“The Avenger of Blood”

In our first post, we mentioned that there were things in the Mosaic Law which seems strange to modern minds.  Though there are several such things, the subject for this post is probably right near the top of the list.

What, or who, was the “avenger of blood”?

The Hebrew phrase is “go’el haddam,” literally, “redeemer of blood”.  The word actually has two meanings. There is the one set forth in our text, that is, that a near relative was to “avenge” the violent death of a family member.  The other one, perhaps more familiar, is that a near relative could “redeem” or pay back the debts of a family member.  We’ll look at this idea in our next post.

The idea of avenging murder or the death of a family member was set forth long before the time of Moses in Genesis 9:5, 6, where God told Noah, “Surely for your life blood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man.  From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man.  Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”

“From the hand of every man’s brother….”

This idea was expanded and explained in the Mosaic Law.

There was no separation of the criminal from the victim’s family, as there is today.  Our whole justice system, under the guise of “fairness” and “impartiality,” has erected a number of barriers between the perpetrator and his victims.  Indeed, the [alleged] criminal is viewed as having acted against “the people,” not the victim.  A trial is couched in the terms of “the State vs.” whomever.  (It’s interesting, at least to me, that while I was working on this post, I was called to serve on a jury in an attempted murder case.  I couldn’t help thinking of this post and the others in the series as I was listening to the proceedings.)  If the victim does try to take things into his own hands, then he is in trouble with the law for wanting “revenge,” not justice – as the law sees it.

While I am NOT advocating a return to the Mosaic system, I do think our system leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to what we call “closure” for the victim and/or his or her family, and when it comes to addressing the damage and harm done to them, to say nothing of providing “justice” for a crime.

Although there are instructions scattered throughout the Mosaic writings, Deuteronomy 17:2-13 gives us something of an idea of what happened.  Though it starts of with those guilty of idolatry, vs. 2, 3, I think it includes any who were guilty of capital crimes, that is, crimes deserving death, v. 6.  There were several elements involved:

