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Retribution and Revenge (Masei, Covenant & Conversation)

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28.07.2022

Near the end of the book of Bamidbar, we encounter the law of the cities of refuge: three cities to the east of the Jordan and, later, three more within the land of Israel itself. There, people who had committed homicide could flee and find protection until their case was heard by a court of law. If they were found guilty of murder, in biblical times, they were sentenced to death. If found innocent – if the death happened by accident or inadvertently, with neither deliberation nor malice – then they were to stay in a city of refuge “until the death of the High Priest.” (See Num. 35:28) By residing there, they were protected against revenge on the part of the goel ha-dam, the blood-redeemer, usually the closest relative of the person who had been killed.

Homicide is never less than serious in Jewish law. But there is a fundamental difference between murder – deliberate killing – and manslaughter, accidental death. To kill someone not guilty of murder as an act of revenge for an accidental death is not justice but further bloodshed; this must be prevented – hence the need for safe havens where people at risk from vigilantes.

The prevention of unjust violence is fundamental to the Torah. God’s covenant with Noah and humankind after the Flood identifies murder as the ultimate crime:

“One who sheds the blood of man – by man shall his blood be shed, for in God’s image man was made. (Gen. 9:6)

“One who sheds the blood of man – by man shall his blood be shed, for in God’s image man was made. (Gen. 9:6)

Blood wrongly shed cries out to Heaven itself. After Cain had murdered Abel, God said to Cain,

“Your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground! (Gen. 4:10)

“Your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground! (Gen. 4:10)

Here in Bamidbar we hear a similar sentiment:

“You shall not pollute the land in which you live; blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no atonement for the blood that is shed in it – except through the blood of the one who shed it. (Num. 35:33)

“You shall not pollute the land in which you live; blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no atonement for the blood that is shed in it – except through the blood of the one who shed it. (Num. 35:33)

The verb ch-n-ph, which appears twice in this verse and nowhere else in the Mosaic books, means to pollute, to soil, to dirty, to defile. There is something fundamentally blemished about a world in which murder goes unpunished. Human life is sacred. Even justified acts of bloodshed, as in the case of war, still communicate impurity. A Kohen who has shed blood does not therefore bless the people.[1] David is told that he may not build the Temple “because you shed much blood.”[2] Death defiles. That is what lies behind the idea of revenge. And though the Torah rejects revenge except when commanded by God,[3] something of the idea survives in the concept of the goel ha-dam, wrongly translated as ‘blood-avenger.’ It means, in fact, ‘blood-redeemer.’ Advertisement

A redeemer is someone who rights an imbalance in the world, who rescues someone or something and restores it to its rightful place. Thus Boaz redeems land belonging to Naomi.[4] Redeemers are the ones who restore relatives to freedom after they have been forced to sell themselves into........

© The Times of Israel (Blogs)


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