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Can Genesis 9:6 properly be used to answer modern questions about capital punishment? The debate is one of no small proportions, and the consequences both for the condemned murderer and for society are great indeed.
Genesis 9:5-6 is the simplest statement mandating society to punish their fellow beings for murder. However, its very simplicity and lack of any development allow opponents of capital punishment to question the passage's relevance. Missing, they claim, are all references to civil government, due process, exceptions and distinctions between various degrees of murder.
Genesis 9:5-6 is part of the covenant God established with Noah following the flood. Involved in this covenant were the animals' fear of people, permission to eat meat that did not contain the lifeblood and the delegation of the death penalty for murder into the hands of men and women. But more than this was involved, and this tends to demonstrate the enduring nature of the provisions of this covenant. Seasons were instituted as part of the enduring natural order (Gen 8:22), the rainbow would serve as a continuing pledge that the earth would not be flooded again (Gen 9:13) and the image of God provided the rationale for exacting the extreme penalty (Gen 9:6). The covenant established with Noah is therefore one that involves his representing "every living creature" (Gen 6:18-19; 9:10-11, 12, 15-17).
The text has a clear statement on capital punishment. God requires a "reckoning" of both the person and the beast who shed anyone's blood. But since both are held responsible, even though the beasts cannot make moral discriminations or act intentionally, how can advocates of capital punishment use this text to sort out the issue?
One could argue that Exodus 21:28-36 supplies the principle of animal liability while the Mosaic law makes a distinction between manslaughter and murder, or between first, second and third degree murder. Opponents would contend, however, that the Mosaic law was made between God and Israel while the Noachian covenant was between God and every living creature.
This distinction, however, is most curious, because it makes a sharper dichotomy between law and grace than what Scripture intends. For even when the civil code of the Mosaic law demonstrates a particularistic and distinctively cultural relevancy, which is limited to the period for which they were written, these same laws have behind them eternal principles as enduring as the character of God. That is the point so clearly made by the recent discovery that the Ten Commandments, with their moral code, set the agenda for both the Covenant Code of Exodus 21--23 and the specifications of Deuteronomy 6--26. I have argued this case in some detail in Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1983).
But let us settle the matter on the textual grounds of Genesis 9:6 itself. First, it is clear that the text is giving us a command and not just a suggestion or permission. Verse 5 states that God demands a punishment: "I [God] will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man." Moreover, the reason given for this action is one that remains in force for as long as men and women are made in the image of God.
This matter of the image of God brings us to the heart of the issue: "for [because] in the image of God has God made man." The word for cannot be rendered "although" here, as in Genesis 8:21 or Joshua 17:13--as if the fact that a person was made in the image of God was no impediment to the sentence of death. The clearest reading is that the murderer had to suffer for his or her actions because it was a fundamental denial of the image of God in the harmed individual. The person who destroyed another being made in God's image in fact did violence to God himself--so sacred and so permanent was the worth and value that God had invested in the slain victim.
Some interpreters connect the causal conjunction not with the shedding of blood, but with everything that preceded it--verses 1, 2 and 7. On these grounds, the reason given in the last part of verse 6 is instead the reason that God saved a remnant of the human race through Noah and why he protects people from the threats of wild animals.
But all of this is too distantly related. Furthermore, it is based on the alleged excuse that verse 6 has a peculiar structure (chiastic). This seems more like special pleading than solid exegesis. Ordinarily, one takes the nearest expression when seeking the expression or word that the for or because clause modifies. More indicators are needed to prove that a chiastic word order is unusual in this situation. This happens in poetry regularly.
Others object to transferring this demand for capital punishment in Genesis 9:6 to the law books as a universally binding law without including Genesis 9:4-5--"You must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it" and "I will demand an accounting from every animal." This can be partially answered by recognizing that the New Testament forbids Gentiles from eating blood or things that have not been properly bled (Acts 15:20, 29; compare with Lev 3:17; 17:14; Deut 12:16, 23). And Exodus 21:28-36 does enforce the principle of animal liability.
It is likewise too much to assert that "the shedding of blood" be taken merely as a metaphor for death. Most frequently the concept of pouring was a physical act; its metaphoric usages were reserved for such ideas as the pouring out of the wrath of God or the pouring out of one's heart or soul. But when blood was poured out in a violent way, that outpouring was said to pollute the land (Num 35:33; 2 Kings 24:4; Ezek 22:3-4). It is this pouring out of blood that constitutes the single most frequent use of this verb. It is hardly a metaphoric usage. No picture of violent death could be more graphically depicted.
Later in the sixth commandment, one word is chosen to depict first degree murder out of the seven possible verbs in Hebrew for kill. Rasah became restricted to deliberate and premeditated murder (Ps 94:6; Prov 22:13; Is 1:21; Jer 7:9; Hos 4:2; 6:9). This verb was not used for killing beasts for food (Gen 9:3), defending oneself in a nighttime attack (Ex 22:2), accidental killings (Deut 19:5) or even manslaughter (Num 35:16, 25). What joins murder with manslaughter is that both incur blood guilt and both pollute the land. What differentiates the two is that there is no substitute allowed for death which comes by the hand of a murderer (that is to say, for one who premeditates his act), but the text implies that for every other of the sixteen to twenty death penalty crimes in the Old Testament a substitute is permitted (Num 35:31). It is with this concept that the shedding of blood would appear to be linked.
Nowhere does the text introduce the political state as the one that demands that life from the murderer. While this is true, it is only another evidence of the phenomenon of progressive revelation. No one passage supplies all the details. Even the statement in Romans 13 on the state does not include the caveat raised in Acts 4:19-20 that circumscribes the authority of the state over a Christian when obeying human government would exclude obeying God.
Jesus himself seems to have accepted the principle of capital punishment when he reminded Pilate that government was divinely conferred (Jn 19:11). The same position is elsewhere supported in the New Testament by Romans 13:4 and Acts 25:11. However, the major argument for capital punishment still rests in the image-of-God argument given in Genesis 9:6. This can hardly be bypassed by any who take Scripture seriously.
But if a society persists in refusing to take the life of those conclusively proven to have deliberately and violently taken others' lives, then that society will stand under God's judgment and the value, worth, dignity and respect for persons in that society and nation will diminish accordingly. It is self-defeating to argue on the one hand for civil and women's rights and to turn around on the other and deny them to the one struck down by a murderous blow.
Of course this principle must be applied with such reluctance that where "reasonable doubt" exists, we err on the side of mercy and waive the death penalty. In an imperfect judicial system not all defendants will be treated equally or fairly because economic status, social standing, race or political and legal connections will place some "above the law." However, we will warn that such cheating does not escape God's notice, nor does it change his laws. It only becomes another divine indictment on that society that dares to exercise unevenly the divinely ordained demand for justice. That nation is going to be judged for such a cavalier attitude toward God's mission.