  1. “Diligent inquiry” was to make certain the charges were true.  They had to be true and certain, v. 4.
  2. A matter involving a death penalty, and there are more than forty such “matters” in the Law, required two or three witnesses, v. 6.  One witness was never enough.
  3. If a crime, or, sin, as Scripture views it, was verified, the perpetrator was taken to the city gate, v. 5.  This seems to have been immediately, with no time elapsed.  There were no “appeals,” no dragging out the case for years in various courts.
    In the case where I was a juror, the crime was committed August 31-September 1 of last year.  The defendant was arrested a little later – in September or October.  The trial was June 13-16, this year.  So, months passed.  And though he has been convicted, his sentencing is still 3 or so weeks in the future, subject to the convenience of the lawyers involved, after which he likely will spend time in prison.
    This wouldn’t have happened under the Mosaic Law.
  4. At the city gate, the witnesses were to be the first to stone the condemned person.  No doubt, this gave pause to witnesses to be absolutely certain of what they were saying.  It was a solemn thing.
  5. After step 4, the hands of all the people were to inflict the penalty on the perpetrator.  It wasn’t hidden away; it was public, and “society” was involved in carrying out the sentence.
    To some, especially to those who oppose the death penalty, all this may seem somewhat barbaric.  However, it lent a certain solemn reality to what was going on.  In the trial I mentioned above, among the exhibits the prosecution showed us were some forensic pictures of a man killed during the crime, not by the defendant in our trial, but by another man who was involved.  He had already been tried and sentenced.  One of the other jurors was very upset by the pictures.  I made the comment that it’s a little different when you see the real thing, as opposed to what we see in TV detective shows.
    We know TV pictures aren’t real.  Actors will get up and maybe will have to do the scene several times. The pictures in the trial were real.  The man slumped between two seats in an SUV was not going to get up after the pictures were taken and walk away.
    So it was in OT times.  To the spectators and participants, it was real.  It wasn’t just some segment on the 6 o’clock news.
    I think we’ve lost some, if not all, of this reality.  We’ve become so desensitized by video games and TV shows that we half-way expect crime victims to “get up and walk away.”  (If you’ve been the victim of a serious crime, I’m sorry; I don’ t mean to add to your burden.  You realize better than most that those who haven’t endured such things can’t really understand what you’re going through.)  And the perpetrators of such crimes have “rights” which cannot be violated, regardless of how they may have violated the rights of their victims.
    I did gain some appreciation for this during the trial.  Several times, the judge stressed that the defendant was considered innocent, even though charged with several crimes, until such time as he was actually convicted by a jury – us.  His being charged with a crime was not to be taken as guilt for those crimes.
    It was this way in the OT.  The person was only punished for a crime after he had been found guilty by the testimony of several witnesses, and I expect there was other “evidence,” as well.  But the punishment happened right away; it didn’t take years.
  6. One of the arguments for the death penalty is that it deters crime.  Opponents deny this, citing the horrendous numbers of murders that happen in this country every year.  They cry that we shouldn’t “add to the body count,” as I saw one such protester’s sign say.
    Perhaps one reason it doesn’t “deter” is the number of years it takes for the sentence actually to be carried out.  And it’s carried out privately, with only a very few people who actually view it.  There’s no sense of “this is what happens if you murder some one.”
    We’ve already seen what happens in other crimes – how the “perp” was responsible to his victim.  The OT Law was designed to show that there were serious consequences to breaking it.
    What does God have to say about the deterring effect of capital punishment?
  7. Actually, He says two things.  (1).  “All the people shall hear and fear, and no longer act presumptuously,” v. 13.  When there are actual, swift, public, consequences for a criminal, people understand that.  But when there are years and years of postponements, with appeal after appeal, a sense of urgency is lost about a crime that happened years before.  And there was a second thing, something we never think about:  (2) “So you shall put away the evil from Israel,” v.7, 12.  How many times have we heard on the news of a person caught for a crime, who “has a rap sheet as long as your arm”?  In the Mosaic economy, that wouldn’t happen.  One reason for the death penalty was to “put away” for good those who murdered or were guilty of other serious offenses.  There was none of this serving a few years in prison and then being set free perhaps to do the same thing over again, and over again, and over again.  How many innocent victims have there been from such repeat offenders?  Remember the offender in an earlier post who was guilty of twelve sexual offenses.  That is not “putting away evil.”
    If anything, our modern system of “justice” enables it.
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“Thou Shalt Not Kill” – And the Death Penalty.

There are a couple of verses of Scripture that unbelievers and skeptics accept, and are quite insistent should be followed.  One, Exodus 20:13 (KJV), is in the title of this post:  Thou shalt not kill (KJV).  The other one is found in Matthew 7:1:  Judge not…. 

They don’t seem to mind adultery or dishonesty or using the name of God as a swear word, but the sixth commandment must be followed.

Never mind what they say about the rest of Scripture – these verses must be followed.  There may be other verses they “like,” but I think these are the two main ones.

So, when some killer is to be put to death for crimes he has committed, or when the execution is botched, as has happened recently, these folks get all worked up and say, “Oh, the poor man!  How can such things be done?”

It would be nice if they could show such concern for the victims of this “poor man.”

I certainly don’t advocate “suffering” in execution, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind about the sixth commandment.

First, the Hebrew word translated “kill” comes from a root meaning “to dash in pieces,” and refers primarily to murder or manslaughter. That’s how newer translations put it.  “Thou shalt not murder.”

Second, there are over forty “death-penalty” sins in the Old Testament.

These sins include such things as idolatry, spiritism, hitting or continual rebellion against a parent, kidnapping, false witness in a death-penalty case.

The criminals and their lawyers didn’t run things, like they do today.  Careful examination was indeed to be made as to the truthfulness of the charges against a person.  And two or three witnesses were required for an execution.  One only wasn’t enough.  And there was a recognition of what we call “technicalities,” only back then it was called “degrees of bloodguiltiness.”  These were used to determine the level of punishment, not as reasons for the offender to go free.

Some people can’t understand how the two ideas of “not killing” and the death penalty could coexist like that.  It’s simple.  Life was valued.  Individuals were valued, as being created “in the image of God.”  Those who took life forfeited their own.  Those who caused harm to others suffered harm themselves.

