Mormon teachings/Obedience/Ancient penalties

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Old Testament penalties for disobedience

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Question: Why are Old Testament penalties for disobedience so harsh?

The Law of Moses was a very strict law that was designed to teach the Children of Israel obedience

The Law of Moses was a very strict law that was designed to teach the Children of Israel obedience. It was indeed quite harsh when compared to our modern standards, however for its time (in several aspects at least) it was step forward from the even harsher surrounding Near Eastern cultures. (See our article about viewing troubling texts from the OT here).

When Jesus Christ came to earth, He fulfilled the Law of Moses. God reminds us that his ways are not our ways in Isaiah 55:8-9:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Capital punishment was required generally for five reasons in Israel:

  1. Sexual purity - Sexual acts were given perhaps the strictest boundaries. This applies for adultery, bestiality, homosexuality, incest, and rape
  2. The worship of other Gods - God's people had to maintain a theological purity. Worshipping other gods in the scriptures is most often compared to adultery and/or whoredoms. Anything that usurped the authority of Jehovah was strictly prohibited. This applies to divination, and sacrificing to false Gods.
  3. Common moral injustices - this applies to theft, murder, kidnapping, and human sacrifice.
  4. Maintaining sociological order - This applies to cursing and striking parents.
  5. Maintaining ritual purity- God wanted Israel to be a people that was set apart from the rest. They had to show it through moral advances, strict obedience, and setting the world aside. This applies to Sabbath breakers and some of the strict legislation set for the Israelite camp.

The following were defined as crimes worthy of capital punishment under the Mosaic Law:

  1. Adultery (Leviticus 20:10-21; Deuteronomy 22:13-21) - Sexual fidelity was paramount for keeping the family unit intact.
  2. Approaching the Ark of the Covenant (Numbers 4:15, 20; 1 Samuel 6:19-20; 2 Samuel 6: 6-7) - See "Approaching the Tabernacle."
  3. Approaching the Tabernacle (Numbers 1:48-51) - This applied to non-Israelites who encroached on the tabernacle. This doesn't mean that outsiders weren't welcome (Exodus 22:21), just that intruders that disrupted the communal interest in an obviously malicious way were to be punished.
  4. Bestiality (Exodus 22:19) - Prohibitions against sexual promiscuity and adventurism enforced the familial ideal
  5. Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:10-16,23) - God required the fidelity and faithfulness of the Israelites.
  6. Cursing your parents (Exodus 21:17) - This also enforced the familial ideals of Israel
  7. Disobeying the judge or priest that mediates a specific case (Deuteronomy 17:8-13) - As noted in the New Oxford Annotated Bible,
    In the pre-Deuteronomic period, legal cases in which there was an absence of physical evidence or of witnesses were remanded to the local sanctuary, where the parties to the dispute would swear a judicial oath at the altar (19.17; Ex 22.7-11; 1 Kings 8.31-32; note also Ex 21.6). These two laws (17.2-7,8-13) thus fill the judicial void created by Deuteronomy's prohibition of the local sanctuaries (ch 12). Now, any case that requires recourse to the altar is remanded to the central sanctuary; all other cases, even capital ones, may be tried locally (vv 2-7). 8. These cases must be referred to the central sanctuary because, in the absence of witnesses o evidence, local officials cannot make a ruling. Between one kind of bloodshed and another, the legal distinction between murder and manslaughter (Ex 21. 12-14; Num 35. 16-23). In each pair, he distinction is between premeditated or unintentional offenses. 9: The tribunal at the sanctuary includes both priestly and lay members. The account of Jehosophat's setting up tribunals throughout Judah composed of lay and clerical judges reflects this law (2 Chr 19. 5-11)."[1]
  8. Divination (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:27) - Witchcraft was equivalent to usurping the power of Yahweh since it convinced people into worshipping other Gods. The worship of other Gods is frequently juxtaposed with themes of whoredom and adultery.
  9. False prophecy (Deuteronomy 13:1-11; Zechariah 13:3) - There had to be a way to know who was a true prophet of Jehovah.
  10. Fornication (Leviticus 21:9) - Sexual fidelity was the primordial factor that enforced Israel's familial ideals.
  11. Homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22) - The joining of man and woman ensured the continuation of species and the rising up of a righteous generation of followers to Jehovah.
  12. Human sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2) - The practice was deplorable as it wasted God's creation and was a frequent practice of neighboring civilizations.
  13. Incest (Leviticus 18:6-17) - Another law creating strict boundaries around sex. The bounds that God placed on sexual practice were for the specific purpose of fulfilling the ideals of the Plan of Salvation--to bring righteous souls to the earth so that the could participate in the gift of mortality and becoming like God.
  14. Kidnapping (Exodus 21:16) - Self-evident. This law applied to everyone whether Israelite, non-Israelite, slave, freeman, etc.
  15. Murder (Exodus 21:12-14) - Self-evident. The taking of innocent life was a very serious threat to creational ideals.
  16. Rape (Deuteronomy 22:25-27) - Self-evident.
  17. Rebelliousness (Deuteronomy 17:12) - Another law regarding familial unity and congruency. Rebelliousness upset the family order. Though the laws governing capital punishment here were casuistic.
  18. Sacrificing to false gods (Exodus 22:19, 20; Numbers 25:1-9; Deuteronomy 13: 7-19; 17:2-5; 2 Chronicles 15:12-13; 1 Kings 14:9-16; 1 Kings 18:37-40) - Consecrating oneself to God was of the utmost importance. This applied only to Israelites who had covenanted to follow Yahweh and then sacrificed to someone else. Sacrificing to other gods is often juxtaposed with themes of whoredom and adultery.
  19. Striking your parents (Exodus 21:15) - Another law regarding familial ideals.
  20. Violating the Sabbath (Exodus 31:12-15; 35:2) - Strict laws ensured that Israel learned obedience and consecrated themselves to God.

