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Gary North
"God's Monopoly of Execution"
The Sinai Strategy
Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics 1994, ch. 6

The Sinai Strategy




Thou shalt not kill (Ex. 20:13).

The usage, though not the grammar, of the Hebrew translated here as "kill" (ratsach) indicates murder or manslaughter. It means "to dash to pieces; but it is used in Numbers 35 and Deuteronomy 4:42 to indicate accidental manslaughter. The biblical definition of murder is the willfull [sic] execution of one man by another, unless the execution is sanctioned by the civil government; it is referred to as the shedding of manís blood (Gen. 4:10). It is an act of man in rebellion against God. North's essay is simultaneously a defense of capital punishment and, to some extent, a defense of the view that only the civil magistrate may execute. Much of the pro-capital punishment argument is simply a restatement of the Biblical evidence that murder is offensive to God. The fallacious reasoning in this case is that someone who is against killing murderers is in favor of murderers being allowed to murder. Non sequitur.
The prohibition against the shedding of manís blood applies even to murderous animals (Gen. 9:5). Guilty animals are to be stoned to death, the Mosaic lawís most common means of public execution (Ex. 21:28). Because owners are covenantally responsible for the administration of their property, if the owner of the beast had been warned beforehand that the animal was dangerous, he also must be executed. He is permitted to buy his life by the payment of restitution, however: the only capital crime in biblical law for which economic restitution is legitimate (Ex. 21:29-30). Because all ownership is covenantal, economic responsibility is necessarily personal. In the Old Testament, God commanded man's blood to be shed when he shed the blood of another man. The shedding of innocent blood polluted the land, and could only be cleansed (atoned for) by the blood of the one who shed it (Numbers 35:33). From a strict, theological perspective, there should be a presumption that no blood should be shed after Christ's work on the Cross. But our perspective is no longer purely theological; we have all been politicized by a messianic State. Thus, even if our theology had room for the shedding of blood, there is no Biblical reason why the shedding should be performed by the State rather than the Church, or by the family, as it was in the case of ":Noah and his sons" (Genesis 9:1). 

More along these lines.

There are no exceptions based on idiocy, temporary insanity, temporary anger, or anything else. Unless it can be proved that the death came as a result of an accident Ė no premeditation Ė the criminal is to be executed. The willful shedding of manís blood must be punished by the civil government by execution. That execution must come at the hands of the "civil government" has not been proven. Noah was not "the civil government," and the command to shed blood was given to him "and his sons." Most executions feature involvement of the priests, the Levites, and the "elders," whose office appears in the New Testament as a churchly, rather than civil office.

The Image of God

Manís life is protected because he is made in the image of God. Genesis 9:6, the passage which teaches this doctrine, has either a double meaning (my conclusion), or else we must choose between

God's Monopoly of Execution


two different interpretations. "Whoso sheddeth manís blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man." The explanatory clause ó "for in the image of God made he man" ó can be understood in two different ways. First, it explains the nature of the violation: manís life is uniquely important to God, since man is made in Godís image. An assault on man is an assault on the image of God. 

Calling a ritual shedding of blood a "judgment" tends to distract us from its priestly character and politicize the ritual. If there is one verse which speaks of "capital punishment" as a political or civil act, there are ten verses which speak of it as a ritual shedding of blood which brings atonement for the land.

Second, the clause explains why men, by means of the civil government, are required to execute bloody judgment on murderers. Man is made in the image of God; therefore, as Godís image, mankind can bring judgment in the name of God, the supreme Judge who executes final judgment. Man is Godís agent who exercises Godís delegated authority. He is an agent of the King. He is to exercise dominion over the earth.[1]

Once we justify the existence of the State based on the Old Testament commands to shed blood, we open the floodgates of politicization, which has thus far resulted in a State which confiscates nearly half of everyone's income. If your gross income is $50,000/yr., you would have at least $25,000 more to spend in the absence of organized government. That could buy a home protection system which could provide a real sense of security, which the State cannot. The State offers only a sense of "closure" after it kills your wife's murderer/rapist. This is the same State that takes your money to fund schools where it is "unconstitutional" to teach students that God says "Thou shalt not kill." 

