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By A. Prentice


All Scripture references are to the King James (Authorised) Version.

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And if a man take a wife and her mother, it is wickedness: they shall be burnt with fire, both he and they; that there be no wickedness among you.


Question: Does this verse condone burning people alive?


Answer: This passage occurs within a list of prohibitions on certain types of aberrant sexual behaviour, such as adultery, bestiality, incest, and sodomy (verses 10-21). These were capital crimes in Israel. Usually the death penalty was carried out by stoning (at the hands of the community).


Contrary to the common misunderstanding, the sin committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was not sexual. In fact, God blessed their marital union and instructed the couple to propagate. However, the natural and normal sexual drive is one of the strongest passions and as such is, in a fallen world, perverted more extensively than others. Such perversions are addressed by the harsh regulations of Leviticus, chapters 18 and 20.


Past and Present

Then, as now, the practices listed here were illicit in God’s sight, the difference being that now, under the Christian dispensation, the extreme penalty of death by stoning is not appropriate nor desirable. Israel then was a theocracy, operating under laws adapted for the time, but now largely abrogated for the followers of Christ. However, the moral force of the condemnation persists into the New Testament, and the prohibitions are still valid today, particularly for Christians (Romans 1: 22-32; 1 Corinthians 6: 9-11; 1 Timothy 1: 9, 10; Titus 3: 3, 4).


Commentators have long wrestled with Leviticus 20: 14. Adam Clarke suggests hopefully that the burning with fire could mean branding, though this does not seem to be supported by the language used in this text. The Hebrew root word saraph, translated here ‘burnt with fire’, is used unambiguously in many other Old Testament passages (e.g., Leviticus 6: 30; Numbers 31: 10; Judges 15: 6).


Still, it may reasonably be established that the verse does not mean burning alive. For one thing, the Israelites were forbidden to offer up living sacrifices in fire to Molech (Leviticus 18: 21; 20: 1-5; Deuteronomy 18: 10; Jeremiah 32: 34, 35). And given the compassionate laws enumerated in Leviticus 19: 9-18, one is justified in looking for an explanation consistent with the tenor of those regulations.


Example from Joshua

We can get some understanding of the intent of the prescribed punishment, by considering the historic incident related in Joshua 7. In this account, Achan, a soldier who illegally looted treasure during Israel’s assault on Jericho, has been found out and judged beyond a shadow of a doubt. In verse 15 it is said that he should be ‘burnt with fire’, though the manner of carrying out the sentence does not proceed in the way the raw declaration implies.


Verses 24-26 (with possible variant readings in italics):


24 And Joshua, and all Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the garment, and the wedge of gold, and his sons, and his daughters [as spectators], and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had: and they brought them up unto the valley of Achor. 25 And Joshua said, Why hast thou troubled us? the LORD shall trouble thee this day. And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned [his belongings] with fire, after they had stoned them [him] with stones. 26 And they raised over him a great heap of stones . . . .[fn1]


This is very likely the force of the Leviticus 20: 14 passage: the burning took place after the execution.[fn2] This explanation also pertains to Leviticus 21: 9, in which the immoral daughter of a priest was to be ‘burnt with fire’; that is, executed and her corpse destroyed by fire.



Our modern sensibilities recoil at the punishments meted out in the Old Testament, though it’s fair to say that capital punishment was so serious that the judgement was not arrived at lightly. The means of confirming guilt was rigorous, and acted as a brake on frivolous accusations (and, perhaps on occasion, the reporting of the truly guilty) (Exodus 20: 16; Numbers 35: 30; Deuteronomy 17: 6, 7; 19: 15-20).


It is worth noting that although Leviticus prescribes the punishment for each offence, we are not told how often such penalties were actually enforced. Besides, the precautionary tone of the Mosaic statutes is only one aspect to be considered. For although many of the laws seem restrictive and undemocratic from a modern, Western point of view, their long-range intent was to preserve Israel as a nation dedicated to Jehovah and – significantly – to function as a ‘schoolmaster’ to bring the Jewish people to Christ (Galatians 3: 24-26). Consequently, we find prophetic and typical significance to many aspects of Israel’s system of jurisprudence.



[fn1] Opinions vary among translators and commentators as to whether the family of Achan was killed with him. Adam Clarke contends that Achan alone was executed. Both possibilities are broached in the Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown; 1871): ‘25. Joshua, and all Israel with him, took Achan – He with his children and all his property, cattle as well as movables, were brought into one of the long broad ravines that open into the Ghor, and after being stoned to death (Nu 15: 30-35), his corpse, with all belonging to him, was consumed to ashes by fire. “All Israel” was present, not only as spectators, but active agents, as many as possible, in inflicting the punishment – thus testifying their abhorrence of the sacrilege, and their intense solicitude to regain the divine favour. As the divine law expressly forbade the children to be put to death for their father’s sins (De 24: 16), the conveyance of Achan’s “sons and daughters” to the place of execution might be only as spectators, that they might take warning by the parental fate; or, if they shared his punishment (Jos 22: 20), they had probably been accomplices in his crime, and, indeed, he could scarcely have dug a hole within his tent without his family being aware of it. 26. They raised over him a great heap of stones – It is customary to raise cairns over the graves of criminals or infamous persons in the East still.’


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[fn2] It is not made clear in Leviticus 20: 14 why the bodies of the man and women were to be burned only for this particular crime, as it appears to be no ‘worse’ than the other violations enumerated in the same chapter.


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Copyright January 2011

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