Light from the Sidra

Massei ('Journeys') 26 July 2014. 28 Tammuz 5774.

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

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

Gimme shelter

Half a century after the death sentence was abolished in the United Kingdom, the assured results of Sociology demonstrate beyond a shadow of peradventure that hanging was never really a deterrent after all and that murder and violent crime has not increased. We listen to the experts and nod our heads in agreement because we now know that ridding the world of cold-blooded killers is a Bad Thing.

We are civilised now and we know better. But we still like to watch the ‘Dirty Harry’ films. Even the appallingly bad Death Wish series of movies fascinates some people. Why? Because we really do like to see bad guys get their come uppance. If the law won’t administer justice, Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson will.

Not so deep down inside, we know the principle of an eye for an eye is just. The Torah never says you must demand and eye for an eye but if you are going to insist on justice being done, 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 (indeed, a better choice) 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 notice 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 that they die, you are a murderer and have forfeited the right to live. 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 of refuge in which a manslayer could find sanctuary from the go’el and receive a fair trial were to be set apart in the land of Canaan. Once in a city of refuge, a manslayer was safe from his pursuer but he had to stay in the boundaries of the city until the death of the high priest. If the manslayer ventured outside the city walls and the avenger of blood killed him, no crime had been committed. The manslayer knew the rules and his blood was on his own head.

A refuge seeker couldn’t just turn up at a city and demand sanctuary. It had to be established by the elders 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 to be handed over to the avenger of blood so that the shed blood of the murderer could purge the land of guilt. The reason for what appears to us to be harsh sentences was that men and women are made in the image of God and are precious to God.

Today we no longer recognise the image of God in man, we no longer value human life (except our own, of course), Atheist professor Peter Atkins of Oxford University believes humankind is of no more value than slime on a microscope while the animal rights activist Peter Singer says he doesn’t believe in the value of human life, except when it comes to his elderly mum.

Returning to the Torah, the Parasha confronts us with the concept of atonement through human blood. In ancient Israel, if you killed someone with malice aforethought, the innocent blood you shed polluted the land (remember Abel’s blood calling from the ground for vengeance in Genesis 4). The murderer had to be given a fair trial before an assembly and, on the testimony of at least two eyewitnesses, was convicted and judicially sentenced to death at the hands of the go’el.

If it was established that the killer was a manslayer 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 an angry relative who killed him was 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. In how many court cases would the prosecution be able to produce evidence from at least two eyewitnesses? In ancient Israel, relatively few people were executed because eyewitnesses to murder are only slightly less rare than hen’s teeth. In the Bible, most recorded cases of people being judicially put to death are due to 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 will all have to stand before the Judge of all the earth who does right. He sees all and we reap exactly what we have sown.

Since we are all sinners, where can we find refuge from God’s perfect judgement today? 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 will atone for us?

In Psalm 110, King David saw a mysterious priest-king sitting at the right hand of God. This ‘priest after the order of Melchizedek’ (remember him from Genesis 14?) is so great that 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 cleanse not so much the land as our hearts.

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