Properties of Blood I.5 Revenge, Part D


Most Christians today are horrified by any thought of revenge.  Bring the subject up, and they are sure to quote, “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,” as if that were a sufficient refutation.  Far from being a repudiation of vengeance as something evil, the statement is a strong affirmation of vengeance as an instrument of the divine will.  Moral understanding of crime and punishment has certainly moved on since the writing of the Pentateuch, but if Christ was serious that he came not to overturn but to fulfill the law, then we cannot begin anywhere else, if we wish to have a context for a specifically Christian view of revenge.

In Genesis, vengeance and capital punishment for murder are enjoined,and the first of the patriarchs, Abraham, wages a ruthless war on the King of Elam in order to liberate his brother Lot.  After the ensuing slaughter,  Abraham’s actions, far from being condemned, are praised by the priest-king Melchidezek, who has always been taken as the symbolic forerunner of the Christ.

Once blood is shed, the ensuing crisis can be resolved a number of ways.  The simplest procedure would be for a close relative to slay the killer.  This seems to be the initial assumption in the Pentateuch.  In a case of willful murder, the family's "avenger of blood" is obliged to put him to death.  The original and fundamental concept is of blood-pollution:

So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.

Originally the question of intent would not be material, but eventually cities of refuge were established, and if the killer could make it to one of them, the matter could be adjudicated.  If he were found guilty of murder or even manslaughter, he would still be put to death, and even if it were a case of accidental homicide, the loss to the injured family could be compensated, though the family avenger could still slay the killer if he left the city of refuge.   (There will be much more on this when we  take up blood feuds.)

There is no need to review the bloodbaths of succeeding books in which murder and genocide are routinely portrayed as instruments of the divine will.  While Judaism has certainly evolved over the centuries, the right of secular and religious authorities to take human life has survived.  In the Mishnah, which Rabbi Jacob Neusner has described as the "foundation document" of the different forms of Judaism that have arisen since A.D. 200, war and capital punishment remain vigorously in force.

The Law is crystal-clear: Justice is vengeance, the retribution of tit for tat: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, stripe for stripe.”  When the first homicide is driven into exile, the Lord threatens seven-fold vengeance on anyone who kills Cain [Gen 4:15].  In homicide cases, the earliest justice was the blood-feud, and the family’s revenger of blood could hunt down and kill the killer without impunity.  In time, apparently, restrictions were imposed, giving protection to both innocent men and men guilty only of accidental or justifiable homicide.

As the society of the Israelites became more complicated--evolving from a loose federation of clans and tribes into a more centralized kingdom--homicide law became correspondingly less tribal and less dominated by the passions of kinshp.  Leviticus contains the remarkably Christian admonition: “Thou shalt not avenge nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” [19:18]  Neighbors were, as I have shown, people to whom one is morally connected, namely kinsmen and fellow-Jews.  However, this commandment is given not so much to inculcate mercy per se as to prevent the socially destructive blood-feuds that almost inevitably accompany the lex talionis.  It may be no accident that it occurs in the context of prohibitions on tale-bearing and malice.  It is followed, as if to clarify the point, by a chapter prescribing the death penalty for wizards, and not long afterward in the book, we are told that God himself will avenge transgressions.

This theme, that vengeance belongs to the Lord, recurs frequently in both Testaments.  “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I shall repay.”  Far from being a condemnation of revenge, this declaration elevates vengeance to the divine plane.  Although, it is true, the Lord may sometimes take matters into his own hands, punishing the Egyptians with plagues, more often it is human instruments that are used: Jepthah in Judges [11:36] and Jehu in 2nd Kings [9:7].  But, because Jehu is guilty of slaughter in Jezreel, the Lord will “avenge the blood of Jezreel upon the house of Jehu.”

Prophets and psalmists are continually invoking divine vengeance against their enemies--gentiles in particular--and it is a mark of his righteousness that Ahasuerus gives the people of Israel the right to take vengeance on their enemies by killing them.  Psalm 58 is particularly striking, since it begins with a cry for justice and concludes:

“The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.  So that a man shall say, Verily there is a reward for the righteous: verily he is a God that judgeth in the earth.”

In the sublime vision of Isaiah, the good news includes “the day of the Lord’s vengeance,” when God will avenge his enemies.

