Last Updated 11 Nov 2022

Punishment in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 1-14 and Exodus 14-23)

Category Bible, Punishment
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The Hebrew Bible is full of rules and by extension punishments. God needs to give his people a reason to obey the rules he sets, so he gives very harsh punishments for breaking one of his rules. However, he does not always warn people of what he punishment will be for breaking one of his rules. Although punishment is common throughout the entirety of the Bible and a major part of all religions that use the Hebrew Bible, it is particularly evident in Genesis 1-14 and Exodus 14-23. The punishment in Genesis 1-14 and Exodus 14-23 are some of the most detailed, severe, and wide reaching punishments in the Bible.

The punishments in Genesis 1-14 include Eve being sentenced to experience more pain during childbirth and be ruled over by her husband, Adam having to work hard for food and in the fields, Cain being sentenced to wander the Earth and receiving a mark from God, and the great flood because of the evil in humans. Eve is sentenced to experience more pain during childbirth because she ate from the tree of knowledge. God commanded her and Adam not to eat from the tree because they will die. She was tricked by a serpent into eating from the tree and when God found out he decided that she, and all other women, should experience more pain in childbirth because of the knowledge Eve gained from eating from the tree. Eve was also punished by her husband, and all women's husbands, becoming the “rule[er] over you” (Genesis 3.16). This in a way is a punishment to both men and women, even though it definitely has more negative effects on women than men. Before this point, women and men were seen as equals and companions to one another, but with this punishment men are given power over women. Men are given the power because Eve convinces Adam to eat the apple. If Adam had control over Eve from the beginning, he could have stopped her from eating from the tree which is why God gives men control over women. Men controlling women is seen in many other passages and comes into play in several punishments in Exodus 22. Lot offers up his two daughters in Genesis 19.8 in order to protect some of his male visitors, Abraham kicks out Hagar and her son in Genesis 21.10, and in Genesis 29.30 the Bible says that Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah, and there is nothing Leah can do about it. She is forced to just stay with Jacob and obey him while being loved less. The thing that makes punishment in the Bible unique is that punishment is not usually just for the one person that committed the crime or sin; punishment is passed down. It is not just Eve who experiences more pain in childbirth, but all women do because of Eve's sin. Adam is punished by God cursing "the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life...By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,” (Genesis 3.17-19). Man is forced to do hard labor for his food because God makes farming hard work as punishment for Adam listening to his wife and eating from the tree. This establishes gender roles in civilizations by making women submissive to their husbands and their work being childbirth, but it assigns farming and field work to men.

Cain receives a mark from God and is forced to wander the Earth as punishment for killing his brother Abel. This punishment seems almost tailored for Cain specifically. Since Cain worked in the fields as a farmer, being sentenced to wander the Earth means he can never be a farmer again. He is not able to stay in one place long enough to make a farm or even grow one harvest's worth of crops. God takes away Cain's home and livelihood. The mark of Cain is to prevent Cain from being murdered while he travels. God does not want blood for blood as justice; instead, he wants Cain to have to live with murdering his brother and living the hard life of a fugitive until he dies by natural causes. If someone were to kill Cain, they would "suffer a sevenfold vengeance," but the Bible does not define what that means (Genesis 4.14). Not every punishment is accurate to what God tells the people, like God telling Adam and Eve they'll die if they eat from the tree of knowledge, and often punishments are not defined, like in the case of sevenfold vengeance. The great flood is a much more general punishment in the Bible. God regretted making humankind because he "saw the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually," (Genesis 6.5). Rather than punishment of one being passed down through the generations, the punishment here is widespread and occurs to all the people in the world at once, with the exception of Noah and his family. God judges the people as being filled with evil thoughts, and by extension, sinful. God sees Noah, however, as a righteous person, so he gives Noah the ability to save his family and animals and rewards all his descendants for Noah's obedience. The sins and evil of the rest of the world are never described, so it is hard to say what they are being punished for. This punishment has very little reasoning behind it and the people are never given a warning for committing what God sees as evil. This demonstrates how nondescript God can be when it comes to warnings and punishments. He, however, gets very specific about punishments in Exodus.

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Punishments and rules are laid out very clearly in Exodus 21 and 22. Other punishments in Exodus 14-23 are the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea and keeping bread until morning. The Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea because they did not believe in God, but God was the one who hardened the Pharaoh's heart, so he would not let the Israelites go. When the Egyptians did start to believe in God, which can be seen by them believing he was fighting for the Israelites, is when God killed them all by having Moses close the Red Sea on them. An example of one of God's small punishments is seen when the Israelites keep the leftover bread until morning. While they are wandering the desert, God gives them bread to collect, but Moses tells them "let no one leave any of it over until morning.' But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul.” (Exodus 16.19-20). No severe harm came to the Israelites who left the bread until morning, but it sends the message that every little thing that God says should be followed exactly as it is commanded or there will be some level of punishment. In Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments are listed out, but there are no punishments listed out correspondingly for breaking one or many commandments; it is just said to follow them. This contrasts to Exodus 21 and 22 which is a list of very specific rules and punishments for if something is done. One of the rules in Exodus 21 is "When a slave owner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner's property," (Exodus 21.20-21).

The scenario is explained and the punishment for the variations are also detailed, which is how most of the rules are laid out in Exodus 21 and 22. When the slave dies immediately, it is murder because the slave owner's actions directly killed the slave. If it takes a few days, the slave owner is merely seen as punishing the slave, and the slave happened to die shortly after that punishment was dealt, but at this time it could not be proven if the slave happened to die or if the slave was killed because their owner struck them. Punishment is applied to animals as well as people in the Bible, such as “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall not be liable,” (Exodus 21.28). In modern society one would expect the owner to be held responsible because it is their property, but in the eyes of the God the ox simply does not deserve to live anymore, and the owner does not receive any punishment other than losing an ox. Sometimes punishments are reflective of women being submissive to men as well as a punishment for other actions. This is the case in Exodus 22.16-17, "When a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged to be married, and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. But if her father refuses to give her to him, he shall pay an amount equal to the bride-price for virgins." This is seen as a man taking something away from the father, a pure daughter, rather than doing something wrong to a woman, which is why the reparations go to the father rather than going directly to the daughter. Occasionally God gives an explanation for his reasoning behind his rules and corresponding punishments. This is the case when God says "You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them... I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans,” (Exodus 22.22-24). God will very often, but not always, have an eye for an eye type of punishment. His rules and punishments are based on making it up to the person you wronged directly.

Exodus 14-23 and Genesis 1-13 handle punishment very differently. In Genesis, punishment is very specific for Adam, Eve, and Cain, but is very general in the flood and in the fact that Adam and Eve's punishments were passed on for all men and women. In Exodus, punishment is very detailed, but is setup more for when this rule is broken this punishment would occur. Punishment is dealt with directly in both sections of the Bible. The specificity and cause-effect nature of Exodus 14-23 makes what God expects of his people very clear. It sets up specific guidelines for everyone, which is extremely effective for creating a strong sense of society and community among the Israelites. The way God handles punishments in Exodus is far more interesting because the specificity opens the text up for more direct analysis for what God wants from people and why. Punishment is abundant in the Bible and one of the most common reasons for people to follow the word of the Bible. It is fear of punishment that causes people not to sin. The detail and frequency that punishment occurs in the Bible is reflective of how important it is in shaping the religion.

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