Limiting Vengeance

My family, on my dad’s side hales from West Virginia, the land of a famous feud between the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. It became legendary, and legend suggests it started over a pig, or something equally ridiculous. I now live in a place that had another such feud between families around the turn of the 20th-century. Two settler families hurt and killed one another over river ferry rights. It went on for over 20 years, and now neither family lives in the area.

Vengeance resonates with us, and the role of a “family avenger” goes back thousands of years, well past any sense of “honor”, back to family duty. But, it was supposed to be about justice, not angry vengeance. It was about balance, not just angry aggression. That’s difficult to do when we are wronged, when someone we love is taken from us by another. In our grief we are angry, at the loss, at the pain caused by another, and the fear it could happen again. And in response to these emotions, we want to make sure it never happens to us again.

That is not the way of our Creator. His way is significantly different, and a lot more sensible.

“If men have a quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but remains in bed, if he gets up and walks around outside on his staff, then he who struck him shall go unpunished; he shall only pay for his loss of time, and shall take care of him until he is completely healed.

Exodus 21:18,19 NASB

I love that phrase, “…he who struck him shall go unpunished”. Think about that. No vengeance for wounding someone. No city of refuge. The only requirement is to pay for his lost wages, and care for him until he recovers. That makes sense. In our day, we have insurance for such things, and don’t even think about it. We go to court to sue, seeking damages, and penalties, but here, we see God’s perspective is to restore balance. In our courts, vengeance seems to reign. But that isn’t the perspective of a disciple of Jesus.

“If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.

Exodus 21:20,21 NASB

This one is more difficult. Here, the status of a slave, something God protected in the first law we looked at, appears relegated to “property”, yet only if injured. If the “owner” kills the slave, the law of the family avenger (blood redeemer) comes into play, along with the city of refuge, and so on. Owning a slave doesn’t entitle the owner to the life, only to the work the slave performs, and if the slave dies due to treatment, the owner is either treated as a murder, or at the minimum, is out all he paid for the person’s work.

It still seems harsh to our 21st-Century sensibilities that if the slave dies after a few days (the damage isn’t that bad), there is no punishment. Now I’m not loving that phrase as much. I don’t like thinking that this debt-slavery issue relegates this fellow Hebrew to property. Clearly, the protection and status of such slavery is limited, even by our Creator. The practice of indenturing isn’t a great institution after all. Our Creator and Savior limits the bad effects, but it’s still bad. On the other hand, wait for tomorrow.

“If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life,

Exodus 21:22,23 NASB

Does anyone else wonder how often this happened? Is it really enough that it winds up in the legal code? But think through the concepts at work. The life of the infant is what is at issue. If the infant dies, then the incident is handled as a killing. If it is injury, then the family and judges decide the penalty, but with limits. This next statement, in my opinion, is the point of the capital punishment and limiting laws.

But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

Exodus 21:23-25 NASB

The point is that the penalty does not exceed the crime. The feuding between families happens when the penalty exceeds the crime, or there is no penalty for a crime. When balance becomes crucial, “Capulet-and-Montague” problems can be avoided. And, unfortunately, this is a problem for churches as well. It’s a sad irony, but those confessing Jesus as Lord still succumb to this problem. It happens because of unforgiveness, bitterness, and a failure to live out the lordship of Jesus.

Where have you, perhaps, held resentment, and wanted revenge rather than justice? Where might you need to forgive? Or, where have you failed to punish equitably? Do you need to address a sin which you have let pass? When we, as a community of disciples of Jesus, are commanded to love each other, hold each other accountable, and correct our fellow disciples. In doing so, we help each other on the path of discipleship, leaning on each other as we strive for the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation

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