Death Penalty: Punishment, Warning, Atonement?
One certain purpose is that of azhara, of warning or admonition. If the likelihood of such a sentence being imposed and executed promptly is rather high, it should give pause to anyone considering the premeditated commission of any crime sufficiently heinous.
However: the primary purpose, as implied by the verse quoted at the outset of this article, is the Jewish concept of kappara, usually translated as “atonement, expiation.”
Death is the ultimate expiation for sin (cf. e.g. Pesachim 69b and Avoda Zara 46a in the Talmud, inter alia). As the great rabbinical scholar S. R. Hirsch explains in his commentary on the written Torah, the reason for the institution of an animal sacrifice for a hattath or “sin offering” is precisely that the sin was occasioned by abdication of control over one’s physical, “animal” nature. The animal is mercifully “brought close” (the literal meaning of the Hebrew word most commonly translated as “sacrifice”) instead of oneself.
But this applies to sin, chét’ in Hebrew, a word which carries a root meaning of “miss the mark, fail to hit the target” (cf. e.g. its use in Judges XX,16). Something which can be corrected through recognition of error and the determination to do better.
There is no way to reinstate a human life, to replace the tzelem Elo-him, the “image of G-d” which the murderer has erased from the world. The crime can be expiated only by erasing the murderer’s own now terribly distorted likeness of G-d from the world. And if the murderer takes advantage of his remaining time on Earth to contemplate what he has done and truly repent for his crime, he will accept the justice of the sentence, and it will serve as his kappara.
Thus, pace the muddled thinking of some latter-day conservatives, most recently in Nebraska, the Biblical death sentence is the direct result of the precious value of every human life, every tzelem Elo-him, and lies at the very heart of the concept of morality.