“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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“no ransom”

In these last few posts, we’ve been looking at some of the provisions of the Mosaic Law, provisions which aren’t as familiar as the Ten Commandments.  Some of these things seem strange or harsh to our modern way of thinking.  The society of that time and nation was largely agricultural and rural, without any of what we consider “conveniences”.  It was what we might call a “basic” society:  people growing up, gettting married, having and raising kids, and taking care of their basic needs – without all the stuff we have to have today.

It gives us a much different view of “justice” than we’re accustomed to.

In our previous post, we looked at a little of what the Old Testament says about what was to happen to those who accidentally, without premeditation or animosity, killed someone.  Though there were still serious consequences to such an act, care was taken to protect such persons from those who would seek revenge.

This brings up the question, “What about those who killed with premeditation and/or animosity”?  The Scripture is clear.  Exodus 21:14 says, “If a man acts with premeditation against his neighbor, to kill him by treachery, then you shall take him from My altar, that he may die.”

(“from My altar….”  Though we have no Scripture telling  us it was to be used like this, apparently the bronze altar at the entrance to the Tabernacle was also a place of safety, though within prescribed limits.  We have an example, centuries later, of one who tried to use it illegally, 1 Kings 2:28-34.  Notice there the reference to “innocent blood,” v. 31.)

Numbers 35:9-34 gives a detailed explanation of things to be considered in deciding “guilt” or “innocence,” and who could or could not claim protection in a city of refuge.  Nor was there any way that a person who could live in a city of refuge would be allowed to leave before the death of the high priest, v. 32.  We’ve seen what could happen if they tried.

And there was no way a person found guilty of premeditated murder could escape the penalty: you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death, v. 31.

Our culture has gone a long way from such thoughts.  People who give little thought to the plight of victims will get very upset at the idea that the one who hurt them should actually pay for what he did.  A few years in jail, maybe, or even a “life sentence,” but no death penalty.  Of course, it’s important that the criminal show “remorse.”   So the victim and their family have the privilege of paying taxes to support a bloated, over-grown penal system in which the “constitutional rights” of murderers, rapists, and other felons are of paramount importance, while they themselves suffer the results of those crimes, endure the costs of their own recovery and healing, or while they have to live with the absence or suffering of a son or daughter, mother or father, wife or husband, brother or sister, or other family member.

Prison is no picnic, but then neither is being a victim of someone who in a system of true justice would not live to go there.

There were no prisons in the Mosaic Law.

We’ll have some more to say about this in the next post.

“Bloodguilt”

Here is a word that I don’t suppose is heard very often in legal circles:  “bloodguilt.”  It or the concept it describes is found more than 20 times in the Old Testament.

What does it mean?

It refers to the killing of an innocent person.  The shedding of “innocent blood.”

It’s one of the reasons ultimately given for the captivity and destruction of Israel by Nebuchadnezzar.  In describing things leading up to that event, and even though he was dead and had been succeeded by Jehoiakim, 2 Kings 24:3, 4 says, Surely at the commandment of the LORD this came upon Judah, to remove them from His sight because of the sins of Manasseh, according to all that he had done, and also because of the innocent blood that he had shed; for he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, which the LORD would not pardon (emphasis added).  It’s thought that he had killed Isaiah the prophet, among others, though that isn’t known for sure.  Whoever his victims were, he was guilty in the eyes of the Lord and couldn’t be pardoned for his sin.

What does the Bible say about this sin that we don’t even think about today?  Or does it really matter?

1. It was forbidden.  In Exodus 23:7, God said to Israel, “do not kill the innocent and righteous,  For I will not justify the wicked.”

2. What about cases of accidental killing?  God provided for that, as well.  Deuteronomy 19:1-13 is the first of several instructions about this.  Originally, three cities were to be set aside, and later, three more, when the Lord had expanded the land.  These cities were called cities of refuge where someone who killed accidentally could be protected from those who would take vengeance on him.  We’ll talk about this part of it in a later post.  Roads were to be provided to each of these cities and, though it isn’t specifically mentioned, each of the cities was on a hill, to be easily seen.

An example is given of those who could flee to one of these cities:  if men were cutting down trees and an ax head slipped off a handle and struck and killed one of the other men.  The man whose ax it was could flee to one of these cities and be safe.  One proviso was the the man had not “hated” the other man “in time past.”  It could not be premeditated in any way, but had to be completely accidental.  Numbers 35:22, 23 gives a couple of other examples.

It’s true that the man, or, I suppose, woman, who fled to one of these cities had to stay there until the death of the high priest, Numbers 35:25.  Without getting into the complexities of the sacrificial system in Israel, the high priest was at times considered to bear the iniquities of the people himself.  His death was credited to those in the cities of refuge as theirs, and they could then return to their own homes and families, Numbers 35:28.  If they were then killed, their’s was considered “innocent blood,” Deuteronomy 19:10.  However, if the person ventured outside the city before the death of the High Priest, then he was fair game, as it were, Numbers 35:26, 27, because he should have remained in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest.

This may seem harsh to our modern sensibilities, but it goes to show the value that the OT placed on life, that even accidentally taking it had serious consequences.  At the same time, the cities of refuge were a protection to those who had taken it accidentally.

This didn’t just happen haphazardly.  There was to be an investigation, Numbers 35:24, the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood according to these judgments, that is, the conditions laid down in the Mosaic Law. By “congregation,” I take it to mean, this investigation wasn’t just left up to some “prosecutor’s office,” but the community, at least to a point, had some involvement.  Especially in small towns, and most of the towns in Israel were small, the people would know the victim and his killer and whether or not there was enmity between them.

Alright, then, what about unsolved murders?  Even though it might not be known who the killer was, Deuteronomy 21:1-9 tells us that there were still things to be done when a body was found out in a field.  The elders of the town nearest where the body was found were required to offer a specific sacrifice and disavow any knowledge of the matter.  Doing this would put away the guilt of innocent blood from among you when you do what is right in the sight of the LORD, v. 9.  I suppose much the same thing might have been done in the case of an unsolved murder in town.

This matter of bloodguilt was a serious thing in Israel.  David prayed to be delivered from it.  In Psalm 51:14, he implored God, ‘deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God.  Since Psalm 51 is believed to have been written as a result of his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, he was praying for that for which there was no sacrifice and no forgiveness.  He didn’t die, but the child conceived in that sin did die, and David’s family was never the same afterward.

As we’ve already noted, the shedding of innocent blood was much of what brought about the captivity and destruction of Israel by Nebuchadnezzar.  Even pagans recognized the seriousness of the charge of bloodguilt, Jonah 1:14: Matthew 27:24.

Perhaps, also, it sheds some light on Judas’ confession in Matthew 27:4, when he threw down the 30 pieces of silver he had received to deliver Jesus into the hands of His enemies:

“I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.”