Mattot-Masei: Bibles code for responses to murders


Numbers 30:2-36:13

Jeremiah 2:4-2:28, 3:4

The idea of the blood avenger seems inevitable. Just imagine, long ago and far away, a time and place where no authority would punish murder; there, the family of the victim must do the job, or the murderer goes free. Whichever relative of the victim takes up the task of tracking down the perpetrator earns the title of "blood avenger."

If such an act seems barbaric to us, perhaps we have not thought deeply enough about the alternatives.

When the murderer cannot easily be found, or when the family of the murderer refuses to acknowledge the justice of vengeance against the murderer, then we get an altogether messier system, the blood feud. Someone from the aggrieved family kills someone, anyone, from the perpetrator's family, to even the score. It seems arbitrary to kill someone because of membership in a family; just as bad, once the feud has begun, by its own logic, it ought to keep on rolling without end.

Given the obvious flaws in the idea of a blood feud, why did anyone engage in feuding? Let me suggest an explanation.

Ancient wars, as far as we can tell, often aimed at conquest and extermination. One band, or family, tried to take over the home of another band, and kill all, or at least all the males. Two relatively evenly matched bands might forgo the risks of war; each would then need a way of discouraging the other from systematic depredations. So they would extract a price for each injury.

In the modern period, vengeance and feud systems probably exist wherever central authority lacks the power, or interest, to enforce peace. In relations between families of organized crime, or institutions dedicated to covert activities, or street gangs, or between nation-states and terrorist groups, where combatants do not appeal to higher authorities, I suspect people engage in these forms of self-help. Even warfare, as regulated by the Geneva Convention, has something in common with the feud.

In old England, Anglo-Saxon practice respected the feud. Later, families in Anglo-Saxon England developed a way of avoiding the murderous and endless blood feud: cash payment. They called this wergeld. "Wer" means man, as in werewolf. "Geld" means money, as in Chanukah gelt. Legal historian Charles Rembar explains, in his book "The Law of the Land," that wergeld "was payment for the man, if killed…wergeld was something the surviving kin collected." If the victim were injured, the perpetrator paid bot (payment to the victim for injury), on a sliding scale according to the value of the injured limb.

At first, the aggravated family had the option of accepting wergeld. "If the family felt like fighting, there was no law to make them take the cash," Rembar writes.

When the king became powerful enough to enforce his own justice, he outlawed vengeance and feuds, demanding that families accept wergeld. A later reform made criminals liable to the state, and not to the victim or the victim's family.

In this week's reading, we see Torah regulation of the response to injury, which also seems to modify an existing system of feuds and vengeance that perhaps resembled the earliest Anglo-Saxon system.

To use the Anglo-Saxon terms, the Bible requires bot or payment to the injured victim (Exodus 21:18-19, 24), and forbids wergeld, payment to the surviving family for the life of a victim (Numbers 35:31-32).

The Bible rejects the notion that a person may kill and then buy off the victim's family; homicide counts as a crime against the individual, against humanity and against God, not merely against the family.

Homicide weighs so heavily that no mere monetary payment ought to help. Even the negligent homicide must pay the price, not in money, but in exile to a city of refuge (Numbers 35:22-28). Only if the victim survives does the Bible allow, and require, the perpetrator to pay cash for injury.

The Bible similarly regulates the blood avenger. Rather than given free rein to kill the perpetrator, or, failing that, perhaps a member of the perpetrator's family, the biblical blood avenger enforces the sentence of exile for negligent homicide, and executes the court's judgment of death for the premeditated murderer.