The execution of Saddam Hussein drove me back to the Bible. It was alarming to read the reaction of so many people to Saddam’s execution. Regardless of whether he was executed with “dignity,” or whether the men carrying out the deed were vengeful or politically contrary, none of it matters in the sense that in the end Saddam Hussein received the just penalty for his crimes. In fact, he technically received less than justice, which I explained in my commenterry, The Rightness of the Rope for Saddam Hussein.
Watching the reactions on the news, and reading through dozens of blogs from the Middle East to the Americas, you would think that Iraq had executed an innocent man. Of course most commentary was focused on the behavior of the hooded men, the political motivations and implications. But so what? So the masked-men were jerks and made Saddam’s last moments more bitter than he expected. In the words of Michelle Malkin, “Boo-freaking-hoo.” The behavior of Saddam’s hangmen doesn’t change the fundamental rightness of the penalty he received.
This is how it always is with sinful man. Sinful man, that is, the person who approaches the world from a view that is different from God’s, always protests God’s justice. In fact, sinful man often protests mercy as less than merciful – such as those who complained that Saddam Hussein wasn’t receiving humane enough treatment in prison, or didn’t get to talk to his monstrous daughter before receiving his rope-burn.
These issues drove me back to the Bible during the week of execution to re-examine the death penalty as a justice concept from the scriptures. I pulled out old Bible studies on justice and mercy, and decided to take a close look at the first death penalty recorded in the Bible, and the first capital crime. What I discovered in this go around gave me reason to pause and think carefully. The most important thing I came away with from this study was not about the death penalty, or God’s ideas about justice and mercy, rather, it was man’s reactions to God’s justice and mercy.
Murder & Mercy
Read: Genesis 4:1-16.The Old Testament’s Mosaic Law prescribed the death penalty for certain crimes including premeditated murder, rape, incest, witchcraft, kidnapping, adultery, homosexual encounters, bestiality, violence against parents, blasphemy, and breaking the Sabbath – ouch. Yet the laws that spelled out this detail were not in place when the first murder was committed. In fact, the first murderer did not receive the death penalty.
Cain, the eldest son of Adam and Eve, murdered his brother Abel for no other reason than his jealousy of his relationship to God (4:4-5). For his premeditated murder of his younger brother, God exiled him (4:11-12). He did not receive the death penalty. It might be argued that God was still in the process populating the earth and this need prevented a death sentence from being handed down. Yet the scripture is clear that God did not “need” Cain to populate the earth as Adam and Eve had many sons and daughters after Cain and Abel (Genesis 5:4-5).
Upon confronting Cain about the murder of his brother, God’s first act was to attempt to draw out a confession from Cain. “The Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’” (4:9) Certainly God knew where Abel was – probably standing next to him! The question was nearly identical to the question He asked Adam in the garden after Adam ate the forbidden fruit, “Adam, where are you?” (3:9) This brings us to our first point:
- God’s preferred means of dealing with sin is to solicit confession for the purpose of demonstrating grace.
(Grace and mercy are different. Mercy is not receiving what is deserved. Grace is receiving more than we deserve, in good favor.)
When Eve sunk her teeth into the fruit God didn’t boom through the trees, “Get your lips off that!” Nor did He shout at Cain, “Murderer!” His first reaction in both cases was to try and coax a confession. In fact, throughout the Bible God’s first approach and requirement – even in the Mosaic Law – was to encourage confession, repentance, and restitution. When you think about it, we have a very crude (and often misused) form of this in our modern law – the plea bargain. In exchange for a confession a criminal may receive a reduced sentence.
In the Bible, when confession was not forthcoming things would become more difficult for the sinner.The Mosaic Law required that the victim or victim’s family, under state supervision, execute a sentence of death. If God had applied this law to Cain, Adam and Eve would have had to execute their firstborn son. This was unlikely to happen, leaving only one person at the time that could carry out such a sentence – God (God did this once as we shall see later). Adam and Eve had already seen that God’s punishments could be severe (2:17), but it was also equally demonstrated that God’s practice of dealing with sin was merciful. Though God declared they would die if they ate the fruit, they did not immediately die – in fact they lived 10 times longer than we do! By allowing them to live God was also making preparation for the promised Savior – their descendant – who would atone for their sin and the sin of the world (3:15-16).
Cain followed in his father’s footsteps as a “tiller of the ground.” He brought sacrifices from what he harvested, however, his sacrifices did not please God (4:3-7). The scripture intimates that Cain did not bring the first fruits (best), but just a simple nondescript offering. This signified that Cain was first in Cain’s life.
