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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

12 August 2006

Thirty-nine Stripes

Q: What is the Biblical origin of thirty-nine stripes?

A: The number has its origin with Deuteronomy 25:1-3, where the Lord commanded, “If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty, then if the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in proportion to his offense. Forty stripes may be given him, but not more, lest, if one should go on to beat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight.”

Saint Paul, an expert on receiving beatings, lashings, and stoning, wrote the Corinthian Christians, “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. (2 Corinthians 11:24)” Why the change from thirty-nine to forty? Before a full answer, let’s look at the original command in the Deuteronomy text.

ScourgeMartin Luther wrote, “First a law is established concerning the penalties for evildoers. Those who are not to be punished with death or fines but with stripes shall be flogged according to the measure of the crime; only the stripes are not to exceed forty in number. The purpose is added: ‘That the brother may not be made contemptible and degraded in your presence.’ Therefore he wants punishments to be inflicted, not because of our passion or desire for vengeance but by a rule of moderation and reason guided by uprightness. This befits an honorable commonwealth. (LW 9:248)”

The specific count likely closely ties to many other instances of 40 appearing in Scripture. As I wrote previously, the number forty often occurs “in times of testing, probation, judgment, or separation.” A comment to that post noted, “In the biblical witness the number 40 almost always refers to a sense of ‘fullness’ or ‘completeness.’” All of these most definitely reflect what happened in a flogging.

While it appears harsh to modern readers, the “sliding scale” of corporal punishment shows concern for the individual. A faithful judge likely weighed the testimony quite carefully before imposing sentence, since even half of the total might be extreme for a relatively minor crime. We note that the text says “if the guilty man deserves to be beaten” — whipping wasn’t mandatory; a lesser sentence was quite possible, depending upon the offense. Once the beating was administered, nothing is said about further punishment. Evidently, in God’s mind (and, we hope, in the minds of His people), justice was served and no one was to hold the man’s crime against him. His debt was paid in full and he could be restored to society.

We note that the punishment was to be carried out in the presence of the sentencing judge. His job was to guarantee that the beating didn’t exceed his command, whether forty lashes or less. Again, we may think the forty lashes harsh, but evidently up to that point was not what God considered to be “cruel” or “unusual.” With this in mind, it’s easier to see why Paul (and others) would receive “the forty lashes less one.” Those responsible for interpreting and carrying out the Law of God didn’t want to exceed His command, so they built in a safeguard. If someone accidentally missed one count, the flogging would stop before forty was exceeded.

Thirty-nine was also the closest multiple of three to forty without going over. Since lashings were often done with a treble-lash or set of three rods, thirteen strokes were the most that could be given without exceeding the maximum the Law allowed. Here, a miscount could raise the number to forty-two, so extra care would likely be taken. Through extra-biblical writings such as rabbinical commentaries, we read that thirty-nine lashes were standard by the time of the New Testament period.

By writing about this, Paul (who “boasted” in his weakness) also let us know just how horrible the crime of preaching the Gospel was to his enemies. Nothing save death or extended imprisonment was a harsher punishment than the maximum number of lashes the Law allowed. Thus we see that few “crimes” or “sins” more vile existed in the minds of many Jewish leaders than proclaiming Christ. Making the claim that Jesus was the true Son of God, preaching that He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life and that no one received salvation except through Him (cf. John 14:6) was considered shameful, horrible blasphemy.

Scourging of ChristPaul’s boast also illustrates the strength he received from God to endure such treatment on multiple occasions and the joy he experienced in being allowed to suffer as did his Savior. Of course, Jesus wasn’t flogged by the Jews but the Romans. Roman law had fewer qualms about either the pain or the shame, so its beatings were often much more severe. We cannot know for certain, but Christ likely received many more than 39 or 40 wounds on our behalf. Through the prophet, He made His “boast” even before His birth: “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting. (Isaiah 50:6)”

Just as “with His stripes we are healed, (Isaiah 53:5)” so by Him do we receive the strength and encouragement to faithfully proclaim and live His truth in a world that violently resists hearing and believing.

Martin Luther quoted from Luther’s Works Volume Nine, Lectures on Deuteronomy, Jaroslav Pelikan, Ed., © 1960 by Concordia Publishing House.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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Blogger BE OFF Ye scurvy dog!! said...

Harrrr!!! a gooodly post ye gave, Yarrrrr!


15 August, 2006 18:27  

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