Light from the Sidra


Numbers 33:1-36:13.Haftarah:Jeremiah 2:4-28,3:4

If Anders Behring Breivik were to spend the rest of his life in prison, he will serve just a few months for each of the people he mercilessly gunned down last weekend. Little wonder that after the events of last Friday, there have been calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty.

Half a century after the death sentence was abolished in the United Kingdom, the assured results of sociology show that hanging was never really a deterrent and that murders have not increased because most homicides are carried out in the heat of the moment. And we listen to the experts and nod our heads in agreement; killing murderers was a Bad Thing.

We are civilised now. We know better. But we still like to watch the “Dirty Harry” movies. Even the appallingly bad Death Wish series fascinates us. Why? Because we really do like to see the bad guys get their backsides well and truly kicked. If the law won’t administer justice, Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson will.

Not so deep down inside, we know that an eye for an eye is just. The Torah never says you must demand and eye for an eye but if you insist on justice, an eye is your limit. If you choose to forgive the man who punched you in the eye and blinded you, that’s your choice (and a better choice at that) but you cannot demand two eyes for your one eye.

The Torah teaches that if a Jew killed a fellow Jew, even accidentally, the land would polluted by the innocent blood and the only thing that could atone for shed blood was blood.

A go’el, a “kinsman redeemer” or “avenger of blood”, usually the firstborn of the family was to pursue a murderer and exact vengeance on behalf of the grieving family. The Bible does not necessarily distinguish between “vengeance” and “justice”. To our twenty-first century western eyes, such a system of law seems barbaric but yet, as we noticed in the case of “vengeance” films, we walk out of the cinema or switch off the telly with a sense of satisfaction when the villain receives his just desserts. Likewise, we feel uncomfortable or even outraged as the credits roll at the end of a film like No Country for Old Men when the pitiless killer walks away to kill another day. We feel justice has been cheated. And rightly so.

Numbers 35:16-24 defines the difference between murder and manslaughter. The definitions are pretty simple: if you deliberately hit someone so hard they die, you are a murderer and deserve to die. But not all killing is murder. If someone through no fault of his or her own causes the accidental death of someone else, they are guilty of manslaughter. How does justice operate in such circumstances?

Six Levitical cities – three east of the Jordan and three on the west – were to be set apart in the land of Canaan to which a manslayer could find sanctuary from the go’el and receive a fair trial. Once in a city of refuge, a killer was safe from his pursuer but he had to stay there until the death of the high priest. Outside the walls of the city if the avenger of blood killed him, no crime had been committed. He knew the rules and his blood was on his own head.

It would have to be established by the assembly of the city that the fugitive truly was innocent of culpable homicide. If a murderer ran to a city of refuge and was found to be guilty, he was handed over to the avenger of blood and the shed blood of the murderer purged the land of guilt. The reason for these harsh sentences was because men and women are made in the image of God and as such we are precious to God.

Today we don’t punish crimes against humanity as we ought because we no longer value human life (except our own, of course), Atheist professor Peter Atkins of Oxford University believes theoretically that humankind is of no more value than slime of a microscope slide but in practice he does not believe that. The animal rights activist Peter Singer does not believe in the value of human life, except when it comes to his mum.

Once again, we are confronted in the Torah with atonement through human death. In ancient Israel, if you killed someone with malice aforethought, the innocent blood polluted the land (remember Abel’s blood calling from the ground for vengeance in Genesis 4?). The murderer was given a fair trial before an assembly and, on the basis of the eyewitness testimony of at least two witnesses, was convicted and judicially sentenced to death; his death at the hands of the go’el purged the land of bloodguilt.

If it was established that the killer was a man-slayer rather than a murderer he could stay in the city of refuge and be safe. When the high priest died, the accidental killer was free to walk at liberty, and any angry relative who killed him would be guilty of murder.

There are lessons here that go beyond matters of justice and the value of human life. People in ancient Israel were condemned by an assembly on the testimony of at least two witnesses. How many times in court cases would the prosecution be able to produce eyewitness evidence? So in ancient Israel, relatively few people would have been put to death due to the absence of witnesses. In the historical books of the Bible, the cases of people being judicially often result from miscarriages of justice and the use of false witnesses.

Israel’s merciful God, it seems, is more concerned about protecting the innocent than punishing the guilty. So does evil win in the end? No; because we all have to stand before the Judge of all the earth who does what is right. He sees all and we reap exactly what we have sown.

Where can we find refuge from his perfect judgement? And, since Israel has been without a true high priest from the tribe of Levi since the Babylonian exile, where can we find a high priest whose death can atone for us?

In Psalm 110, King David in Psalm 110 saw a mysterious priest-king sitting at God’s right hand. This “priest after the order of Melchizedek” (remember him from Genesis 14?) is so great, David calls him “Lord”. His rule extends from Jerusalem and he executes vengeance on his enemies. This is none other than Israel’s Messiah, who was judicially murdered on the testimony of false witnesses but whose death in an amazing way can cleanses not so much the land as our hearts.

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