Ceremonial Law and the Death Penalty

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Puritan Board Sophomore
Simple question, does anybody know of any ceremonial laws that result in death if one violates them in the OT? I couldn’t think of any with the exception of the high priest making mistakes in the Holy of Holies. Not sure if that’s considered ceremonial.. Exodus 28:35

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Puritan Board Post-Graduate
depends on what part are you talking about. Sacrifices, temple purity or say emissions, etc.? The latter, it only rendered them unclean as far as I am aware. The closer one got to God's presence the more serious.


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
The risk to the high priest (Ex.28:35) was from God's own displeasure, from the divine hand (as it were), ala Nadab & Abihu (Lev.10:1-2).

Num.18:7 (cf. 1:51, 3:10, 3:38)
Therefore thou and thy sons with thee shall keep your priest’s office for every thing of the altar, and within the vail; and ye shall serve: I have given your priest’s office unto you as a service of gift: and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death.​

The priests, Levites, even the whole nation of Israel were responsible for keeping the sanctity of the holy courts. You may say that all this risk-of-life is related to the first table of the moral law; but the separation of moral and ceremonial at the altar is murky.

Lev.7:20 But the soul that eateth of the flesh of the sacrifice of peace offerings, that pertain unto the Lord, having his uncleanness upon him, even that soul shall be cut off from his people.​

Arguably, to be "cut off from his people" may be construed as excommunication, a ritual death, rather than an execution; or it could it some cases be a formal prelude to it. Again, this is a matter touching on the ceremonies of the altar.

Lev.7:26-27 forbids the eating of blood "in any of your dwellings," or the same exclusion from the covenant life of the people ensues.

To go beyond lawful bounds at the holy precincts incurred some form of penalty. When Joab went in and took hold the horns of the altar (1Ki.2:28), he was not asking for sanctuary. It was a desperate act, but it was not madness. It was not even blasphemy. It may have even been a statement of faith. It certainly was a call to present his case before the highest judge possible.

Whatever touched the altar was herem, devoted. The holiness of the altar was totalizing. The priests were devoted, and holy. The items placed on the altar were supposed to be clean, but in any case they were consumed. If the altar did not render an item or person holy, something was destroyed. The person (like Joab) was destined either to be enslaved like the Gibeonites (Jos.9:23) or be killed, which he was.

If something was not devoted, made totally holy, or the unholy destroyed (while redeeming what might be saved) through contact with the altar--well, that would mean that the altar would be defiled, the unclean attaching to the altar and nullifying or destroying its holiness.

The ceremonial law of Israel isn't floating free of the moral law. It is connected, especially to the first table, and most especially at the 2nd commandment: where the manner of worship is confined to what God specifically directs. So, where the ceremonial laws had their greatest exhibition, they had their greatest effect, and their greatest penalties for violation.

In a more general way, and among the general population, the ceremonies (where they touched them in daily life) did not present them with as many dire opportunities for failure. But beside the matter of consuming blood mentioned above, consider Num.15:35, in connection with Sabbath desecration.

Yes, the 4th commandment is essentially moral and his was a moral offense; but the man's presumptuous violation cannot be divided from the ceremonial trappings unique to Israel. In spite of the death penalty provision at Ex.31:14, Num.15:34 says it had not been explained what should be done to him. Yet, this was not the first execution in Israel (see Lev.24:23).

The man's offense was more than moral; it was an offense against the ceremonial purity of the national body. The human body bears with countless cosmetic damages on a daily basis, and ordinarily restores itself. But sometimes, even a relatively minor wound has an effect on the whole body; forward progress is delayed until the problem is dealt with.

Ceremonial law was primarily an external show, meant to reveal spiritual truth. It fits the show of things that ritual corruption or ritual death (e.g. uncleanness, excommunication) would be the norm for ceremonial violations. Yet, at some extreme point the greatest penalties might be required for certain offenses, especially the closer they came to the holy heart of the nation.


Staff member
What about the offering of strange fire by Aaron's sons? Jeremiah Burroughs is awesome on that topic when defending the RPW in his book Gospel Worship.
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