The Curious Death of Ananias and Sapphira
Roy Blizzard III (C) 2018
In Acts 5:1-11, in the New Testament, we read about a husband and wife named Ananias and Sapphira who were struck dead. There is a simple explanation of “they lied to the Holy Ghost” but nothing else is really said about it. Being raised in the church I’ve heard many sermons about this story but none offered any evidence of why these two were killed. Most of the time it is said that they Blasphemed the Holy Spirit and this is why they died, but this just didn’t offer any solace. It was like asking a question and being answered with “because”.
Here is the story:
“5:1) But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, 2) And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles' feet. 3) But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? 4) Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God. 5) And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. 6) And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him. 7) And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in. 8) And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much. 9) Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out. 10) Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband. 11) And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things.” KJV
To properly understand this story we have to understand what was happening in a Jewish culture. If indeed they somehow had blasphemed the Holy Spirit what did that mean and what was the punishment for it?
There is no one standard Hebrew term for blasphemy that indicates speaking impiously or irreverently about God or sacred things is not recognized as a distinct, prohibited category of speech in traditional Judaism. Blasphemy, in the broadest (and least precise) sense is any act contrary to the will of God or derogatory to His power. It is the term employed in English to translate one of the Hebrew verbs ḥeref, giddef, and ni'eẓ. Strangely enough, some activities or statements that might appear to members of different religious traditions as blasphemous toward God are normal activities of Judaism. While you may think that arguing with God is a blasphemous activity, the precedent of Abraham's bargaining with God before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16–33) gave legitimacy to the Jewish practice of arguing with God.
In Christian history, adherents often found certain Jewish rabbinic utterances about God to be blasphemous, but this was due to a misunderstanding of Judaism and the desire to find reasons to outlaw the Talmud. Even today, the accusation of blasphemy and heresy is used by some Christians as a justification for Christian censorship of Jewish books. Most religious Jews, however, accepted the ostensibly objectionable statements, even if they sometimes appeared to be peculiar, as a legitimate part of Judaism although they were often explained allegorically by Jewish rationalists. Although it is not possible to say that Judaism allows complete freedom of speech as non-blasphemous, as a general rule the rabbis were more concerned with language that offended humans (e.g., idle and malicious gossip) than with language that might be offensive to God.
Knowing this, there are, however, specific actions that Judaism considers a type of blasphemy, some worse than others. These actions are categorized, from the more specific and punishable by man to the more general and unenforceable by man, as: (1) cursing God and God's name; (2) using God's name in vain, pronouncing it illicitly, or destroying its written form; (3) saying inappropriate things about God; and (4) acting in a manner that would bring disrepute upon the God of Israel (and, therefore, upon the people of Israel).
While the first three are fairly well known and for the most part self-explanatory, the forth category of “Acting in a Manner That Would Bring Disrepute upon the God of Israel” is relatively obscure and is rarely taught any longer but is where we are going to look to find some answers.
The Torah, first 5 books of the Bible, provides remedies for those who transgress God's law unintentionally, but in the Book of Numbers 15:30 it states that intentional disobedience by a native-born Israelite or by a stranger is considered a form of insulting God (giduf - גדוף) and is punishable by excision (karet - כרת), a sanction that is apparently a divine, rather than human, punishment. Karet (‘excision’) derived from the Hebrew verb karat ("to cut off") is the biblical penalty, for certain offences, of being ‘cut off from the people’. Apparently, this verse seems to expand unreasonably the sanction of excision, in contrast to other biblical punishments and the latter rabbis generally restricted its application to the prohibition of idolatry.
The early prophet Ezekiel cited Israelite idol worship as an example of this type of insult to God. He even predicted that God would punish the people for their sin, forcing them to acknowledge the sovereignty of God (Ezekiel 20:27–44).
In the First Century, Josephus, in Antiquities of the Jews 3.12:1 remarks, “To those who were, guilty of such insolent behavior, he [Moses] ordered death for his punishment”. This implied that karet is identical with other death penalties in the Pentateuch.
However, here in Leviticus 20:3 it has to mean something like an extirpation, meaning that his line of descendants will come to an end and his name will be erased or he will have a denial of an afterlife.
The unanimous rabbinic view, as stated in the Talmud is that karet is a form not of human but of divine punishment, or “death by the hand of Heaven.” Maimonides (Teshuvah, 8:5) identifies karet for the worst sinners as total annihilation of the soul in the Hereafter.
In a broad sense, the Bible commands Jews to sanctify God's name and to refrain from desecrating it (e.g., Lv. 22:32). This has been unanimously interpreted in the Jewish tradition as the responsibility Jews have to act in such a way as not to bring discredit upon God, Israel the nation or its people in the eyes of the nations. Sanctification of God's name so as to not bring dishonor to Him can include such actions as doing business honestly so that the non-Jew is impressed by the influence God has on everyday transactions and on Jewish honesty, or by being willing to suffer death rather than convert to another religion so that the non-Jew is impressed by the Jewish loyalty to God's religion.
Conversely, actions that bring dishonor upon God such as a Jew's acting dishonestly in business or not choosing death over coerced conversion are clearly understood in Judaism as desecrating God's name and bringing dishonor upon Israel.
What is difficult, however, is to define clearly either sanctification or desecration of God's name, and therefore human punishment for the latter would thus be hard to enforce. As a general rule, desecration of God's name is more a moral category than a legal one and it is not punished, for instance, as cursing God is by immediate stoning by people. But it is clear that desecrating God's name in the ways mentioned above would be considered a form of blasphemy.
