Murderers Must Die
The Case for Judeo-Christian values, Part XVIII

by Dennis Prager

One should not confuse Jews or Christians with Judeo-Christian values. Many Jews and many Christians, including many sincerely religious ones, take certain positions that are contrary to Judeo-Christian values (which I have defined at length: In a nutshell, they are Old Testament values as mediated by Christians, especially American Christians).

One clear example is the death penalty for murderers. Many Jews and Christians believe that all murderers should be kept alive, that it is not only wrong to take the life of any murderer; it is actually un-Jewish or un-Christian.

Jews opposed to capital punishment cite the Talmud (the second most important religious text to Jews), which is largely opposed to capital punishment; Christians opponents cite Jesus on loving one's enemies, for example; and Catholic abolitionists cite the late Pope John Paul II and the many cardinals and bishops who, though not denying all of the Church's teachings on the permissibility of the state to take the life a murderer, largely oppose capital punishment.

Yet, the notion that a murderer must give up his life is one of the central values in the Old Testament. Indeed, taking the life of a murderer is the only law that is found in all Five Books of Moses (the Torah). That is particularly remarkable considering how few laws there are at all in the first Book, Genesis.

When God creates the world, He declares a fundamental value and law to maintain civilization: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God He created him." And the law is repeated in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

When all murderers are allowed to keep their lives, murder is rendered less serious and human life is therefore cheapened. That is not only the Judeo-Christian biblical view. It is common sense. The punishment for a crime is what informs society how bad that crime is. A society that allows all murderers to live deems murder less awful than one that takes away the life of a murderer.

There are those who argue that precisely because they so value human life, they oppose the taking of a murderer's life. They argue that you cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing. But that is the same as arguing that you can't teach that stealing is wrong by taking away a thief's money or that you can't teach that kidnapping is wrong by kidnapping (i.e., imprisoning) kidnappers.

To the Torah, the first source of Judeo-Christian values, murder is the great sin; the immoral shedding of human blood (as opposed to the moral shedding of human blood in self-defense or in a just war) pollutes the world. That is why the Torah legislated that even an animal that killed a human should be put to death. The purpose was not to punish the animal — animals do not have free choice, hence cannot be morally culpable. And it was hardly to teach other animals not to kill. It was because a human life is so valuable, it cannot be taken without the taker losing its life.

But, some will object, the Torah decrees the death penalty for many infractions, yet we don't put to death people who practice witchcraft, commit adultery or other capital infractions — why those who murder? There are two answers.

First, the only capital crime mentioned before there were any Jews or Israel (in Genesis when God creates the world) is murder. Other death penalties applied specifically to the people of Israel when they entered the Land of Israel — a special code of behavior for a special time in a special place. And virtually none of those were carried out. The primary purpose of declaring a sin worthy of capital punishment was not actually to execute the sinner, but to declare how serious the infraction was when a society was establishing itself as the first based on ethical monotheism. Capital punishment for murder, on the other hand, was obviously intended for all time and for all people — it is independent of the existence of Jews and declared to be fundamental to the existence of a humane order.

Second, all the other death penalties are laws. The death penalty for murder is not only a law; it is a value. Laws may be time bound. Values are eternal. Thus, the Christians who believe in the divinity of the Torah are not bound to the Torah's dietary laws (such as not eating pork and shellfish); but they are bound to the value of taking the life of murderers.

Finally, the Old Testament is preoccupied with justice. And allowing one who has unjustly deprived another person of life to keep his own is the ultimate injustice.

There are many good reasons to be wary of taking the lives of murderers — such as insufficient evidence, corrupted witnesses, distinguishing between premeditated murder and a crime of passion — but love of life or a commitment to biblically based values are not among them.

For a fuller exposition on this topic from an Orthodox Christian perspective, please see the transcript of Steve the Builder's series of podcasts on the death penalty.

Dennis Prager

The Case for Judeo-Christian Values

I: Better Answers
II: Right and Wrong
III: Human Reason
IV: The Dog or the Stranger?
V: Values vs. Beliefs
VI: Feelings vs. Values
VII: Hate Evil
VIII: Values Larger than Theology
IX: Choose Life
X: Order v. Chaos
XI: Moral Absolutes
XII: Jewish Mission
XIII: The Meaningless Life
XIV: Arrogance of Values
XV: Unholy vs. Immoral
XVI: Nature Worship
XVII: Man and the Environment
XVIII: Murderers Must Die
XIX: Challenge of the Transgendered
XX: No Viable Alternative
XXI: Rejecting Materialism
XXII: Feminization of Society
XXIII: First Fight Yourself