Light from the Sidra

Mattot/Massei (Tribes/Journeys)

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

Gimme Shelter

As I write, the Olympic torch is due to pass my building in about three hours. The Games start in less than two weeks and the International Olympic Committee is embroiled in controversy. During the last forty years, the IOC has resolutely refused to honour the eleven Israeli athletes who were killed in cold blood by Black September terrorists in 1972. In spite of a petition signed by thousands, the committee refuses to observe a minute’s silence for the Israeli victims of the 1972 massacre at the opening ceremony. Many suspect the committee’s reluctance is due to fear of offending the Arab participants.

Israel’s Mossad, however, has been condemned (not by the Olympic Committee, I hasten to add) for hunting down those responsible for the Munich murders and despatching them in a series of carefully planned and executed revenge hits. We don’t much care for ‘vengeance’ these days; ‘justice’ sounds better. But can we draw a hard-and-fast distinction between the two? Isn’t justice another word for restrained and controlled vengeance? When three leading Iranian figures in the Iranian regime were killed by a suicide bomber on Wednesday this week, the Syrian authorities were quick to threaten revenge on the insurgents behind the killings. When a bomb blast killed seven Israeli tourists and injured many others on a Bulgarian bus the same day, Prime Minister Netanyahu threatened to respond ‘forcefully’ to the atrocity.

We are uneasy with the notion of Lex Talionis, the law of retaliation summed up in the principle ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. ‘If we all followed the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth,’ we are told, ‘we’d all be blind and toothless.’ The other extreme, of course, is that you shouldn’t punish crime at all (the actress Vanessa Redgrave once advocated emptying all prisons!) or that you punish an offender less than or more than he or she deserves. The Torah principle of an eye for an eye was not mandatory. If someone blinded you, you were not legally obliged to blind them; the Torah stipulation of an eye for an eye, insists only that there is a limit to the penalty one can demand for a personal injury and that the punishment must fit the crime.

The principle also applied to murder and manslaughter. Nowadays, in civilised society we view capital punishment as primitive, so we bang up offenders in small cells for several years or, worse, we judge them to be insane and commit them to mental institutions. 

In our proud post-Enlightenement, post-modern, secular, God-free culture, we say we believe in universal human rights, which basically means that the man who rapes and tortures to death a small child has the same ‘rights’ as his victim. The Torah, however, deals in universal duties and obligations. Because we have a benevolent Creator, we owe it to love him with all our heart, soul and strength. And because other humans are made in the image of God we are duty-bound to love them as we love ourselves. Fulfil your obligations to God and your neighbour, and all will be well with you; fail in your duty to God and your neighbour, and you suffer the judicial consequences. From a purely human perspective, the biblical position has everything to commend it.

But what about the vexed issue of capital punishment? There are people who (because they’ve never read it) imagine the Bible condones so-called ‘honour killings’ and the removal of limbs for theft. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Torah certainly mandates the death penalty for premeditated murder. But someone could be put to death only on the testimony of at least two eyewitnesses. How often is a court going to be able to produce two eyewitnesses to a homicide! Moreover, witnesses had to be cross examined separately and, if it was discovered there had been collusion or a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, the false witnesses received the punishment they had hoped would be the fate of the person they tried to stitch up. Because of the possibility of human error, the divine system of justice appears to be more concerned with protecting the innocent than punishing the guilty.

The Torah takes into account human weakness and sets in place regulations for restraining anarchy. Nowhere is this principle seen more clearly than in Numbers chapter 35. The provision of cities of refuge in the land of Israel was an important provision for restraining the human appetite for vengeance in cases of murder and manslaughter. Suppose your brother is chopping down trees with a friend and the head flies off the handle of the axe of the friend and hits your brother, killing him outright. You are told the news that your brother is dead and who has killed him and, with the blood pounding in your brain, you grab the nearest deadly weapon and set out to avenge the blood of your relative (remember we are talking about hot-blooded Mediterranean types who easily fly into rages). 

If you catch the accidental killer and strike him down, you are not culpable. However, if the man whose loose axe-head killed your sibling can reach a city of refuge before you catch him, so long as he remains in the city you can’t touch him. Given sufficient time, you will probably calm down but if you are bent on taking a life for a life, you can only do so if or when the manslayer leaves the sanctuary of the city of refuge.

If you charged the man you’ve chased to the city with homicide, he would have to stand trial before the judges. If two or three witnesses were able to testify that they had seen murder committed, you would be the one to cast the first stone, literally. If the accused fugitive was acquitted of murder but was found guilty of manslaughter, he would have to remain for safety in the city of refuge until the high priest died. After that, he would be free to return to his family home.

Christians have always seen in the system of cities of refuge a picture of the Messiah. Where can we run to when the Torah is on our case, accusing us of sin? Where can we find ease of conscience? Is there a city of refuge to which we can fly for shelter? Yes. Jesus is the City of Refuge we must all flee to. Also, he is the great High Priest whose death makes it possible for us all to be set free from condemnation. Rabbi Saul of Tarsus described it like this:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Messiah Jesus. For the Torah of the Spirit of life has set you free in Messiah Jesus from the Torah of sin and death. For God has done what the Torah, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the Torah might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Letter to the Romans 8:1-4).

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