joshua 7:25), and some believe it was never used except after death. That it was sometimes used as a punishment on living persons among the heathen is shown by Daniel 3.

(4) The Sword or Spear

The sword or spear as an instrument of punishment is named in the Law (Exodus 19:13; Exodus 32:27Numbers 25:7). It occurs frequently in monarchic and post-Bab times (Judges 9:5 1 Samuel 15:33 2 Samuel 20:22 1 Kings 19:1 Jeremiah 26:23 Matthew 14:8, 10), but among these cases, there are some of assassination rather than of punishment.

(5) Strangling

Strangling as a form of punishment has no Scripture authority, but according to tradition was frequently employed, and is said to have been performed by immersing the convict in clay or mud, and then strangling him by a cloth tied around the neck.

3. Punishments of Foreign Origin: Besides these, which are to be regarded as the ordinary capital punishments, we read of some that were either of foreign introduction or of an irregular kind, such as:

(1) crucifixion (which see);

(2) drowning (Matthew 18:6 parallel);

(3) sawing asunder or crushing (2 Samuel 12:31 Hebrews 11:37);

(4) torturing (1 Chronicles 20:3 Hebrews 11:35);

(5) precipitation (2 Chronicles 25:12 Luke 4:29);

(6) suffocation (2 Maccabees 13:4-8).

The Persians are said to have filled a high tower a great way up with ashes, and then to have thrown the criminal into it, and continually stirred up the ashes by means of a wheel till he was suffocated (Rawlinson, Ancient Monarchy, III, 246).

See also HEROD, II, 100.

Secondary forms of punishment not heretofore mentioned are to be noted as follows:

(1) Blinding or Putting Out of Eyes

Blinding or putting out of eyes in the case of captives (Judges 16:21 1 Samuel 11:2 2 Kings 25:7).

(2) Chaining

Chaining by means of manacles or fetters of copper or iron, similar to our handcuffs fastened on the wrists and ankles and attached to each other by a chain (Judges 16:21 2 Samuel 3:34 2 Kings 25:7); also alluded to in the life of Paul (Acts 28:20 Ephesians 6:20 2 Timothy 1:16); and in the case of Peter (Acts 12:6).

(3) Confiscation of Property

Confiscation of property that had fallen under the ban, i.e. had been singled out for destruction by the special decree of Yahweh, as in Numbers 21:2 Joshua 6:17; or had been reserved for the use of the army (Deuteronomy 2:35; Deuteronomy 20:14 Joshua 22:8); or given over to the priesthood (Joshua 6:19). The term may be extended to include all things vowed or sanctified and those irrevocably devoted or consecrated to God (Leviticus 27:21, 28). The idea is applied with special emphasis to those things which, because of their uncleanness, must not be used by the Israelites, though, through their warfare with the heathen, they might have come into possession of them (Deuteronomy 7:26 1 Samuel 15:16-23).

(4) Dashing in Pieces (Psalms 2:9; Isaiah 13:18).

(5) Divine Visitation.


(6) Exposure to Wild Beasts (Leviticus 26:22; 1 Samuel 17:46; Daniel 6).

(7) Flaying

(Rawlinson, Ancient Monarchy, I, 478; Nineveh and Babylon; mentioned figuratively in Micah 3:3).

(8) Forfeiture (Ezra 10:8).

(9) Gallows

Gallows in the modern sense probably were unknown to the ancients. Where the word occurs in Esther 5:14; Esther 6:4; Esther 7:9, 10; 9:13, 15, it probably refers to a beam or pole on which the body was impaled and then elevated to a height of 50 cubits as an object of warning to the people (see “Hanging”).

(10) Imprisonment

Imprisonment is frequently referred to in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, indicating that this was a common mode of punishment among both the Israelites and other nations (Genesis 40:3; Genesis 42:17 Leviticus 24:12 Numbers 15:34 1 Kings 22:27 Jeremiah 37:15, 21 Luke 3:20 Acts 4:3, 10; Acts 23:10; and the Epistles of Paul).


(11) Indignities.

In this term may be included all those outbursts of vengeance or other evil dispositions that were practiced in times or under circumstances when liberties with the prisoner were permitted on the part of bystanders or those who had charge beyond the execution of the judicial decree. Instances are found in the life of Christ (Matthew 26:59, 67 Luke 22:63 John 18:22); also in the life of Paul (Acts 23:2).

(12) Mutilation (Judges 1:6, 7; Ezekiel 23:25; 2 Maccabees 7).

The Law was opposed to thus treating any Israelite, and Samuel, when referring to the arbitrary power of the future king (1 Samuel 8:10), does not say that he would thus treat “their sons.” It was a barbarous custom of the East (see EUNUCH; POLYGAMY), evidently regarded, among the Hebrews, as a heinous practice (Deuteronomy 23:1). The only act authorizing mutilation (except in retaliation) is mentioned in Deuteronomy 25:11.

(13) Plucking Off the Hair

Plucking off the hair is alluded to as a mode of punishment in Nehemiah 13:25 Isaiah 50:6.

(14) Prison Garments

Prison garments were in vogue to mark the convicts (Jeremiah 52:33).

(15) Restitution

Restitution has been alluded to in the general introduction to this topic.

(16) Retaliation

Retaliation was recognized by Moses as a principle, but the application of it was left to the judge (Leviticus 24:19-22). A fine example of it is found in the law of Deuteronomy 19:19.

(17) Scorpions, Chastising with.

Probably the use of thongs armed with pointed pieces of lead or other metal (1 Kings 12:11 2 Chronicles 10:14).


(18) Scourging.

Seeseparate article.

(19) Slavery.

Seeseparate article.

(20) Stocks.


Frank E. Hirsch

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