Jewish law provides a guideline to how one is to act so as to prevent public desecration of God's name. Therefore, even if a person is allowed to transgress a commandment under duress, except for the prohibitions of idolatry, murder, and adultery and incest, if that duress is public, for the purpose of offending God and the people of Israel, then Jews are enjoined not to violate minor proscriptions as well, even at the pain of death and because of that Sanctification of God's name is one of the most important commandments that a Jew can perform, and as such it is almost the exact opposite of the offense of blasphemy.
We now have to look at some aspects of the Death Penalty in Judaism and we have to understand that in Judaism that Hebrew Words are all God ordained, supported by the God ordained court system.
The problem in the English translations is that no understanding of Jewish culture is apparent. Most English readers assume the words "put to death" is always rooted in the same Hebrew word with one meaning and those meanings vary based on translations. This is clearly erroneous. This “translation method” ignores Jewish history, Jewish applied law, Jewish tradition and the recorded views of a society most English speakers simply do not know.
Context, not of just the line, but the paragraph and story, the word or phrase it is in, is critically important. So by using the proper word definitions and context there is the clear understanding that God meant to physically kill, and even makes distinctions between murder, execution and spiritual death.
Hebrew traditions and beliefs, to the extent they find relevance in a Christian society, has always stated that people are partners with God in perfecting society, sharing the "tikkun" (reconstruction) of an ordered society along God principles. This includes courts, laws and yes executions. The Talmud states: "...those who are kind to the cruel will one day be cruel to the kind...". This belief supports society’s concern for the paroling, the escaping punishment or the commuting prisoner sentences and their effect on a civilized society. What we as a people who follow the Bible have to realize is that society is brutalized by the maintenance and release of such criminals, not their execution.
The Talmud and its hundreds of rules for interpretation, printed in 499 CE, compiled over a period of hundreds of years and the teachings found therein often quoted by Jesus, is the basic tool for all Jewish Law Education. It is not well known or appreciated outside of Orthodox Jewish circles - but is definitive in such matters. Here are some of the terms relevant to our study as found in the Talmud.
Tirtzach (tear - tzach): murder (killing an innocent person) Exodus. 20:13: "lo tirtzach" – “Do not murder”, part of the 10 commandments/statements and used only a few times only in the entire Torah. It is never used interchangeably with “put to death”.
Mahvet (mah - vet): killing (killing a guilty person per court rules and God's law) Is used most often in the Bible associated with court sanctioned punishment. These sins or infractions do not necessarily result in spiritual death, as repentance can stop the heavenly decree to eradicate the soul which is the ultimate divorce from God and after 11 months the soul can enter Eden. In Numbers 15:35: “Ado-shem kel Moshe, mos yu-maht...” means “G-d said to Moses, the man shall be put to death...”. “Maht" is a root derivative of "mahvet”. Interestingly this line pertains to violating the Sabbath and does not necessarily mean spiritual death.
Karet (kar - et): spiritual, and sometimes physical, killing of a guilty person and soul per God's law with a heavenly eradication of the entire soul (neshamah) that disallows resurrection. Mahvet – the word above - is never used interchangeably with Karet. “Cut from the people” in Hebrew culture means both physical and heavenly removal of the body and soul, from the earth and in heaven (bodies do not reside in heaven) It is used a few times in association with sins that always require spiritual excision (no resurrection) by God in heaven, such as idolatry and assumes no amount of repentance can save the soul. The soul is eliminated and there is no return. In Numbers 15:30" “ti-karet ha-nefesh” – “that person (his animal soul) will surely be cut off”. The use of the term “nefesh” (animal soul) instead of the higher order soul “neshamah” indicates that force which is closest to the physical body and its drives - it means to kill the body and the soul will be cut off in heaven as well. In Exodus 12:15: “...ah-kel cho-metz ve-ni-karet- tah ha-nefesh” means “(the one that) eats leavened bread that soul (nefesh, not nashamah) shall be cut off”. This states that the soul will be cut off in heaven (i.e., no resurrection) and may imply an early death or a normal death in old age with no children born to the person, but no death via the court.
In whatever way a book translates these 3 words, the meaning is not to be altered because God gave us the Bible in the Hebrew language using 3 different words with 3 different meanings. The English lacks the nuances and interpreters err in trying to make them comprehensible. The lesson here is that a written book, without the Oral Traditions known as the Talmud is easily misunderstood and misapplied.
Seeing how the text and the Jewish commentaries deal with Blasphemy and Death, let’s now examine the text in Acts 5:1-11. In 5:1ff Ananias and Sapphira sold some property after conspiring to keep some of the profits without telling anyone and made a show of it by publically bringing it to the Apostles. By doing so they showed a disrespect to God and the Apostles and it threatened to bring a sense of criminality to the movement and thus bring disrepute to God, the Apostles and all the movement among both the Jews and the gentiles. It also showed that they really didn’t believe in either God or His laws or even this new movement but just wanted to be seen by others as magnanimous.
But Peter, filled with the Spirit, knew what evil was in their hearts and called them out on their action. When he did so we see the instant result of Kerat, the cutting off and out of the evil that lurked within. But it was the result of the Heavenly action laid out in the law that brought about the punishment. God, himself, meted out the punishment for the disobedient actions of Ananias and Sapphira.
The Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit was the bringing about of disrepute to God and His emissaries by the actions of Ananias and Sapphira which included breaking an oath to God, cheating and lying publicly about the nature of their devotion to God and the new movement of Jesus. This action was immediate and all the Jews, who would have known about this aspect of Jewish Law found in Numbers 15, & etc., would have recognized that because of this swift action by God Himself, God was indeed involved with these Apostles and the Notzrim in a special relationship that He Himself was protecting through the Law.