Capital Crimes: Leviticus 20:1-16

Repetition. Chapter 20 feels like a rerun of chapter 18. The main difference is the prescription of penalties for offences. Sure, things seemed serious in the first version – but these penalties are capital, lethal, ultimate ones.

‘Pelting with stones’ suggests a mob action of capital punishment. ‘Cut off from among his people’ similarly suggests death in banishment and exile, if you first accept the literary context of desert wandering. ‘Put to death’ seems completely unambiguous, and ‘put to the fire’ just a more gruesome version.

What does it mean, for a people without the agencies to impose capital punishment, to prescribe it? Since at least the Babylonian exile 6 centuries before Jesus, and for most Jewish people most of the time before that, there was no authority which could implement these penalties.

Shunning from the community, strong taboos of exclusion and opprobrium, are within the power of a minority community in diaspora. Not capital trials and execution. That person should die, that person is dead to me, is a statement of extreme condemnation, not of policy.

The next most visible difference between chapter 18 and 20 is the order of the offences. Begin with the idolatry of Moloch, which takes the first six verses. A range of incestuous relationships is prohibited, which threaten social order, not simply our Mendelian concern for genetics. Even today, legislated prohibitions of marriage are not limited to consanguinity, but recognize how destabilizing it may to permit serial monogamy within a household or across generations.

Some male-with-male sexual acts, similar to acts limited to activity of men with women (not only with wives), is included in this enumeration of sexual incontinence, ‘incestuous’ or socially disruptive sexual relationships, followed by prohibition of a man having sexual relationship with his wife and her mother, his mother-in-law.

The last couple of prohibitions address bestiality, another socially disruptive practice and common taboo, not simply for public health rationales. The homophobic confusion of this taboo with the previous one, or interpretations of specific prohibited acts by particular body parts, is not found in Leviticus.

Some rabbinic traditions attribute the agency of capital punishment to God alone. There is no record of vigilante mob discipline in the minority communities of Jews in diaspora for millennia. How do you read these ‘capital crime’ texts?

Leviticus 20:1-16

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

2 Say further to the people of Israel:Any of the people of Israel, or of the aliens who reside in Israel, who give any of their offspring to Molech shall be put to death; the people of the land shall stone them to death.

3 I myself will set my face against them, and will cut them off from the people, because they have given of their offspring to Molech, defiling my sanctuary and profaning my holy name.

4 And if the people of the land should ever close their eyes to them, when they give of their offspring to Molech, and do not put them to death,

5 I myself will set my face against them and against their family, and will cut them off from among their people, them and all who follow them in prostituting themselves to Molech.

6 If any turn to mediums and wizards, prostituting themselves to them, I will set my face against them, and will cut them off from the people.

7 Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am the LORD your God.

8 Keep my statutes, and observe them; I am the LORD; I sanctify you.

9 All who curse father or mother shall be put to death; having cursed father or mother, their blood is upon them.

10 If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.

11 The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

12 If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death; they have committed perversion; their blood is upon them.

13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

14 If a man takes a wife and her mother also, it is depravity; they shall be burned to death, both he and they, that there may be no depravity among you.

15 If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the animal.

16 If a woman approaches any animal and has sexual relations with it, you shall kill the woman and the animal; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.