Some random thoughts inspired by a question regarding stoning and the Bible from the editor of an online news site for which I do some consulting:
The Bible prescribes capital punishment for a variety of actions; stoning was one way of accomplishing capital punishment. We see capital punishment for murder, adultery, rape, Sabbath breaking, disobedience to parents, witchcraft, and idolatry. The Israelite laws are not unique among the law codes of the Ancient Near East in prescribing capital punishment for certain actions. It differs from other ANE law-codes in two things: the laws are applied equally to all members of society. There are not different laws for different classes. Second, the laws were intended to be proportional. The lex talionis, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” was designed to limit punishments to being no worse than the offense.
Of course, from our modern vantage point, we don’t necessarily see that.
An individual who breaks the Sabbath (by gathering firewood on Saturday) shortly after the Sabbath was instituted by the Ten Commandments, is soon dispatched after a brief consultation with God. It is the only instance in the Bible of someone being executed for violating the Sabbath. For instance, Nehemiah, after the Babylonian captivity, simply berates the leaders of Jerusalem for their violations of the Sabbath, though he later does threaten “arrest.” (see Nehemiah 13:15-22)
For other crimes, for instance murder, the Bible describes several people who were guilty of the crime who nevertheless were not executed, ranging from Cain in Genesis 4 (before the Law was given), through Moses (who killed an Egyptian) to David, guilty of both murder and adultery. One might argue that their status protected them, though the law specified that the kings were no better than anyone else, and that they were subject to the same laws as anyone else (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).
Despite the condemnation of blasphemy in Leviticus 24:16, the only stories of blasphemers being condemned are criticisms by the religious establishment against Jesus and against the first Christian martyr when he was stoned. Stoning (and capital punishment in general) is not placed in a good light, for the most part, in the Bible, despite the law.
And while idolatry and worshiping gods other than Yahweh were considered capital crimes, we see idolatry and polytheism as endemic throughout Israel from the time of Joshua until the time of the Babylonian conquest (which the prophets blamed on the idolatry)—and rarely were people executed for worshipping other gods. The one exception that I can think of off the top of my head being the incident in 2 Kings 10:18-28 when Jehu gathers all the prophets, servants and priests of Baal and executes them, though using soldiers with swords rather than stoning. This, shortly after he had conducted a coup against the former king and royal family whom he had slaughtered. Oddly, however the prophet Hosea relates God’s words regarding the incident (the death of the royal family and prophets of Baal):
Then the Lord said to Hosea, “Call him Jezreel [Hosea’s son], because I will soon punish the house of Jehu for the massacre at Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel.
This would suggest that God was not pleased by what Jehu had done, despite the fact that the incident, as described in 2 Kings 10:18-28 seems to have God’s blessing at the time. So perhaps this apparent paradox tells us something deeper about God’s attitudes and that there might have been a disconnect between what some the ancient Israelites thought God wanted versus what he really did want.
After all, the Bible, though it can be analyzed as just individual texts, books, and such, written by many individuals over many years and in many places, this might be a time to think about the Bible in its entirety, which is the record that has been bequeathed to us today: the biblical narrative as a whole, taken as a whole, has a point to make and that looking at the Bible as a whole gives us incites that looking at the individual pieces we might miss. Many interpreters of the Bible miss the forest for the trees as it were.
Matthew 22:35-40 gives us this incident from Jesus’ interaction with a religious leader:
One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The point that the Bible is trying to make as a whole is that it all comes down to loving God and loving people. I would argue that any interpretation of the Bible or its parts that allows you to violate either of those prime commandments is necessarily in error. Go to Jail, do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars. Notice, too, that the commandments to love God and to love your neighbor are quotations from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, both part of the Law of Moses): Jesus is not saying something new—he is arguing that it has been there the whole time, though people seem to have a lot of trouble hearing it and putting it into practice.
Paul reiterates the concept later in letters to local churches:
For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)
Throughout the Bible love, mercy, and forgiveness are priorities (Micah 6:6-8, Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 22:3, Hosea 6:6, Zechariah 7:9-10, Matthew 9:3, Matthew 23:23, Mark 12:33, 1 John not killing people (see , as an example ). Some criticize the orders to exterminate the Canaanites, but one of the bigger stories in the book of Joshua is of the Canaanites who were not exterminated (thanks to their subterfuge Joshua 9). Instead, they were then protected and rescued by the Israelite army and by God making the sun and moon stand still (Joshua 10:6-15). Those who attempted to exterminate them were later punished (2 Samuel 21:1-9). It should also be pointed out that the Israelites never actually exterminated the Canaanites.
In John 8:3-11 the woman caught in adultery is spared thanks to Jesus—this despite the fact that adultery, according to Mosaic law, was a capital offense.
In that incident, and throughout the New Testament, stoning is always shown as a negative (along with capital punishment in general). Jesus was threatened with stoning, Stephen was martyred by stoning, Paul was stoned.
The problem with the FFRF and those who like to criticize the Bible as being evil, is that they miss the point that the Bible is trying to make. They are like people who mispronounce words by putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable. They focus their attention on the wrong things and miss the point all together.
I’ll end with the words of the author of 1 John:
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. 1 John 4:20-21)