Man is made in the image of God. He is therefore a royal agent, and as such, he deserves protection. Christís parable of the rebellious husbandmen who slew the ownerís emissaries, including his son, rests on the principle of Godís ultimate sovereignty and the authority which" He delegates to all men (Matt. 21:33-40). Murder is rebellion, but a special kind of rebellion: lashing out at Godís very image, the capstone of His creation. This is the most probable interpretation of the clause in terms of why murder is a capital crime. It explains why man-killing animals are to be executed (Gen. 9:5).[2]

Vengeance belongs to God (Deut. 32:35; Rom. 12:19; Heb. 10: 30). It is His monopoly. He avenges the blood of his servants (Deut. 32:35-43). Individual men do not have the right to act as executioners except by law: "Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyselfí (Lev. 19:18). The context of this oft-quoted final clause is clearly the administration of judgment. When God establishes His monopoly, transgression brings judgment. This boundary must be respected. We see an example of this ó indeed, the example 

[1] Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (2nd ed.; Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1984), p. 444.

[2] Because of the unnecessary exclusiveness of Bahnsenís interpretation of Genesis 9:6, which I discuss below, I need to stress the point that the right of the civil government to execute an animal should not be surprising, and the biblical defense of this right does not require any detailed exegesis, given the dominion covenant. It is not that the image of God in man uniquely empowers the civil government to execute animals; it is simply that the image of God in man is the reason why it is so heinous an act to kill a human being Ė so heinous that not even a "morally neutral" animal can escape the penalty. What the passage stresses is the responsibility of the civil government to execute an offending beast, not its authority to do so.


The Sinai Strategy

ó in the garden of Eden. By challenging Godís single, exclusive, and temporary monopoly in the garden, namely, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve rebelled, for they were attempting to play God, to usurp His position over crest ion. It was an attempt to worship an image: the image of God in man.

The prohibition of graven images in the second commandment should therefore be understood as the repudiation of humanism (Ex. 20:4). All forms of idolatry are ultimately variations of self-worship, for it is man, as a self-proclaimed sovereign being, who asserts the right to choose whom he will worship in place of God. Man, the sovereign, decides.

Clearly, more proof is needed than is found here. If vengeance is prohibited to human beings, even though created in the Image of God, where does God retract this prohibition in the face of individuals "covenanting" into a "political community" in order to take vengeance on their enemies? Individual vengeance is indisputably prohibited. Where is group vengeance permitted?

Critics of capital punishment could argue that men are not to avenge, and that we view capital punishment as a transgression of Godís sole and exclusive monopoly of execution. This argument is wrong. The institution of civil government is entrusted with this responsibility. The individual may not execute another man, as if he were an autonomous agent of judgment, but the covenanted political community may. In fact, this power reduces the likelihood of blood vengeance by close relatives of the slain. Why does the State have the right to slay transgressors? Bahnsen explains: 

"The reason offered is that man is the image of God: man can accordingly carry out Godís judgments on a creaturely level. Thinking Godís thoughts after Him, man judges and penalizes after the commandment of God; man is properly like God his Father and Judge when he too judges crimes as God does. . . . Man should do this as well on his level as a creature, not in personal vindictiveness (i.e., such judgment does not apply to interpersonal affairs: 1 Thess. 5:15; 1 Pet. 3:9; Matt. 5:39; Rom. 12:17 ff.), but as a matter of social justice (i.e., it is the magistrateís duty to punish criminals for the good of society: Rom. 13:1-4). The man created in Godís image who has the responsibility of rule in human government (not citizens, not the church) is required to punish violators of Godís law for the welfare of his country; he has the right to do this because he is the image of God and has Godís law to direct him."[3]

I disagree with him in his assertion of an overly narrow focus of Genesis 9:6. He argues that it is not the death penalty as such which is the focus of Genesis 9:6, but the right of the civil government to inflict this penalty. 

"Instead of smoothly saying Ďhis blood is to be shed 

[3] Ibid., p. 443.

God's Monopoly of Execution


by maní the verse reads Ďby man his blood is to be shed.í We stumble over the Ďby maní due to its obtrusion and conspicuousness. Manís being made as Godís image explains the infliction of the death penalty by man ." 