Some folks argue that we’re not under the Old Testament law.  I myself have made that point.  The Ten Commandments were given to a people in a certain historical and geographical setting.  They were never given to mankind in general; there’s never been a “dispensation of law.”

The Mosaic Covenant, which includes the Ten Commandments were given specifically to the nation of Israel at Sinai.  It forms, if you will, her constitution and bylaws.  In the situation in which it was given, there are a lot of things which seem very strange to our “modern” thinking. The idea that crime should be punished apparently has become one of them.  Our idea that violent criminals should be housed at taxpayer expense and “rehabilitated” would seem very strange to them.

Others argue that Jesus taught that we should love our enemies, so “love” has become the current buzzword.  Never mind that what passes for love in our society bears little resemblance to what the Lord Jesus actually taught.

Another favorite incident of opponents of the death-penalty is Jesus “forgiving” the woman taken in adultery in John 8:2-11.  We’ve done a post on this, so will just try to summarize here.

This woman had indeed been caught in the very act, v.5.  Now Jesus had often set Himself against the Pharisee’s interpretation of the Mosaic Law, so the Pharisees who dragged her into the presence of Jesus wanted to know what He said, it’s emphatic,  about this situation, because Moses said that such should be put to death, cf. Leviticus 20:10.

Uttering no word, the Lord simply began to write on the ground.  Since Leviticus 20:10 required that both parties be executed, I think He wrote, “Where is the man?” though that’s only supposition on my part because we’re not told what He wrote either time.

After what must have been an embarrassed silence, the men all left and the woman and Jesus were left alone, standing in the midst, v.10.  Note very carefully what the Lord asked her and the conversation that followed:  “Woman, where are those accusers of yours?  Has no one condemned you?”  She said, “No one, Lord.”  And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go and sin no more.” vs. 10, 11 (emphases added).  Not a word about “forgiveness.”  Indeed, the Lord told the men to go ahead and kill her – if they were innocent themselves in this particular matter.  I think they had set her up, and were trying to set the Lord up.  They failed.

Now, the woman was indeed guilty.  However, the Law was very specific about such matters.  Though the Pharisees had all testified against her and could have in fact killed her, their own consciences in the face of the holiness of the Lord Jesus prevented them from carrying out the sentence.  They, therefore, did not “condemn her.”  Because the provisions of the Law were not carried out, neither did the Lord.

The incident has nothing to do with “forgiveness” or “not judging,” as it’s often used.

Regardless of what He might have taught about these things, the Lord Jesus also taught that we were to render…to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, Matthew 22:21.  See also Mark 12:17 and Luke 20:25.  The fact that three Gospels record this incident show the importance the Lord placed on it.

Paul echoed the Lord when he wrote in Romans 13:1, Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.  Among other things, that authority does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil, v.4.

“Execute.”

“Wrath.”

“Vengeance.”

Ideas certainly foreign to modern jurisprudence.

So we have felons walking around free who have murdered or raped or done other violent crimes, but they’ve “served their time,” and so they’re free, while ordinary citizens hide behind locked doors and windows and women are afraid to go out alone at night.  How often do we hear of some man whose been arrested for a crime, only to also hear that he’s committed violent crimes before, perhaps several of them.

I’m sorry, but it’s time to rethink this idea of “rehabilitation” for felons who obviously have no interest in being rehabilitated.

It’s often commented by opponents of capital punishment that it doesn’t “deter” crime.  That’s only because it takes decades and multiple “appeals” before the sentence is carried out.  If criminals were actually executed who deserve it, without all the modern coddling that goes along with it, people might begin to understand that felony is serious.

Besides, if a felon is executed, that certainly “deters” him from committing other crimes.

I know there’s a lot of heat generated by this topic, and this is only part of the discussion about the death penalty, but it’s high time to take our justice system out of the hands of criminals and their lawyers.

Sticks

The verses we’re looking at in this post seem to many to be an excessive punishment for a relatively minor offense.  They’re found in Numbers 15:32-35 (NKJV):

“Now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day.  And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation.  They put him under guard, because it had not been explained what should be done to him.  Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.’ So as the LORD commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died.”

