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The Human Avenger

The Human Avenger
By Richard Nichols

Published in
The Christian Informer
May  2008

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When He dealt directly with the descendants of Abraham, God set up both spiritual and civil laws.  During that age, God provided that in case of certain events there would be someone who assumed the role of “the avenger.”  The avenger was the person with the legal responsibility to protect the rights of an endangered relative.  Avenger translates Hebrew go’el, which in its verbal form means to redeem.  Redemption applies to repossessing things consecrated to God (Leviticus 27:13-31) or to God’s actions for His people (Exodus 6:6; Job 19:25; Psalms 103:4; Isaiah 43:1).   Ultimately God is the go’el (avenger) (Isaiah 41:14).
The human avenger bore a close relationship to the institutions of cities of refuge, land ownership, and levirate marriage. Cities of refuge offered people who killed without intention or hatred a place of escape from the avenger of blood (Exodus 21:12-14; Numbers 35:6-34; Deuteronomy 4:41-43; 19:1-13; Josh. 20:1-9).  The human go’el (avenger) may be a brother, an uncle, a cousin, or another blood relative from the family (Leviticus 25:48-49).  An established order among these determined the one legally responsible to act as go’el (avenger) (see Ruth 3:12-13).  The avenger or go’el was responsible to take the life of one who killed a family member (Numbers 35:12), to receive restitution for crimes against a deceased relative (Numbers 5:7-8), buy back property lost to the family (Leviticus 25:25), redeem a relative who sold himself into slavery (Leviticus 25:48-49), or marry the widow of a relative without sons and perpetuate the family (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).
The levirate law was a term from the Latin LEVIR meaning “husband’s brother.”  It was a widespread practice in the ancient Near East assigning family responsibility to the husband’s brother in case of disaster.  The Mosaic law provided for the continuation of a man’s name should he die before fathering a male child.  The decedent’s brother was to marry the widow.  The first male child born to this union was to carry the name of the dead man.  This practice was alluded to by the Jews who questioned Jesus about the resurrection in Matthew 22:28, Mark 12:23 and Luke 20:33.
Avenging the death of a relative was placed under strict limits.  The murderer must have intentionally waited to kill the relative (Exodus 21:13), or willfully attacked the relative (Exodus 21:14).   Vengeance could be exercised only before the murderer reached the city of refuge or after the court either at the victim’s hometown or at the murder site judged the case (Numbers 35:12).  The avenger was free to act if an iron object was used to commit the murder (Numbers 35:16), or if a stone or wood object was used (Numbers 35:17-18).   Pushing a person to death because of hatred made one liable to the avenger (Numbers 35:20-21).  When brought to trial, although the acts might be determined as unintentional, the killer was still sent to the city of refuge (Numbers 35:22-24).
A killer judged to have committed the crime without hatred or intentional planning was to dwell in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest.  The avenger could not touch the killer in the city of refuge, but if the killer left the city of refuge for any reason, the avenger could reap vengeance even against the unintentional killer (Numbers 35:22-28).  This shows that even unintentional killing involved transgression for which a penalty had to be paid.  The law of the avenger thus prevented the shedding of innocent blood while also purging the guilt of murdering the innocent (Deuteronomy 19:11-13).  The law maintained the reverence for human life, “for in the image of God made he man” (read Genesis 9:5-7).
The New Testament tells us that God uses government to avenge evil doing (Romans 13:4), while noting God’s role as the final avenger for wrong against a brother (1 Thessalonians 4:6).  The Christian is told to have a benevelant role toward others and leave the avenging for evil to God.  Paul wrote, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19).

