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.”