Light from the Sidra

Mattot/Massei ['Vows'/Journeys'] 17th July 2015. 2nd Av 5775

Torah: Numbers 30:2(1)-36:13*. Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4-3:4

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)


Rough Justice

We like to say we don’t approve of vengeance but some of the most popular movies are about people getting even for wrongs done to them. For a period of twenty years, from 1974 to 1994, some of the biggest money spinners in Hollywood were Michael Winner’s Death Wish movies in which a mild-mannered architect by day (yawn…) turns into a vigilante by night, exacting revenge on an assortment of punks, hoodlums and low-lifes for what they’ve done to his loved ones. The fact is that although we want to appear civilised, we find films and stories in which evil villains walk-free (as in No Country for Old Men) unsatisfying and deeply unsettling.

The Bible is sometimes criticised for teaching the principle of ‘an eye for an eye,’ which is basically an insistence that punishments fit the crimes. What I find fascinating about biblical law is that HASHEM appears more concerned that the innocent are protected than that the guilty are punished. After all, he has appointed a day in which he will dispense justice to all.

In ancient Israel, there was no police force but crimes had to be tried and justice carried out. If you were accused of a misdemeanour, you would be brought before the judges and when it was established that there were at least two people who claimed to have seen you carry out your crime the judges would cross question you and the witnesses. Only after due consideration and deliberation would the judges decide if you were innocent or guilty.

Millennia before fingerprinting was developed and centuries before forensic science came on the scene, eyewitness evidence was the only evidence required to secure a conviction. The system was, naturally, open to abuse and so checks and balances were required because if two people had it in for you they could hatch a plot and frame you for murder, for which the penalty was stoning. But if under cross examination it was discovered that there was a conspiracy or collusion, the fate your accusers wished for you was meted out on them. A clear disincentive to perjury if ever there was one.

In an agricultural community, where axes, hammers and heavy implements were required for work and in which there existed none of the daft health and safety regulations that hinder workers today, people could get injured. Even killed. You’re chopping down a tree and suddenly your axe head flies off the shaft and brains your workmate. You’ve killed him and, even worse, when his family finds out they’re going to want revenge. What do you do? You can’t call the cops because they’re not going to be around for a couple of thousand years.

God foresaw such situations and provided six ‘cities of refuge’ in the land for people in situations such as the one in which you now find yourself. You gird up your loins and leg it for the nearest city of refuge. There you can expect to receive a fair trial in the presence of unbiased judges who fear God refuse to take bribes. And you travel as fast as you can, resting as little as possible because family go’el, the avenger of blood, the kinsman redeemer is probably on your trail with a posse and if he catches you he has the right to kill you whether you slew his relative purposely or accidentally.

Under trial, if it is found that you deliberately killed your workmate you’ll be put to death by the go’el but if the death was an accident you will be acquitted. In case the go’el remains determined to avenge the blood of his kin, you will have to remain in the city for the rest of your life or until the high priest dies. If you venture beyond the city limits and the avenger of blood jumps you and kills you, you will have only yourself to blame. But if, while you living in the city of refuge, the high priest dies you will be free to go wherever you wish. The go’el can’t touch you. At least not legally. The death of the anointed priest has saved you.

To us this all sounds primitive but biblical law operated in a particular culture and was meant to ensure that justice was satisfied. Biblical law did not bang up criminals at tax payers’ expense or keep people in prison before trial. Biblical justice was rough but it was a standard of justice that dealt swiftly and justly with criminal cases.

That’s not to say we should reinstitute cities of refuge today but the principle shows how God deals with sinners. Every crime is a sin but not every sin is crime. No one in ancient Israel, for example, ever stood trial for coveting his neighbour’s wife, or house or cow. But every lustful thought we’ve ever had is known to God and the secrets of all our hearts will be revealed on the day of justice. How can we escape the terrible swift sword of divine justice?

In the Tanakh, salvation is sometimes seen as taking shelter or seeking refuge. Noah and his family went into the ark to escape the Flood. Lot and his family were saved by getting out of Sodom and heading for the hills. In order to be saved from the judgement of God on Egypt the Israelites painted the blood of a lamb on the doors of their houses and took refuge inside. If we wished to be saved from the curse that the law pronounces on those who fail to keep all God’s mitzvot the only place of refuge is in Messiah.

Also, the death of the high priest made it possible for the manslayer to go free. The death of a man provided atonement. In Psalm 110 King David writes of his Lord the Messiah sitting at the right hand of HASHEM as an eternal priest of the order of Melchizedek. The Messiah as a priest after the order of Melchizedek offered himself to God as a pure, morally and spiritually unblemished sacrifice to atone for the sins of his people. Whatever our offences against God, if we run to him we will be safe because Messiah’s death makes it possible for us to walk free with a clear conscience.

So what are you waiting for? You’re a sinner and God’s law with its righteous demands is on your trail and will catch you. Don’t waste another second. Run while you still can to the safety of Messiah’s heart.

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