The Law of Revenge--Part 2
Jan 10, 2008
In biblical days they did not have a police department to arrest those who broke the law. The people themselves were the police department and the arresting officers. If they were in no position to arrest the one being charged with a crime, it was the responsibility of the citizens' posse to help the victim do justice.
In the case of the Levite whose concubine was gang-raped until dead in Judges 19, this Levite was in no position to arrest the many offenders, so he appealed to the other tribes. They came, but the home town of the rapists decided to protect their family members and friends instead of allowing them to be arrested. The result was a disastrous war in which nearly all of the tribe of Benjamin was killed. While much can be said about that war, the point here is to show that law-enforcement was a public matter. It was not put into the hands of a professional police department.
I am not speaking against police departments, of course. People have the right to set one up and hire others to do their job in a professional capacity if they wish to pay for it in taxes. The police act on behalf of the people.
In Bible days the authoritative structure revolved around the king in national matters and around thegoel in family matters. The goel was the "redeemer of blood," charged with the responsibility to ensure that those under him did not lose their God-given rights through crime. It is unfortunate that the KJV and other translations render the term "avenger of blood" or "revenger of blood," for these terms insert a motive that God Himself forbids in the law. Young's Literal Translation consistently translates the term correctly: "redeemer of blood."
There are many who criticize the law and would put away the law altogether, not understanding that the rule of law is the basis of a peaceful and prosperous society and nation. No one would want to live in a nation of no laws, unless, of course, all citizens were perfect Christians who loved God and their neighbors. But no such society exists today. Paul tells us that the law is made for lawbreakers, not for the righteous (1 Tim. 1:9). The righteous do not need a law to tell them to refrain from stealing or killing their neighbors. The righteous are those who have the law written on their hearts.
But in the real world, not everyone is righteous. Therefore, laws are needed. Even Christians are not always righteous in practice, even though the righteousness of Christ is imputed to them. God calls what is not as though it were (Rom. 4:17), but Christians today do not always know what sin is. The law would tell them, if they would read it, for "sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3:4), and Paul says, "By the law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:21). Many Christians live with various sins in their lives simply because they have not studied the law. They are content with an imputed righteousness and often do not wish to be inconvenienced by God's definitions of sin interfering in their personal lives.
Getting back to the redeemer of blood, the biblical goel had at least four main duties:
(1) Lev. 25:25 says that he was responsible to redeem his kinsman's lost property which had been given to the family as an inheritance in the days of Joshua.
(2) Lev. 25:47-55 says that he was responsible to redeem the kinsman himself, if he had been sold to a foreigner for debt. Such debt could be incurred either through a property crime or through some crop disaster or business failure.
(3) Num. 5:6-8 says that if a near kinsman had been robbed but had died or disappeared before being able to receive restitution payment, the goel was to receive such payment in proxy for the victim. This passage has to do with a thief repenting of his theft and confessing his sin apart from any trial, because in such cases, he was to pay only one-fifth of its value as restitution over and beyond returning the stolen cash or goods.
(4) The redeemer of blood was responsible for defending the rights of his kinsmen in the court of law, if a crime was committed against them. This is our current focus, of course. When the Bible speaks of this, it is primarily concerned with the crime of premeditated murder or accidental manslaughter, because these were the most serious examples.
The Bible does not allow the redeemer of blood to take the law into his own hands in executing a murderer. The goel is neither the jury nor the judge. If a goel were to execute someone that he believed was a murderer, without first taking the murderer to court, he would be breaking the primary law of revenge found in Lev. 19:18, "You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people." Paul understood this as well, when he referred to this verse in Romans 12:19, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the Lord."
God set up Israel's Justice Department, which was called to act on His behalf to judge crime and restore the lawful order in society. There are cases, of course, where the crime is of a higher order than can be resolved in the earthly court. In such cases, the appeal must be made to the Divine Court of Heaven, and God then becomes the Goel on behalf of the nation or individual victims. We will have more to say about this at another time. For the present, however, it is important to know that the goel does not have the right to act as judge and jury. When God says, "Vengeance is Mine," it means that justice must be done in accordance with His law and by His Department of Justice which acts in His name.
To understand how this works out in practice, one must study the laws of murder and manslaughter where the goel plays a prominent role. This will be our next area of study.
Meanwhile, keep in mind that the purpose of the law is to restore the lawful order, to recompense the victims, and to restore the sinner by corrective and redemptive judgments. The role of law is not to change men's hearts but to discipline them externally until such time as the law is written on their hearts and they do these things by nature.
The statutes define sin, and the judgments specify how to restore the lawful order. The judgments are largely about victims' rights to receive compensation (restitution) for their losses due to theft or by someone's negligence. The law has no power to forgive--that is, it has no power to reduce the restitution penalty--for that would violate the victims' rights. The law merely defines the rights of the victim, and the victim is the only one who has the right to forgive or reduce the payment as he or she wishes.
When the law specifies a particular judgment for a sin, this does not automatically mean that the sinner must pay that penalty. Once the law has done its job in giving everyone equal justice, the responsibility shifts to the victim. The law gives the victim the option to collect the full penalty or to forgive all or any portion of the penalty. At this point, the law enforcement can be modified according to heart matters that the law itself cannot address.
The law is about equal justice to all. The mercy factor is placed into the hands of the victim. Hopefully, as Christians, we will follow God's example. His throne of judgment is the Ark of the Covenant, in which was housed the Ten Commandments. But it was covered by the Mercy Seat, showing that divine judgment is not without mercy either, even if the law lacks the power to forgive. God is the ultimate Victim of all sin, and this gives Him the option of granting mercy. He is not totally bound by His law to exact its full requirements. He not only gives equal justice for all, but also grants mercy to all (Rom. 11:32).
Dr. Stephen Jones