One element of the Law which the vast majority of Christians see as being obsolete or annulled following the death and resurrection of Christ is the system of death penalties prescribed for a variety of offenses therein. While there are still many Christians who see the death penalty as appropriate in cases of murder, or other very specific crimes, relatively few would argue for its application in cases of, for example, disrespect to parents, or the fraud of a woman being found not to be a virgin on her wedding night. The fact that Christians do not embrace a literal application of these commandments from the Law is then often used in argument in an attempt to relativize the seriousness of other sins which require the death penalty in a literal reading. Even in cases in which the prescribed death penalty is viewed as arguing that these are ‘mortal sins’ or ‘sins unto death’, it must be admitted that saying that a sin is very serious is a far cry from saying that it is worthy of death. It is difficult, with that approach, to argue that the strictness of the Law has been somehow watered down.
In order to understand the way in which the Apostles, and the Church following them, have continued to apply this portion of the Law, one first has to understand the way in which life and death are viewed by the Law itself, as it relates to the community which is under the Law. This understanding begins in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis. In our modern era, so much of our discussion has concerned the historicity of the various narratives in the book of Genesis that we are prone to lose sight of its place in the Torah. In its canonical form, Genesis is not an independent entity, but rather serves as the historical and theological prologue to the Torah as a whole. The major themes of the Law are therefore to be found initially in Genesis, and Genesis should shape our understanding of the events and teachings related in Exodus through Deuteronomy.
Life, in Eden, was to eat from the tree of life, and thereby to remain forever in the place where God is. In the day that our first parents chose to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they died in being cut off from the tree of life and were expelled from that place where God’s presence is. Throughout the Torah, this is the understanding of what life and death mean, including biological life and death. The living God dwells in the land of the living, and the slain in the grave are cut off from his life-giving hand. Here the ideas of death and exile are brought together and united. Later, in the Law, the common phrase is that certain sins require that a person be ‘cut off from among the people’ (Num 15:30-31). It is ambiguous whether this refers to expulsion from the community, or a literal death penalty not because of our lack of historical knowledge, but precisely because both of these ideas are so closely united in the vision of the text. When the place where God is becomes the camp with the tabernacle at the center, and still later when it becomes the kingdom with the temple at its theological center, to be expelled or cut off from that place, and God’s presence, is death. The situation continues, and is the subject of meditation, in the post-exilic Psalms and prophets.
It is also important to note that the status of being cut off from among the people and from the presence of God was not irremediable. Following the pattern established in Genesis by Abraham’s sacrifice of the provided ram rather than Isaac, sin offerings were to be offered as a ransom for the life of the violator of the Law. Discussion of the Law and its penalties often leaves aside the fact that the Law includes concrete means of repentance and restoration. The Law as a whole is not merely a means of governance for Israel, rather it represents the expression of what is now required of Israel, now that God is dwelling among them, and the means of restoring justice, the right relation of things, when that situation has been disrupted. Numbers 15 explicitly ties the cutting off of a person from the community to their lack of repentance, in addition to the nature of their sin. When sin enters the community through a person, this can be remedied either by the repentance of the person, or the removal of that person from the community.
St. Paul applies this part of the Law quite directly in 1 Corinthians 5. A man in Corinth is guilty of sexual immorality with his stepmother, which under the Law requires him to be cut off from among the people, but the church in Corinth has done nothing about it. St. Paul points out that this situation cannot be allowed to stand. The man must be removed from the community. But even here, St. Paul extends the idea that this will hopefully work toward the man’s repentance and salvation. Excommunication from the church community is the direct equivalent of exile from the old covenant community, and is the remedy for unrepentant sin throughout the New Testament (cf. Matt 18:17, 2 Thess 3:6, 1 Tim 1;20). In addition to being expelled from the place where Christ dwells, one is excluded from eating from the tree of life, here fulfilled in the Eucharist as the ongoing source of life in the kingdom (John 6:53-57). Far from being a ‘watering down’ of the judicial penalties of the Law, excommunication from the church community, as taught by the apostles and practiced by the church through the centuries, is a direct and literal application of the principles, and the penalties, of the Law.