Some have claimed that there was a death penalty for mixing certain kinds of fabrics together.[2] It is true that there was a prohibition for this type of mixing given in Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:9-11. Yet neither scripture points to a penalty of death for their violation. Why these mixing laws were given has been difficult to explain for biblical scholars though there are a number of different theories.[3]

JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy: "Filial insubordination is a grave offense because respect and obedience toward parents is regarded as the cornerstone of all order and authority"

From the The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy:

Verses 18–21 describe the procedure to be followed if a son is repeatedly insubordinate and his parents conclude that there is no hope of reforming him: they are to bring him before the town elders who will hear the case and, if they agree, order his execution. The law seeks to deter filial insubordination, but, by requiring that the case be judged by the elders, it also places limits on parental authority, as does the preceding law. Earlier, in the patriarchal period, it appears that the father’s authority over his children was absolute, like the patria potestas of early Roman law, even to the point of his being able to have them executed for wrongdoing; this is implied by Judah’s ability to order the execution of his daughter-in-law for adultery, with no trial (Gen. 38:24). The present law respects the parents’ right to discipline their son, but it prevents them from having him executed on their own authority. This may only be done by the community at large on the authority of the elders.

Ancient Near Eastern laws and documents also mention legal action by parents against misbehaving children. The grounds include such offenses against parents as disobedience, flight, repudiation, lawsuits against them, failure to respect and provide for them in their old age, and striking them. The punishments range from disinheritance to enslavement and mutilation.

Filial insubordination is a grave offense because respect and obedience toward parents is regarded as the cornerstone of all order and authority, especially in a tribal, patriarchal society like ancient Israel. If the death penalty specified by the present law is meant literally, it implies that biblical law regards insubordination and the danger it poses to the stability of society more severely than do other known ancient Near Eastern laws. The fact that Exodus 21:15 requires the death penalty for striking one’s parents, whereas the Laws of Hammurabi require only that the son’s hand be cut off, supports this inference. Nevertheless, some scholars, modern and ancient, believe that the death penalty stipulated in the present law is meant only rhetorically, in terrorem, to strengthen parental authority and deter the young from disobedience. As in the case of the apostate city (13:13–19), halakhic exegesis subjected the law to an exceedingly narrow reading, according to which it could hardly ever be carried out. Several rabbis held that it was never actually applied, but was stated in the Torah only for educational purposes. [4]


  1. Bernard M. Levison, Commentary on Deuteronomy in "The New Oxford Annotated Bible" (ed.) Michael Coogan, Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, Pheme Perkins (New York City, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010) 278.
  2. Jeremy Runnells, "Letter to a CES Director" 2013
  3. Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011) 114–49. See also Bob Deffinbaugh "8. The Clean and Unclean-Part I (Leviticus 11)", accessed March 20, 2019,
  4. JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy