Torah Portion of the Week: Of Blood and Vengeance

Parashat Masei.

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“Encampment of Israelites, Mount Sinai” after Joseph Mallord William Turner (1836).
“Encampment of Israelites, Mount Sinai” after Joseph Mallord William Turner (1836).

“What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10) – such are God’s words to Cain, the first murderer in human history. After Noah’s Flood, God decrees: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6). Human blood shed on the earth is not at peace. Every living being’s life force is found in its blood: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11). This cry reflects or symbolizes the fact that murder victims are never at peace and demand vengeance, in the form of their killer’s death.

Not only do the victims suffer until the murderer is punished; their blood stains society. Deuteronomy explains why murderers must be punished: “Thine eye shall not pity him, but thou shalt put away the blood of the innocent [lit., clean] from Israel, that it may go well with thee” (Deuteronomy 19:13). In her work “Purity and Danger,” anthropologist Mary Douglas defines dirt as “matter out of place”; murder victims’ blood pollutes because it is the blood of innocent (clean) persons, which should not have been shed. This situation can be rectified only by removal of that blood, by means of the murderer’s death: Paradoxically, only the shedding of a guilty (unclean) person’s blood can atone for the shedding of an innocent (clean) person’s blood.

Parashat Masei (Numbers 33:1-36:13) contains a law parallel to the one in Deuteronomy concerning punishment of murderers, the distinction between manslaughter and premeditated murder, and sanctification of “cities of refuge” where accidental murderers flee to evade the “avenger of blood.” This week’s Torah portion describes more explicitly and in greater detail the semantic field of blood, which is not just metaphorical: “Moreover ye shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer … So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are; for blood, it polluteth the land; and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it. And thou shalt not defile the land which ye inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the Children of Israel” (Num. 35:31-34).

We must distinguish between two connotations of the root kaf-feh-resh. Demanding a ransom (kofer) for a murderer’s soul means substituting a cash payment for his execution; the expiation (kippur) here involves cleansing the land of the blood shed on it. This is the land where the Children of Israel and God dwell, where God resides amid the Israelites: The murder victim’s blood pollutes and defiles it, threatening to terminate the Almighty’s continued presence among the nation. As we see in Deuteronomy, “no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it” – only execution of the murderer purifies the land of the innocent victim’s blood.

Thus the blood that’s shed and awaits vengeance symbolizes the victim, who is not at peace, and who endangers the nation, polluting the land and distancing God from it. Another factor must also be mentioned: the bereaved family. Abel’s blood cries out to God because it has nobody else to cry to. Cain, Abel’s elder brother, is also his murderer. In most cases, however, a relative of the murder victim is responsible for avenging the death and is even authorized to do so; the term “avenger [lit., redeemer] of blood” (go’el hadam) aptly describes the relative’s role. The victim’s blood cries out for redemption, which is attainable only through the shedding of more blood – the murderer’s.

Deuteronomy’s description of the lust for vengeance – “lest the avenger of blood pursue the manslayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and smite him mortally” (Deut. 19:6) – relates to accidental murderers, whom avengers are prohibited from killing. An avenger with a heart that is “hot” cannot distinguish between accidental homicide and murder, and is thus driven to pursue the perpetrators. Had the Torah not commanded that cities of refuge be scattered throughout the land for the protection of accidental murderers, avengers would certainly have killed them. Despite the emotions involved, in the case of deliberate murder, vengeance is legitimate; the authorities must deny the perpetrators shelter and hand them over: “Then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die” (Deut. 19:12). Also in Parashat Masei, vengeance is presented as the usual, fitting punishment for an intentional murderer.

Biblical law recognizes another function of such punishment: deterrence. Deuteronomy justifies stoning inciters to idolatry: “And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do no more any such wickedness as this is in the midst of thee” (Deut. 13:12). Blood vengeance is a different story: The penalty for it constitutes not simply an “educational” act, but also fulfills a deeply felt demand that transcends utilitarian considerations.

Apparently, this story is still with us: The reality of blood that is shed, the crying out and the situation of not being at peace still underlie the desire to punish or avenge in both private and national contexts. Tension also exists between a regime or society’s responsibility for punishing murderers, and the belief that the obligation and right to avenge accrue first of all to the victim’s relatives; they are seen as the true avengers who, like the victim, will not be at peace until the murderer is properly punished.

Since biblical law reflects and confirms this worldview, one is particularly struck by the fact that it also demands that a distinction be made between accidental and premeditated murder, and defends those who deserve assistance. Parashat Masei holds all suspected killers as innocent until proven guilty: “And the cities shall be unto you for refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation for judgment” (Num. 35:12). While thus protecting someone who has killed a person by accident, the city of refuge also distances him from the society that is confronting the reality of shed blood. Cleansing the blood shed by mistake is not attained by means of the death of the one who has killed innocently; the substitute is the natural death of the High Priest, which serves as a kind of expiating sacrifice; only after his death, can the accidental killer leave the city of refuge and go home without fearing vengeance from the victim’s family or from society.

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