Last updated: 2020-12-05
There are negative and positive commandments and there are not (in general) legal punishments for breaking the positive ones. Negative commands use the Hebrew words for “no” and “not” which are לא and אין to describe what one should avoid doing, such as “thou shalt not” in the ten commandments. However a negative can also be implied, like describing a rebellious son and issuing punishment for him. (implication: don’t be a rebellious son)
18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20 They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21 NRSV)
However, what if this is actually the case throughout? It would be another rule of interpretation we could use. Just like the rules of Hillel are found throughout the Bible, Hillel just described the rules as Newton described the law of gravity. Hillel no more instituted the rules of Hillel than Newton instituted gravity. So it is possible that this is a principle of biblical law and we can make an argument based on the idea of positive commandments not having a legal punishment.
One of the positive Passover commandments states:
10 Speak to the Israelites, saying: Anyone of you or your descendants who is unclean through touching a corpse, or is away on a journey, shall still keep the passover to the Lord. 11 In the second month on the fourteenth day, at twilight, they shall keep it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 12 They shall leave none of it until morning, nor break a bone of it; according to all the statute for the passover they shall keep it. 13 But anyone who is clean and is not on a journey, and yet refrains from keeping the passover, shall be cut off from the people for not presenting the Lord’s offering at its appointed time; such a one shall bear the consequences for the sin. (Numbers 9:10-13)
My argument follows:
1. The Passover is a positive command and therefore does not have a legal punishment.
2. “Cut off from the people [of israel]” taken literally, means not being considered an Israelite.
3. “Cut off a from people [of israel]” would not be punishment for foreigners who were already not israelite.
4. Therefore if you gain the status of Israelite via the Passover then being considered a foreigner would not be a legal punishment, you would just not get the benefit of the Passover.
5 But if “cut off from people” is legal punishment this contradicts with number 1.
6. To reconcile, we suppose the Passover gave the legal right to be Israelite. Therefore, being cut off is not a legal punishment, just a lack of benefit from the positive command.
Additional evidence seems to imply the Passover was a conversion ritual:
If an alien who resides with you wants to celebrate the passover to the Lord, all his males shall be circumcised; then he may draw near to celebrate it; he shall be regarded as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it; (Exodus 12:48)
It’s interesting that this idea of positive and negative commandments assumes that God can decide to write things in a specific way in order to convey a message. “God said let there be light and there was light” is written as “וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אֹור וַֽיְהִי־אֹֽור” you’ll notice that “and there was light” and “let there be light” are written in the same way ” וַֽיְהִי־אֹֽור” and ” יְהִי אֹור” except for the vav (meaning “and”) and the nikkud (nikkud weren’t added till later). How can this be? Because of the vav conversive which changes the tense of the statement, so they can be written the same way even though the tenses are different. However, the vav does not force this to be the case all the time. Therefore, this may be conveying “it happened exactly as God said it would” through the syntax. If I see a pattern in the way punishment is given for negative and positive commandments then that may be evidence of a pattern that has meaning.