In other words, 

"the proper question at Genesis 9:5f. is: what right has man to retaliate against the murderer? Genesis 9:6 gives the rationale: man is Godís image ."[4]

Bahnsenís interpretation is an attempt to force us to choose between two views: 1) the image of God in man as the cause of the death penalty Ė the reason why such a harsh penalty must be imposed Ė and 2) the image as the justification of the civil governmentís God-given authority to inflict the penalty. I do not choose between the two interpretations; I choose them both. The image of God in man makes sacred the life of man, assuming he has not transgressed the law in a capital crime, but it also legitimizes the execution of the transgressor in the case of murder. Both the reason for the death penalty against murderers and the requirement of capital punishment by the civil government are explained by the presence of the image of God. But there is a stronger emphasis on the image of God in man as the reason why murder must be punished by the death penalty, as I have already argued (footnote 2): the execution of man-killing animals required by Genesis 9:5 points more clearly to the magnitude of the crime than it points to the right of the civil government to inflict the supreme earthly penalty. But ultimately it points to both.

Delegated Monopoly

If Christ is the avenger of blood, what right does anyone else (even those presumptuously calling themselves "the State") have avenging blood??

God has shared His monopoly of execution with men. The final power of death is held by Jesus Christ. "I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death (Rev. 1:18). It is He who triumphed over death (I Cor. 15). Christ is the goíel, the kinsman-redeemer who is also the family avenger of blood (Num. 35:19). Satan himself could not take Jobís life without Godís permission (Job 3:6). Only the creator of life has the original right to destroy life; only He can establish the standards by which manís life may be legitimately removed, including the standards of execution by the civil government. 

We too believe that "the Bible sets forth God's Law." This premise does not lead to the conclusion that God's Law commands group vengeance even as it prohibits individual vengeance. Nothing is cited by North to show where God prohibits the Family or the Church from shedding the blood of murderers.

The biblical view of the State unquestionably and irrefutably affirms the right and obligation of the State to execute men, for the Bible sets forth Godís law. God has delegated this power to the State.

[4] Ibid., p. 444.

The Sinai Strategy


It cannot lawfully be neglected Ė certainly not in the name of a "higher, more compassionate" interpretation of Godís holy law.

There are two separate questions here. First, whether anyone should shed the blood of murderers. Second, whether than duty is vested monopolistically in the State. 

As to the first issue, consider North's rhetorical question, rephrased: "To deny the legitimate, derived, or ministerial sovereignty of the State in regard to sacrificing animals in the temple is to deny the original sovereignty of God." We do not believe the shedding of blood in the temple is required, nor the shedding of the blood of murderers to cleanse the land (Numb. 35:33). 

As to the second question: "To deny the legitimate, derived, or ministerial sovereignty of the Mafia in this regard is to deny the original sovereignty of God." Where is the right of the State or the Mafia set forth in Scripture? To affirm the right of the Mafia or the State to take vengeance is to deny that "vengeance belongs to Me, saith the Lord" (Romans 12:19). To speak of "the right of execution" which the State supposedly has is chilling. We question the entire concept of "rights."

To deny the legitimate, derived, or ministerial sovereignty of the State in this regard is to deny the original sovereignty of God. It is to call into question Godís law, the image of God, the protection this image is entitled to, and the responsibility of State officials under God. The denial of capital punishment is, in a very real sense, an attempt to deny Godís right of final execution, the imposition of the penalty of the second death, eternal punishment in fire (Rev. 20:14). Such a position denies the right of God to offer murderers an earthly, institutional "down payment" or "earnest" which points to and affirms the reality of their future eternal punishment to come. Furthermore, by denying this right of execution to the State, the opponents of capital punishment are implicitly turning over the power of execution (as distinguished from the right of execution) to murderers and rebels. It reduces their risk of permanent bodily judgment.

Anarchists, rebels, warlords, and criminals all resent the superior authority of civil government. Such authority points to a higher authority and the final judgment. Manís very image is repulsive to murderers, for it also points to the subordination of manís very being to a sovereign God. Manís image of God points to man's subordinate responsibility, but a lawful authority as a ruler over creation. It points to dominion. Satan and his followers loathe this image. They loathe it and love death (Prov. 8:36). But the image of God in man, when regenerate, is a death-defying image.