Luke’s Gospel picks up the theme, and Jesus foretells first the sufferings his followers must undergo and then the despoliation of Jerusalem: “For these be the days of vengeance,” when the Lord will use gentiles to destroy his rebellious people. [21].  Luke also records Christ’s parable [18:1-9] of the unjust judge badgered by a woman to give her justice, saying: “Avenge me of mine adversary.”  Fearing neither God nor man, the judge is worn down by the woman’s cries and grants her the vengeance she desires. “And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?”

Vengeance belongs to the Lord, yes, but his instruments are often human.  As Paul reminds us, in his long mediation on justice, God is righteous who exercises his wrath [Ro 3:5]; therefore, “Avenge not yourselves,” he says quoting the Old Law, “Vengeance is mine.” [12:19] Justice, in other words, is in the hands of the universal ruler.  This is not a plea for non-resistance, of course, because in the same epistle, justice is to be exercised by the ruler, the deputy appointed by God as “a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”

It should be obvious that the Christian arguments against revenge and self-defense have been overstated and distorted.  Jesus not only claimed not to have overturned the old law, but, just in case his followers might misunderstand his preaching as a call for non-resistance, he told them:  “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth.  I came not to send peace but a sword.”  [Mat 10:34] In giving his disciples instructions on how to behave once he was gone, them to arm themselves. [Luke 22:36] His admonitions on forgiveness are addressed to his followers living in religious community and do not apply to alien aggressors.  Even a “brother,” if he refuses to make restitution, is to be treated as a gentile.

In the early Fathers, the traditional ancient understanding of justice is not overturned. Indeed, Saint Polycarp, in his epistle to the Philippians 92) treats the death of Christ as a crime calling out for vengeance: "Whose blood God will require from them who disobey him,” and Christian thinkers from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas taught that the power of revenge was entrusted by the Creator to the legitimate rulers of this world.

In sum, the Scriptures and the Fathers teach that vengeance is the basis of justice, that within the community (whether of Jews or of Christian believers), personal vengeance should be foresworn, and that vengeance/justice on this earth is to be carried out by rulers who derive their power from God.  It follows from this that where these conditions are not met, where there is no community bound together by faith or by kinship and friendship, and where the rulers do not carry out their divinely appointed duties to protect the innocent and punish the guilty appropriately, the rights of vengeance revert to the communities and families that long ago entrusted rulers with this authority.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

7 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    I can’t get my head around this except that we are still paying the price for Adam and Eve’s disobedience. It sounds like Islam follows this more than Christianity or Judaism. It probably is also because I’m the opposite sex.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    If you mean that man’s sinful nature requires social, political, and judicial institutions such as marriage, rulers, and courts, then yes. If you mean that institutions rooted in revenge are signs of rebellion against divine laws, then absolutely no. Islam per se is not really more interested in vengeance than Judaism and Christianity, though in Islamic societies, which are generally less modernized than those of the postChristian West, more respect is paid to the institutions of revenge. Not all acts of revenge are just, but all justice is rooted in the basic human principle of vindicta/vendetta, which stipulates: He who does X crime must suffer the equivalent penalty, whether inflicted by the victim and/or his family, or by a ruler in the name of the victim or of the society that has been damaged.

  3. Allen Wilson says:

    This and some of the previous installments would serve as a check on the falsification of Christian teaching used by liberals to try to neuter Christians who disagree with them on these subjects,if Christians could be bothered to read them, or, for that matter, learn about their own religion at all.

    The only other serious explanations of these subjects I have seen elsewhere are done by Steve Wilkins, John Weaver, etc., but of course in a very different way and with a different emphasis, and not as scholarly.

    One may well wonder how close we are today to the point when rights of vengeance will revert to communities and families.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Very close, indeed and I take up that point in the next section of this chapter, and in the next chapter on the defense of honor, aka dueling.

  5. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I do not think we should put Islam on the same level as Judaism and Christianity, which are based on revelation from God. Islam is based on “revelation” of an “inspired” human leader who wanted a means to win the loyalty and support of men to aid him in achieving his ambitions. I have an idea of who inspired him. It is not the God of Jews and Christians.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I should add that I don’t think we should put modern Judaism, which has evolved over a period of two millennia in reaction against Christianity, on the same level as Christianity. However, it is not a question of equating religions when one compares their different.

  7. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I agree with you about modern Judaism, Dr. Fleming. Many Christian denominations and sects have also gone astray.