This is one of the Old Testament stories that makes people say they couldn’t believe in a God who would do such a thing. God condemns a man to be stoned to death just for saying a curse. It sounds pretty extreme to us. What happened to love and forgiveness and grace?
I think that we can only begin to understand this judgment when we focus on God instead of the punishment. The crime was against Him. The guilty man blasphemed the Name of the Lord with a curse. We must always remember that God’s name is who He is. It’s not an identifying label; it’s the expression of His character. Blaspheming His name is defaming His character. God is holy so He deserves (and has required of us) reverence.
The context for this judgment is a list of other punishments, including the well known “an eye for an eye.” Many people think this is revenge, but it’s intended to make sure justice is done. The punishment fits the crime and it prevents excessive punishment. But some crimes require death.
If you take an eye, you lose an eye.
If you break a bone, you have a bone broken.
It you knock out a tooth, you lose a tooth.
If you kill an animal, you replace it.
But if you take a human life, how can you replace it? So you lose yours.
This understanding of justice gives me a new understanding of blasphemy. To blaspheme His name is to deny His holiness. If an injury is paid back in kind, what punishment could repay God for damage to His character? Compared to God we have no holiness; our characters are already damaged. So the penalty must be death. Either we follow Him or we go our own way. Either we worship Him or we worship ourselves. Either we submit to Him or we rule ourselves. Either we believe in Jesus or we deny Him. The second of those options always leads to death. We all deserve death because we all blaspheme His name.
When the guilty man was taken outside the camp to be stoned, God told the ones who had heard the curse to lay their hands on his head before he was stoned. In doing so their guilt from hearing the curse was transferred to the victim. It absolved them of the guilt of unwillingly participating in his blasphemy.
It’s the name of Jesus that absolves us from our guilt. He was taken outside the camp to die and our guilt was placed on Him when He hung on the cross. We trust in His name to restore us to the right relationship with God.
Isn’t it amazing that grace resides in the very heart of God’s justice?