The Question of Deterrence

Do the opponents of capital punishment really play into the hands of the criminal classes? Does a society without capital punishment really transfer power into the hands of the lawless? Consider these facts. A murderer in the state of California is eligible for parole in seven years.[5] In Massachusetts in the early 1970ís, where no one had been executed since 1947,[6] the median time served in prison for homicide was under 30 months.[7] As Prof. James Q. Wilson notes: "And even in states that practice the death penalty, the chances of a murdererís being executed have been so small that a rational mur-

[5] Frank G. Barrington, The Victims (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1975), p. 6.

[6] James Q. Wilson, Thinking About Crime (New York: Basic Books, 1975), p. 192.

[7] Ibid., p. 166.

God's Monopoly of Execution


derer might well decide to take the risk. There were eight thousand murders in 1960, but only fifty-six executions; thus, a murdererís chances of being executed were only about one in one hundred forty. After 1960 the number of executions dropped sharply, thus improving his chances.[8]

There can be little doubt that a ruthless policy of systematic brutal extermination of murderers in a comprehensive police state would deter crime, at least in the short run. We may learn much from the Mafia as to what works, but we can learn very little from them about what pleases God.

In the long run, however, turning America's government into a vast, secret criminal society will turn most citizens into criminals. When the State models execution as an effective response to the frustrations of life, that lesson is learned by all. When Jesus' commands are "privatized" (i.e., ignored by the State) then soon private citizens will ignore them as well. The State says "We have to be realistic. Religion is OK for private citizens, but not when it really counts."

Scholars debate endlessly about whether or not the death penalty deters crime. Mafia members apparently have weighed the evidence and have discovered that swift, predictable execution does indeed influence peopleís behavior. Those who act as informers to the civil authorities wind up dead. This has made it difficult for civil authorities to find witnesses who will testify in court against criminal syndicates. The use of the threat of execution by secret societies of many varieties indicates just how effective the death penalty is in modifying peopleís behavior. Criminal societies, unlike modern scholars, may not have access to statistical data and complex explanations, but their members think they have adopted an effective approach to the "deviant behavior" problem. They may not have many footnotes, but they are still nearly immune to successful prosecution by the civil government. Capital punishment works well for them. 

Humanism has steadily eroded the rule of Godís law. The humanists have, again and again, substituted alternative punishments for those specifically required by the Bible. They have substituted long-term imprisonment for economic restitution to the victim by the criminal. They have substituted life imprisonment for the death penalty. They have substituted parole in three years for life imprisonment. The results have been disastrous.[9]

How can we buy social order? By funding prisons and the shedding of blood at San Quentin? Or by bathing our society in God's commandments. The Bible commands an investment in education, because social order is created and maintained by religion and morality.

Society wants social order. Without this order, too many scarce economic resources must be assigned to crime prevention and safety programs. What voters want is a system of prevention which maintains personal freedom for the innocent and which does not bankrupt civil government.

There is little doubt that the vast majority of crimes go unpunished. Very few criminals are apprehended; few of these are brought to trial; few of these are convicted; few of these serve complete sentences. But eventually, most criminals are caught. When they are "off the market," they are not victimizing the innocent. How can society reduce the number of very serious crimes, given the reality of 

[8] Ibid., p. 192.

[9] Jessica Mitford, Kind and Unusual Punishment: The Prison Business (New York: Knopf, 1973).

The Sinai Strategy


minimal convictions? One answer is the death penalty.

Murder is a major crime. Victims are permanently disenfranchised. Thus, societies throughout history have imposed the death penalty. Even when a criminal knows that he may not be caught and convicted, the presence of the death penalty serves as a deterrent. If he is caught Ė if "his number comes up" ó then the punishment is permanent. Those who believe in a chance universe are willing to take chances. All criminals do take chances if they believe that the odds are in their favor. But losing a bet against capital punishment is something else. Losers donít get to "play the game" again.