For instance, with the positive command of honoring your father, you can do things that wouldn’t honor your father that should not be legally punished like squandering your inheritance. Another example, Christ criticized some Pharisees for teaching that people can make offerings of things instead of supporting/honoring their father. Mark 7:10-12. However, it would be inappropriate for the legal system to step in and tell them that you had to give your parents things to support them, this is a family matter. (at the very least it would be inappropriate if it dictated the specifics)
But can “cut off” really mean that? The LXX has what may appear to a more violent interpretation of “cut off.” “that soul shall be utterly destroyed from it’s people” https://studybible.info/interlinear/Numbers%209:13
For those who aren’t familiar with the Septuagint (LXX), it is simply a translation of the Hebrew and is trying to convey the meaning behind the Hebrew. It will also reflect their understanding of the Hebrew at that time. I think it is a good reference which was quoted by Jesus and his disciples but I don’t view it as the final authority on something. It is something that must be weighed with the rest of the evidence. It is also useful because it is translated sometimes from more ancient Hebrew texts than the Masoretic so you can use the Dead Sea scrolls as a second witness to see if a certain reading is correct (for example it turns out the Goliath is not as tall as he is the Masoretic text according to the witness of the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls)
In addition, the LXX also uses some greek words that mean violence in much less forceful ways, for example, read the context of these and often “force” just means “persuade” https://studybible.info/search-interlinear/strongs/G971 Also, the LXX translates “cut off” as “destroyed from his race” which isn’t the same thing as destroyed. Also, observe that that same word is used to just mean “destroyed” without the corresponding “from his race” qualification: https://studybible.info/search-interlinear/strongs/G1842 If something is qualified it is usually not the same as the unqualified thing and should be restricted to that context, another example would be “olam” or “forever” it is sometimes used in context of a human life where it just means “forever until death” The LXX actually uses “forever” to translate “all of his days” from the Hebrew multiple times (i.e. https://studybible.info/interlinear/ex%2021:6 )
Going back to positive commandments, another interesting set of verses is:
25 The priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the Israelites, and they shall be forgiven; it was unintentional, and they have brought their offering, an offering by fire to the Lord, and their sin offering before the Lord, for their error. 26 All the congregation of the Israelites shall be forgiven, as well as the aliens residing among them, because the whole people was involved in the error. 27 An individual who sins unintentionally shall present a female goat a year old for a sin offering. 28 And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the one who commits an error, when it is unintentional, to make atonement for the person, who then shall be forgiven. 29 For both the native among the Israelites and the alien residing among them—you shall have the same law for anyone who acts in error. 30 But whoever acts high-handedly, whether a native or an alien, affronts the Lord, and shall be cut off from among the people. 31 Because of having despised the word of the Lord and broken his commandment, such a person shall be utterly cut off and bear the guilt. (Numbers 15:30)
This would seem to include any sin, including breaking positive commands. So is “cut off from among the people” a legal punishment here? Not in my mind; the law is part of the covenant and if you reject part of the law by sinning purposely then you reject the whole covenant. (James 2:10) Therefore it’s hard to see if this is actually punishment or is just a statement of the result of purposely rejecting part of the covenant. You get the benefit of the covenant by being Israelite, if you reject it you lose that benefit. Therefore this may not actually be punishment but a lack of obtaining the benefit of the covenant.
Interestingly, in addition to sinning on purpose, verse 30 may refer to taking an improper place of judgment for oneself. The previous context is about forgiving sins and the following context is about them asking what to do to a man who had picked up sticks on the sabbath so the would judge properly.
It actually uses the same word to talk about claiming responsibility for something yourself: (“ought” is supplied in the KJV)
Were it not that I feared the wrath of the enemy, lest their adversaries should behave themselves strangely, and lest they should say, Our hand is high, H7311 and the LORD hath not done all this. (Deu 32:27 KJV)
But the soul that doeth ought presumptuously, H7311 whether he be born in the land, or a stranger, the same reproacheth the LORD; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. (Num 15:30 KJV)
The Septuagint uses the same word here for people who refuse to listen to the priest to carry out the law properly:
And the man who ever should do in pride G5243 to not obey the priest standing beside to officiate in the name of the lord your God, or the judge who ever should be in those days, then [2shall die 1that man], and you shall lift away the wicked one from out of Israel. (Deut 17:12)
And the soul who shall do a thing by hand through pride G5243 — of the native born, or of the foreigners — [3God 1this one 2provokes], and [2shall be utterly destroyed 1that soul] from out of its people,(Num 15:30)
Observe the context:
11 You must carry out fully the law that they interpret for you or the ruling that they announce to you; do not turn aside from the decision that they announce to you, either to the right or to the left. 12 As for anyone who presumes to disobey the priest appointed to minister there to the Lord your God, or the judge, that person shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. 13 All the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again. (Deut 17:11-13 NRSV)
While none of that conclusively shows it also refers to presumptuous judgment it does provide an interesting parallel. If you purposely reject God’s authority structure by taking up judgment and not listening to the priest you also reject God’s covenant.
Update 2020-03-14: I have found a possible flaw in my idea of “cut off from people” (KJV version) This seems to parallel “put to death” with “cut off from people”:
Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work H4399 therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.
Six days may work H4399 be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD: whosoever doeth any work H4399 in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.
Six days shall work H4399 be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the LORD: whosoever doeth work H4399 therein shall be put to death.
One possible explanation to save my theory is that both happen. Not only is the person killed but they are no longer considered an Israelite since working is a purposeful act of breaking the covenant.