The emotional response to perceived wrong and injustice, often translated “anger,” “indignation,” “vexation,” and “irritation” and is expressed in both humans and God.  Of course, God’s response is always righteous, but man’s is continually called in question.
In the Old Testament the wrath of God was shown as a divine response to human sin and injustice.  When the Israelites complained to God at Taberah, “the anger of the Lord blazed hotly” (Numbers 11:10 RSV).  Later, God reminded the people of various such experiences and warned, “Remember Do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness” (Deuteronomy 9:7 NKJV).  Idolatry became the occasion for divine wrath also. Psalm 78:56-66 describes Israel’s idolatry: God was “full of wrath,” “utterly rejected Israel,” and “gave his people to the sword.”
The wrath of God is consistently directed towards those who do not follow His will (Deuteronomy 1:26-46; Joshua 7:1; Psalms 2:1-6).  Historical calamity and disaster were to be expected when God was stirred to anger.  God was wrathful over Saul’s disobedience: “"Because you did not obey the voice of the LORD nor execute His fierce wrath upon Amalek...  Moreover the LORD will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines” (1 Sam. 28:18-19 NKJV).
The Old Testament often speaks of a “day” coming in the future which will be “The great day of the Lord ... a day of wrath” (Zephaniah 1:14-15).  Isaiah spoke of “the day of the Lord” as “cruel, with wrath and fierce anger” (Isaiah 13:9).  This day referred to the day of judgment in history, as when the Assyrians conquered Israel; but it also calls to mind a future day of final judgment at the end-time, when all will be called to give account to God.
The wrath of God was viewed in fear and awe.  Yet God provided a way to gain divine favor. Repentance turns God’s wrath away from the sinner.  The psalmist reminded God that He had in times past forgiven the iniquity of His people and withdrawn all of His wrath (Psalms 85:1-3). Jesus affirmed the Old Testament teaching about such a day. He predicted a day that will come at an unknown time when “the earth will pass away” (Mark 13:31; compare the entire chapter).
In the New Testament, Jesus’ teaching supports the concept of God the Father as a God of wrath who judges sin and justice.  The story of the rich man and Lazarus shows the rich man in hades in torment and agony (Luke 16:19-31).  The story definitely speaks of the judgment of God and implies that there are serious consequences for the sinner.  In Luke 13:3,5 (NKJV) Jesus said, “Repent, or you will all perish.”  John 15:1-11 warns that the unfruitful branches are to be “gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6).
God’s wrath is restrained, held back from its full and final effect.  John 3:36 records Jesus’ saying, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.”  The grace of God, His unmerited favour, holds the full effect of wrath back at the same time that wrath “rests upon” the sinner.
In Romans 2:5  Paul spoke to those who do not repent of their sin, warning that “by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”  The image of wrath being restrained for some future release is truly awe inspiring.  However, the Christian has no fear of this day, since 1 Thessalonians says that Jesus “rescues us from the wrath that is coming” (1 Thessalonians 1:10).  The instruments of God’s wrath may be angels (Rev. 15:1,7), nations, kings, and rulers as well as natural catastrophes.
Human wrath is always suspect.  We are instructed by Paul not to take revenge (Romans 12:19).  To the Ephesian Christians the inspired writer says “Be ye angry, and sin not; let not the sun go down on your wrath” (Ephesians 4:26).  Adam Clark says, “Perhaps the sense is, ‘Take heed that ye be not angry, lest ye sin’ for it would be very difficult, even for an apostle himself, to be angry and not sin.”  Fathers should not provoke children to wrath (Ephesians 6:4).  Christians must rid ourselves of “all such things—anger, wrath, malice” (Colossians 3:8).  The Old Testament psalms of lament such as Psalms 53; 137 show how humans can freely express their anger to God.
Romans 8 pictures the mind filled by the Spirit which is “life and peace” (Romans 8:6).  Such a spirit is no longer a slave of anger and wrath but is yielded “to righteousness for sanctification” (Romans 6:19).  There is no need to continue in the fleshly spirit of wrath.  The admonition of the Lord for Christians is, “Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice.  Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.  Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.  And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.  Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things”  (Phil. 4:4-8).  --R.N.
“For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4).