“Whoa!” these folks say, “That’s harsh!”  And, in truth, perhaps a case could be made for the man, as is done in modern trials during the “penalty phase,” where men and women convicted of the most heinous crimes have folks testifying about what wonderful persons they really are at heart.  Perhaps this man was just trying to gather some sticks to help feed his family.  Perhaps, with so many Israelites, firewood was in short supply, and so the man was taking advantage of a time when fewer people were looking for it.  Perhaps this was the only time he could do it.  Etc., etc.

All this misses the point.  The man broke the Law.  Yeah, but “sticks”?  Such a minor thing!

There are no “minor” things.  After all, wasn’t it a relatively “minor” offense that started this whole catastrophe in the Garden of Eden?  Religious man may have divided sins into “venial” and “mortal,” but God knows no such distinction.  He was the One Who gave the final judgment in this “minor” case.  

There are no “venial” sins.  Even a little thing like picking up sticks on the Sabbath, in defiance of His command against it, was a “mortal” sin.  Any sin is “mortal.”  Every sin is “mortal.”

Our world, even the “religious” one, has lost sight of most of Who God is and what He requires of us.  I thought about different words for that last sentence: “wants,” “asks,” but that is just symptomatic of what the sentence describes.  God is pictured as waiting for man to do something so He can act, patiently waiting on the sidelines of His own creation until we decide to send Him into the game.  Wanting to bless us, but unable to unless we “let Him.”  He must be amazed, if we can ascribe such a feeling to Deity, at our arrogance.

There is such an unScriptural emphasis on “the love of God,” and such a humanized definition of it at that, that we have lost sight of what Paul called, “the goodness and severity of God,” Romans 11:22, something Paul told his readers to “consider.”  He’s calling attention to what he says in the verse, that is, that we’re not to forget the two sides of the Divine character:  “goodness” and “severity.”  When was the last time you heard a sermon that mentioned “the love of God”?  Probably the last one.  When was the last time you heard a sermon on “the severity of God?”  Ever?

In the Numbers account, God is emphasizing what it means to follow His Law.  Even the least infraction merits death.  The Law is a unit.  Break even one part of it, and the whole thing is gone – so far as making it to Heaven, or being “pleasing” to God, James 2:10.  I was in a Bible study class that was discussing the attributes of God.  Someone mentioned His immeasurable love.  The teacher wrote that down on the blackboard.  I mentioned His inflexible justice.  The teacher said, “Ooh, I don’t like that,” and would only write down “justice.”

If you want to know something of the severity of God, consider Who It was on the Cross.  There’s only ever been one Individual Who could truthfully say, “I always do those things which please” the Father, John 8:29.  And God put Him on a Cross.  Preachers always emphasize the love of God in the death of Christ, and that is true.  If God hadn’t had a love for mankind in general, He wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble He did to save it.  The Lord Jesus wouldn’t have suffered as He did, if there were no “love for His own,” cf. John 13:1.  At the same time, was that all the Cross was: a demonstration of “love”?

Not at all.  It was also a demonstration of the “severity” of God.  Paul put it in a nutshell when he wrote, “For He has made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him,” 2 Corinthians 5:17.  The Cross was as much a matter of justice as it was of love, or grace.  We’ll never get the bottom of that verse.  God put the Only One Who ever pleased Him on a Cross, to pay for our sins, who never please Him, in and of ourselves, don’t want to please Him and couldn’t please Him even if we tried.  There’s just nothing in us responsive toward God apart from His grace.

Some churches talk about the “merits of the saints,” as if there’s some sort of heavenly bank where all their extra good stuff is stored up, ready to be taken out by those who don’t have enough good stuff.  I’m sorry, but there’s only been One Who had any merit, any “good stuff,” to begin with, let alone having any “extra.”

Jesus Christ did on that Cross what none of us could do – satisfy God’s justice, His “severity.”  He did that to the extent that not a single person for whom He died can ever perish.  Their sins have been paid for.  Their debt has been cancelled.

You’ll never appreciate the goodness of God if you don’t have at least a little understanding of His “severity,” that is, that He can, will, and does, judge “sticks”.