His brother Abel did not follow in his father’s footsteps – he followed in God’s. Abel it seems, took his cues from God’s sacrifice of an animal to make coverings for Adam and Eve – he became a shepherd (3:20, 4:2). If scholar’s assumptions are correct and man did not eat meat at this time, then Abel’s profession had only one purpose – sacrificial worship. When Abel brought an offering, he brought God the best of his flock (first fruits), and the “fat portions.” This signified that God came first in Abel’s life. Interestingly, Cain brought offerings from a profession that was given to his father as the result of a curse. But Abel brought offerings from a profession that God modeled for redemption. This brings us to our second point:
- Sinful man always places his desires above God and above others.
Cain didn’t bring the first fruits he kept them for himself. Cain was jealous of his brother’s fortune with God, wanting to have God’s fortune to himself, but did not want his brother to have it. Yet Cain was also unwilling to do that which would give him God’s favor.Adam and Eve received exile and a delayed death sentence. Cain the murderer only received exile. But there’s another interesting aspect to the difference in punishments between Adam, Eve, and Cain. Adam’s punishment was to have the ground cursed because of his sin (3:17-19). But Cain’s punishment was to be cursed from the ground (4:11).
Cain’s punishment denied him the ability to sustain his life, and draw fulfillment from it. Additionally, since he was “cursed from the ground,” we can assume that his days as a farmer were over. The very profession he used to bring his offerings from was now removed from him. This was God’s way of saying to Cain, there is no sacrifice for your sin. This is true because Cain showed no remorse, sorrow, or repentance for what he had done. Nor did Cain even feign to ask for forgiveness. Cain’s only response to God was not that he was sorry, but that God’s response to him was unjust. Look at what Cain said when he found out he was to be exiled instead of killed, “My punishment is greater than I can bear” (4:13). This brings us to our third point:
- Sinful man always views God’s justice as unjust, and often views God’s mercy as unjust.
The scripture also affirms this: “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely” (Proverbs 28:5). By not exercising a sentence of immediate death God was giving Cain many more years of life to consider his sinful state so that he might eventually come to repentance. The New Testament echoes this concept in Romans 2:4, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” God granted a mercy to Cain that he did not deserve. Cain’s response was to protest both God’s justice and God’s mercy.
Cain also assumed a punishment for himself that God did not declare. He protested, “From your face I shall be hidden” (4:14). In fact God said no such thing. The punishment He gave was designed to lead Cain to repentance. All Cain had to do was recognize God’s unmerited favor toward him and respond. God’s face was not hidden from Cain. In fact, God was looking upon Cain with mercy in hopes that Cain would have a chance to see him face to face. Sadly, Cain rejected God’s kindness, signified when the writer says, “Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord” (4:16). God did not leave Cain; Cain left God. This brings us to our fourth point:
- Sinful man rejects God’s means of gaining His favor – repentance, obedience, and good character.
God already instructed Cain on how to gain his favor in 4:6-7. Instead of doing what God said to do to gain his favoring attention, he did the very thing that would gain God’s wrathful attention.
Cain’s error was the error of all sinful men who desire selfish benefit regardless of consequences. Sinful man rejects the notion of eternal consequences for their action. This is unlike the character of God who took the consequences of our actions upon Himself when Jesus Christ was crucified as a substitutionary sacrifice for our sins. God was the one who initiated the death penalty for certain crimes. And it was God the Son who received the penalty of death for the crimes we have committed. In fact, God even applied the principle of “life-for-life” to Himself, signifying that the death penalty, a life for a life, was a just principle.
Long after the days of Cain and Abel, God declared that the sin of man had become too great and that He would act to intentionally kill every living thing on earth. The scripture says: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land” (Genesis 6:5-7).
This is the first time the Bible says that God would take direct action to kill men. God, in His justice, decided to carry out the just punishment for sin on a world that only pursued “evil continually.” Yet after the flood, when Noah and his family were released to repopulate the earth, God declared a new law, a law that foreshadowed the coming of Christ: ”Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6).
While God did not sin by subjecting the penalty of death upon sinful men (death, spiritually speaking, is a form of exile); He did give Noah a foreshadowing of what was to come. God had shed man’s blood in the deluge, and by man His blood – the blood of Jesus Christ – was to be shed.
The penalty of death for sin, especially the kind of gross sin where there is only evil continually, is a just penalty. At times men must suffer the penalty for their sin. But we can be thankful that for the chosen of God, those whom He has redeemed by His own sacrificial blood, that penalty of death is already paid.
The penalty of death sometimes suffered under secular law is a just penalty when prescribed for just reasons. God’s mercy does not negate the justice of the principle. And God did not prefer mercy over justice. He preferred both equally, which is why death is sometimes prescribed, and why the Son of God took that prescription for us. This is a stark contrast between the attitude of sinful man, who rejects God’s justice and mercy, and the righteous God, who embraced justice and mercy with outstretched arms on a cross.