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:
- “Diligent inquiry” was to make certain the charges were true. They had to be true and certain, v. 4.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.