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Light from the Sidra

Mattot / Massei (‘Vows’ / ‘Journeys’) 6th August 2016 2 Av 5776

Torah: Numbers 30:2(1)–36:13*. Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4–28, 3:4

Gimme shelter

Stop me if you’ve heard this postmodern parable of the Good Samaritan. Two social workers come across a man who has been mugged. He’s naked, he’s covered with contusions and bleeding from wounds sustained during a violent mugging. His teeth are broken, he can’t open his eyes and he can hardly breathe. After careful consideration, one of the social workers sighs: ‘Whoever did this needs help!’

It’s more than half a century since the death sentence was abolished in the United Kingdom and the experts continue to assure us that capital punishment never really deterred murderers and that homicides haven’t increased since getting rid of the noose. Most unlawful killings occur in the heat of the moment, the theory goes, and we nod our heads sagely as the experts agree that no sane person ever plans to kill another human being. The mass slayings that have shocked us in recent weeks, they assure us, are totally unrelated to the religion the killers professed; the barbarities were carried out by deranged sociopaths. Under no circumstances, therefore should capital punishment even be considered as a punishment or a deterrent.

We are civilised now. We know better. But we still like to watch reruns of ‘Dirty Harry’ movies on the TV. Even Michael Winner’s appalling Death Wish series of films from the seventies attracts us because in our heart of hearts we like to see the bad guys get their just desserts. If the law won’t administer justice, Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenegger will.

Not so deep down inside, we know that an eye for an eye is a fair principle. The Torah doesn’t say you must demand and eye for an eye but, if you do insist on justice, the punishment must fit the crime. If you choose to forgive the man who blinded you, that’s your choice but you can’t demand two of his eyes (much less death) for your one eye.

If a Jewish man killed a fellow Jew, even accidentally, the shedding of innocent blood polluted the land 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 free to pursue a murderer and exact vengeance on behalf of the grieving relatives.

Unlike today’s legal experts, the Bible doesn’t necessarily distinguish between ‘vengeance’ and ‘justice’. To our twenty-first century western eyes, such a system of law appears barbaric but when we watch Clint Eastwood walk away from the prostrate body of a punk who has just made his day, we walk out of the cinema or switch off the telly with a sense of satisfaction that the villain has got what he had coming to him. Conversely, we feel uncomfortable or even outraged as the credits roll at the end of a film like No Country for Old Men in which a 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 died, you were a murderer and no longer fit to live. But if you caused the accidental death of someone else, you were a manslayer. How did justice operate in such circumstances?

Six Levitical cities – three on the east bank 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 manslayer was safe from his pursuer but, in order to remain safe, he must stay in the city until the death of the high priest. If the manslayer ventured out of the city before the death of the high priest and the go’el killed him, the refuge seeker had only himself to blame. He knew the rules and therefore his blood was on his own head.

It would have to be established by the assembly of the city, however, that the fugitive was genuinely innocent of culpable homicide. Following a trial in the city of refuge, a refuge seeker who was found guilty of murder was handed over to the avenger of blood for execution so that the land was purged of guilt. The reason for these harsh sentences was that all men and women are made in the image of God and, as such, are precious to God.

The reason we don’t execute murderers anymore is 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, while animal rights activist Peter Singer believes animals are of more value of human life (except the life of his mother).

There are lessons in the Torah that go beyond simple 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 of murder? Relatively few people (so far as we can tell from the biblical accounts) were put to death, due to the absence of 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?

Psalm 110 is helpful in this respect. In the psalm King David speaks of a mysterious priest-king who is of ‘the order of Melchizedek’ (remember him from Genesis 14?) sitting at God’s right hand. So great is this mysterious priest-king that David calls him his Lord. This priest-king is Israel’s Messiah, through whom the various strands of justice and mercy in the parasha come together.

The Messiah is like the six cities of refuge, each close enough to reach and find refuge from the just demands of the law. But Messiah is also a priest whose death protects us from the demands of the law. Outside Messiah, no one is safe because we all bear the guilt for his death. But Messiah’s shed blood cleanses those who flee to him from their blood guilt. But Messiah is also the go’el, the avenger of bloodwho pursues and takes vengeance on those who refuse to trust in him. And when he takes vengeance, those who perish will have only themselves to blame.


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