The Biblical rationale for shedding the blood of murderers is never stated as pragmatically is this. The repeated rationale is based on the fact that the shedding of innocent blood is needed to cleanse the land (Numb. 35:33).

When societies raise the stakes to criminals by imposing capital punishment for capital crimes, they thereby reduce the likelihood of criminalsí committing these crimes. Furthermore, those who do murder and who are convicted are not set free to kill again. While any single instance of criminal behavior may not be punished, eventually the professional criminal gets caught and convicted. If he is executed, all future crimes by this specialist in brutality are eliminated.

Society itself must not become brutal. By adhering to biblical law, a society can specify which crimes are capital and which involve paying restitution. But for those crimes that are specified as capital, the biblical commonwealth can reduce their likelihood even in an imperfect penal system which does not operate in terms of perfect knowledge. It raises the stakes so high that risk-taking criminals prefer to commit other sorts of crimes. The imperfection of the legal system is offset by the risk of permanent loss to the murderer.

In Defense of Stoning

Consider the mode of execution. The Old Testament specifies stoning as the proper mode in most cases (Lev. 20:2; Deut. 17:5). In the case of the sabbath-breaking gatherer of sticks, the whole congregation stoned him to death (Num. 15:36). Presumably, the phrase "whole congregation" refers to representatives of the twelve tribes, and not millions of people. Even the killer ox is to be stoned to death (Ex. 21:29). Witnesses of the capital crime are to cast the first stones (Deut. 17:7; Acts 7 :58). But the whole community is to be involved. Adult males of the city are all to participate (Deut. 21:21). If the city is too populous, then it would appear to be legitimate to select representatives, but only because of the logistical problem.

Why stoning? There are many reasons. First, the implements of execution are available to everyone at virtually no cost. Second, no

God's Monopoly of Execution


one blow can be traced to any person.[10] In other words, no one citizen can regard himself as "the executioner," the sole cause of another manís death. Psychologically, this is important; it relieves potential guilt problems in the mind of a sensitive person. The fact that public executioners in western history wore masks indicates another problem: the threat of social ostracism (and socially imposed guilt) against a lone individual who does the communityís "dirty business ." Those who abstain from the "dirty business" of enforcing Godís law have a tendency to elevate their behavior as being more moral than the executionerís, where in point of fact such abstention is itself immoral.
There is no evidence that the shedding of the blood murderers was considered "dirty business," any more than shedding the blood of a lamb or heifer in the temple. Anonymity evolved in history because the justification of cleansing the land was lost to all executions after Christ; they were undisguised vengeance.

Third, public stoning makes it clear to everyone that the whole community is responsible for the prevention of criminal behavior. God holds the city responsible, which is why representatives of the city in Old Testament times had to offer a slain heifer as a covering if the criminal could not be found. 

"And all the elders of that city, that are next unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley: And they shall answer and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Be merciful, O Lord, unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israelís charge. And the blood shall be forgiven them" (Deut. 21: 6-8). 

There is a collective responsibility in biblical law in several instances. Execution of criminals is therefore to be collective.

Fourth, executions are to be personal, not impersonal. The condemned man has the right to confront his executioners face to face. He does not die in seclusion, a faceless entity who dies at the hand of a faceless entity. He receives justice in a public, personal fashion.

More specifically, the Rock was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4; 1 Pet. 2:8; Luke 20:17-18; Acts 4:10-11). Just as the blood shed in stoning symbolized Christ's, so did the stone.

The fifth and by far the most important reason is that stoning is literally a means of crushing the murdererís head by means of a rock, which is symbolic of God.[11] This is analogous to the crushing of the head of the serpent in Genesis 3:15. This symbolism testifies to the final victory of God over all the hosts of Satan.

Stoning is therefore integral to the commandment against murder. It allows men to execute Godís justice, but not in a way that might lead an individual to believe that he, and he alone, has the right to take justice into his own hands. Executions are community

[10] I have heard it argued that the person was killed by one huge stone that was dropped. on him or rolled on him. I doubt this. The Pharisees took up stones to throw at Jesus to stone him (John 8:59).

[11] Deut. 32:3-4, 15, 18, 30-31, 37; I Sam. 2:1-2; II Sam. 22:2-4, 32, 47; 23:1-4.

