The Bible commands capital punishment for many sins--why do we only practice it on murder? This question was posted anonymously on a bulletin board on the Internet and I found it intriguing.
There are indeed many "crimes" listed in scripture that are considered worthy of death: striking or cursing your mother or father (Exodus 21.15, 17) , kidnaping, (Exodus 21.16), being a medium or a wizard (Leviticus20.27) or a sorcerer (Exodus 22.18), committing adultery (Leviticus 20.10), working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35.2), child sacrifice (Leviticus 20.2), most cases of incest (Leviticus 20.11-14), certain cases of prostitution (Leviticus 21.9), blasphemy of the name of God (Leviticus 24.16), murder (Numbers 35.16-33), enticing the worship of other gods (Deuteronomy 13.1-10), disobedience to clergy or judge (Deuteronomy 17.12), rape of a betrothed or married woman (Deuteronomy 22.23-27), and being a stubborn, rebellious child (Deuteronomy 21.18-21). And there are certainly others.
Although the above list seems severe and unmerciful, there is an underlying principle to the biblical system of punishment. That principle is reciprocity that is, restoration of the victim.
In scriptural law there is little emphasis on the punishment of the "criminal." Instead, the emphasis is on righting the wrongs committed. For instance, if you get into a fight and injure your opponent, your "punishment" is to pay for medical expenses and lost work time (Exodus 21.18-19). If your sheep is stolen and the thief has sold or slaughtered it, you would be paid four times the value and if the thief couldn't afford it, you simply sold the thief as a slave for compensation (Exodus 22.1). On the other hand, if you caught the thief with the goods, you got your sheep back and the price of another as recompense for being inconvenienced (Exodus 22.4). However, if the un-caught thief felt guilty they could return the animal (or other goods) at cost plus 20% (Leviticus 6.1-5) without further prosecution.
But what of all those instances of capital punishment? In these cases there is no compensation for the offended party except to exact physical retribution. One cannot be compensated for rape or murder. For the loss of trust in a relationship there is no compensatory price.
However, some of the punishments for the crimes seem quite severe the notion of putting a child to death for being rebellious is abhorrent. But there is no compensation for disrespect and cursing was taken seriously. Not that the death penalty was often meted out for a rebellious teenager; judgement was primarily in the hands of the parents. And whenever capital punishment was executed for a crime, the victim or the family was the first to throw the stone.
Still, many of these "crimes" are not crimes against creation, but against God. In the case of divination, intentional impurity, disrespect, and blasphemy, each was considered an affront to God and threatened the order of the faith. These too were dealt with severely, for there could be no compensation.
But why, with all these biblical prescriptions about capital punishment, does our society choose to practice it only for murder?
For one, justice is no longer exercised with the victim in mind. Instead the criminal justice system represents the individual victim, performs the prosecution on their behalf, and then exacts its own penalties. These penalties are different (less severe) because the laws that seem "right" for one culture seem "wrong" for another. For instance, in some Middle Eastern cultures, a thief loses a hand. In others, drinking and driving carries the death penalty. And in Singapore you'd best not scrawl graffiti lest you be incarcerated and later publicly beaten. In turn, our Western culture finds capital punishment warranted only in direct retribution to murder.
However, as "merciful(!)" as our forbearance might seem, our society is more concerned with punishment than on compensation of the victim. Incarceration wasn't a part of biblical justice and capital punishment was a last resort. Instead of punishment, far more often the victim was able to exact payment for their loss and their inconvenience a much more equitable system of justice the whole way round.