Avenger of Blood

BLOOD, AVENGER OF. Genesis 9:6 states the biblical law of equity that the taking of life by murder requires the taking of the life of the murderer as a judicial penalty. The OT recognizes in this connection both the function of the courts (e.g., Exod.24.12; Deut.19.15-Deut.19.21) and the rights of the family of the murdered person. The next of kin was permitted to exact the death penalty. The word that is questionably translated “avenger” (e.g., Num.35.12) is properly “next of kin” or “redeemer” (go’el). Not only in capital cases but in all the vicissitudes of life, the go’el was at hand to take on himself whatever need oppressed his close relative. For this reason “redeemer” became one of the most beautiful and theologically significant descriptions of the Lord in relation to his people (e.g., Isa.43.14). See also Redemption. To prevent the work of the “avenger” from becoming a family vendetta, OT law appointed cities of refuge to which one guilty of manslaughter (not of murder) could flee for safety and where the avenger was not permitted to enter; also the OT insisted that children could not be punished for a parent’s crime or vice versa (Deut.24.16).——JAM


AVENGER OF BLOOD (גּוֹאֵ֔ל, redeemer; fully, גֹּאֵ֣ל הַדָּ֔ם, redeemer of blood).

The meaning of the verb גָּאַל, H1457, is to loose, set free, redeem, vindicate; in the case of homicide, to vindicate the right of man to life, to free the land from the pollution that follows upon the spilling of blood without due cause. To avenge is not to seek revenge, but to take vengeance on behalf of someone, to redress a wrong by exacting from a wrongdoer satisfaction for an offense committed.

In the OT the go’el (Redeemer, Avenger) is one—usually the nearest relative (which “goel” consequently has also come to mean)—charged with vindicating justice either by redeeming family property expropriated or sold under constraint or (in the case of go’el had’dam, the avenger of blood) avenging the unlawful slaying of a family member.

The avenger of blood is a figure that appears in primitive justice. By ancient custom it was the right, indeed the duty, of persons (the nearest of kin) to avenge the slaying of a relative. This is perhaps why Cain feared for his life after slaying Abel (Gen 4:14), and why Lamech justified himself (Gen 4:23, 24). It also is likely that Jehovah sanctioned this kind of retributive justice in the still un-institutionalized society of the immediate postflood period when He announced the principle of reckoning and reprisal reported in Genesis 9:5, 6.

Since individual blood vengeance was widespread in the Near E before the formation of the people of Israel, it is evident that Moses did not institute the custom. The Mosaic legislation did, however, recognize and allow it; the Avenger of Blood was a figure well-known in Israel at least until the time of David (2 Sam 14:7, 8).

Significant, however, is the fact that the Mosaic legislation did not leave the custom of individual blood vengeance unregulated. For one thing the Mosaic law made a distinction between accidental and deliberate homicide (Deut 19:4, 5; Num 35:22). Second, it provided escape from the wrath of the avenger by establishing cities of refuge to which any killer might flee in order to escape the immediate and non-judicial judgment of the avenger (Num 35:9-15). Third, it interposed between the killer and the avenger the judicial judgment of the elders, the acknowledged representatives of society as a whole (Deut 19:12). Fourth, it stipulated that no person should be put to death on the testimony of merely one witness (Num 35:30). By these provisions the ancient custom of individual blood vengeance was in effect outlawed; the avenger now becoming little more than the public executioner.

The Lord commanded Moses to establish six cities of refuge “that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there” (Num 35:11). Should the manslayer be waylaid and executed by the Avenger before he arrived at the city, no recourse could be had in law against the vengeance of the avenger. However, should the manslayer attain the safety of the city, he would be duly tried by the elders. If found innocent of deliberate killing (murder) he would be exempted from punishment, provided he remained in the city until the death of the high priest (Num 35:25). Thereafter he could leave with impunity. If found guilty he would be denied further asylum and exposed to the wrath of the Avenger.

Underlying this legislation is the general rule that a life is to be exacted for a life. Many Christians believe that this rule is a veritable principle and thus valid for all times. They consequently believe that capital punishment is an ageless and inviolable divine requirement. Other Christians believe that “life for life” is not a principle at all, and regard capital punishment as both inhumane and contrary to the gospel of love. Still other Christians, endorsing the principle of retributive justice, believe that capital punishment is permissible when effected through due judicial process, but that it is not mandatory and that, under the circumstances of our existence, it is not desirable. No Christian would today sponsor the ancient Avenger of Blood. See Cities of Refuge.

Bibliography

Commentaries on Biblical passages; noted Bible Dictionaries, in loco.

See also

  • Avenger