The Sinai Strategy


projects ó not with spectators who watch a professional executioner do "his" duty, but rather with actual participants. Execution is not to become a profession. It is not to be performed by a callous professional in a mask, who sees his job as just an occupation. The hangman, the masked expert at beheading men, or the official who throws the switch on the electric chair, or the man who releases the cyanide capsules: all are to be avoided by a consistently biblical social order. No man is to view himself as the communityís hired "angel of death." 

If every citizen is to see himself as a lawful executioner, then why isn't every citizen a lawful executioner? Why the State monopoly?

Every citizen, beginning with the witnesses, is to see himself as a lawful agent of execution, if and when a criminal is convicted of a capital crime.

Western civilization has been marked by an increasing depersonalization in the area of capital punishment. Criminals were executed for centuries in public squares by masked axemen. They were hanged, sometimes after anti-biblical torture, in public squares. These events were almost sporting events, and pickpockets always did a lively business, even at the hangings of other pickpockets. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the executions began to go indoors. By the early twentieth century, modern technology combined with modern jurisprudence to produce the indoor execution, where only a handful of observers attended. Often, they would become sick at the sight. By the latter decades, this impersonalism finally collapsed. The death penalty was seen as "inhumane; and the advent of "lifetime" sentences with paroles displaced the death penalty in most instances of capital crimes. A steady progression toward greater impersonalism finally led to repulsion on the part of political leaders and moral spokesman for humanism, leaving defenders of capital punishment to defend a long-corrupted imitation of biblical execution.

The command to shed the blood of murderers was never given exclusively to the civil magistrate (Gen. 9:4-6), nor was it ever transferred monopolistically to the civil government. The movement from Patriarchy to Politics is a rebellion against God (1 Samuel 8).

The grim reality is that personalism has been retained in such lawless acts as gangland murders and hangings by vigilante groups. In these cases, private citizens "take the law into their own hands," which is to say that they deny the legitimacy of the existing civil government. They execute vengeance apart from the sanction of the civil government. They arrogate to themselves Godís monopoly of execution ó a monopoly that he has placed into the hands of civil magistrates.

That modern Christians never consider the possibility of the re-introduction of stoning for capital crimes indicates how thoroughly humanistic concepts of punishment have influenced the thinking of Christians. If humanistic concepts of punishment have persuaded 

God's Monopoly of Execution


Christians that there was something sinister about the Old Testamentís specified mode of execution, then we should not be surprised to discover that humanistic concepts of justice, including economic justice, have also become influential in the thinking of Christians. Christians have voluntarily transferred their allegiance from the infallible Old Testament to contemporary God-hating and God-denying criminologists and economists. They have traded their birthright for a mess of pottage Ė or, given the nature of modern criminologyís propaganda, for a pot of message.


That God has delegated this right to execute to the civil government indicates that this institution has legitimate power. It can protect men from kidnapping, a capital crime (Ex. 21:16). It can also protect men from the spread of disease, especially killer diseases, by means of imposing a quarantine (Num. 5:1-4; Lev. 13-15). The police power of the State is to serve as one of the foundations of social stability. It thereby permits men to apply time and capital to their callings. It offers legal predictability, which is vital to the flourishing of personal freedom and economic development. Most important, the right of the civil government to take a manís life under specified conditions is apt to remind men of the ultimate Judge who gives the gift of life, but who also retains the right to remove life from those who rebel against Him. The civil governmentís monopoly of execution testifies to Godís absolute hostility against sin, especially the sin of striking out against Godís own image.

This is an extremely important point. Manís life is to be protected, not because each man possesses a hypothetical absolute and original right of ownership over his own person (the fundamental assertion of most libertarian and anarcho-capitalist theoreticians), but because God is absolutely sovereign and the absolute owner of all things, including men. He will not permit His image, man, to be mortally wounded without imposing a form of judgment which, in time and on earth, is analogous to that final judgment beyond the grave. Peter speaks of "the grace of life" (I Pet. 3:7); to destroy human life is to reject grace. Murderers have no place in Godís inheritance (Gal. 5:21; Rev. 21:8).