Chapter 16 (Vengeance) pages 263-277
North deals with Leviticus 19:18 in this chapter, though the emphasis is on Vengeance and the obligations and rights of the ‘State’. As we’ve seen previously, North’s emphasis on the ‘State’ is misguided in the context of the Mosaic Law when no such civil authority similar to that in existence today was either commanded by God or mentioned in the early Scriptures.
There’s justification for seeing vengeance as a requirement of civil authorities in, for instance, Romans 12:14-13:7 but the context and culture of the day of the Levitical Scripture’s writing excludes an initial application to such authorities and is addressed to the people of Israel as a whole and then, by implication, the judges/elders who ruled over the people who were concerned to mete out justice for all Israel.
‘Vengeance’ is a difficult concept for modern man to accept as being an action of God - whether directly or indirectly as commanded by Him - so it’s important that we come to terms with the concept that lies behind the word.
Ungers defines the concept as
‘Punishment inflicted in return for an injury or offense suffered; retribution; often passionate or unrestrained revenge’
and Zondervan, following very closely, states it as
‘Punishment inflicted on account of injury or offense’
The problem with the word is that there’s a range of meaning here that includes, on the one hand, God repaying a person for deeds done (Ps 94:1-2, Jer 11:20) and, on the other, the vindictive reaction of a person directed towards someone who’s perceived as causing offence in someway to the person taking vengeance (Ezek 25:15).
The context needs to define our understanding of the word so that, when we see God taking vengeance on His enemies (or even Israel acting as instruments of vengeance on behalf of God - Num 31:1-3) we’re witnessing a controlled reaction of judgment towards transgression and sin but, when we see man reacting against being offended, there is always the possibility that the response has originated in an incorrect assessment of a situation and that it may also be vindictive, uncontrolled and an over-payment for offence received.
Vengeance, when applied to God, is not an uncontrollable emotion of anger and retaliation but a measured response to a specific offence or transgression. Therefore, as North points out (page 263)
‘Because a civil judge is not God, he cannot legitimately claim to be able to search another person’s heart in his quest for civil justice. The affairs of the heart and mind are off-limits to the State’
and this statement should be applied to the context of an individual or group of people taking upon themselves to mete out retribution outside the Law or outside the will of God. Because men and women are unable to assess situations correctly, what’s considered to be an offence must be judged with correct criteria under the Law, judged by recourse to a series of direct physical actions that are in ‘black and white’.
Individuals set themselves up as judges of men’s intentions and attitudes but it’s only God who has a right to judge these and take vengeance accordingly if they’ve transgressed His will. As North says (page 263)
‘...only God is entitled to judge a person’s heart’
Therefore, God forbids any Israelite from taking vengeance and it’s only to be sought within the context of the legal system then current within Israel.
The second two clauses of Lev 19:18 are correctly seen to be outside the scope of civil law - that is, unenforceable by the judges/elders because they’re not defining a specific transgression that can be quantitatively assessed.
North notes (page 263) that
‘There can be no lawful civil sanctions against thoughts or attitudes. We must conclude that the prohibition against holding grudges...cannot be an aspect of the Mosaic civil law’
commenting on the second clause and, on the third (page 263-4)
‘Civil law also cannot enforce an attitude of love...there would have to be an infraction of a specific civil law or an act against another person’s rights...in order to enforce this law of compulsory love’
North asks the question why two unenforceable laws are included with one that can be enforced, noting his answer (page 264) as
‘By prohibiting personal grudges and requiring personal love, this verse makes it clear that the concern of the civil portion of the civil law is the elimination of privately imposed justice’
and then continues noting that the prohibition against acts of vengeance doesn’t apply to the State (in our understanding of the context of the verse, this means the elders/judges). But his answer is really no answer at all. It’s already clear that the civil portion of the law is to eliminate ‘privately imposed justice’ because it says as much in the text.
The reason for the inclusion of two unenforceable laws is that vengeance often springs from a situation where these two criteria are not in existence. Refusing to bear a grudge against someone who is assessed (there may be no real offence dealt out even though offence may be taken) as having violated our well-being, and extending love towards one and all regardless of how that person may treat us are safeguards against wanting to actively avenge a wrong.
As I type this, I’ve just logged out of a christian chat room where the couple I was speaking to so misunderstood my words and twisted what I said that I despaired and, eventually, gave up and left. Having now calmed down (yep, you see, even I can get angry!) I must set my will not to bear a grudge and, when I meet them next time, determine not to undermine whatever they’re attempting to do. If I achieve this, then I’ve fulfilled the requirements of the Law by extending God’s love towards them. If not, then bitterness and vindictiveness will become a part of my life and I’ll find myself drawn into further acts of vengeance whenever I perceive offence against me.
Therefore the Mosaic law, instead of just prohibiting an action that would increase if left unchecked within their society, would fester and ultimately destroy it, gives instruction as to how that action may be prevented.
Obeying the law isn’t a passive, ethereal attitude but a pragmatic and very self-hurting action that tears away at our own pride and self-worth to elevate others as having equal worth. When Jesus said (Mtw 19:19)
‘...You shall love your neighbor as yourself’
He wasn’t proclaiming that we should have love for ourselves (the ‘self-worth’ and ‘self-love’ theology of some of modern theology and christian psychology) but that the love we have for others around us should be of equal standing that we might treat them the way we would treat ourselves in the same situation.
Love, therefore, for all men should be displayed to the same level in order that when we’re offended we don’t take vengeance but treat the offender as we ourselves would like to be treated had we been perceived to have offended in the same manner.
Lev 19:18 therefore provides the reader with both active prohibition and a preventive state of mind.
North is at pains to insist that it’s only the State who’s allowed to execute vengeance (on God’s behalf) on transgressors. He writes (page 265 - my italics)
‘What Leviticus 19:18 does is to establish the State as the lawful monopolist of covenantal vengeance in history...The State exercises a monopoly over public sanctions’
But the passage dealing with the kinsman-redeemer has to be suppressed here in order for this statement to be shown to be true. Later on, North will note (page 276 footnote 23) that
‘In the Old Testament, the kinsman-redeemer was lawfully authorized to act as the State’s agent’
but this is to misinterpret the Numbers 35:9-28 passage (Pp Deut 19:4-13). Indeed, the avenger of blood is never spoken of as being commanded by the State to pursue the man-killer and put to death as their representative and it’s actually the State who are commanded to step in when the man-killer reaches the city of refuge in order to judge between him and the avenger.
The State isn’t the one commissioning the kinsman-redeemer but the one that restricts his actions until a proper evaluation of the evidence can be carried out. North only interprets the Numbers chapter 35 passage the way he does so that he can hold fast to the statement previously quoted that only the State has the right to execute vengeance on behalf of God, but there’s an occasion here when it’s the individual Israelite who’s commissioned by God to execute vengeance even when no trial has taken place on the occasion of a family member’s death.
It’s just possible that, even if the man-killer was no murderer and would have been cleared by the judges/elders, his death at the hands of the kinsman-redeemer is still acceptable so long as he hasn’t yet reached the city of refuge.
This may be an exception but it’s incorrect to see the State’s right to execute God’s punishment on the transgressor as being anywhere present in this passage.
North is quite correct to note (page 265) that
‘The State is...to enforce legal boundaries that are established by private contract...The State is to defend the rights of stewards over the property that God has assigned to them by covenant (lawful inheritance) or by contract’
and, quoting Rushdoony
‘The state thus is the ministry of justice, not the original property owner or the sovereign lord over the land’
but he goes one step too far when he says (page 266-7)
‘[The State] is therefore not authorized by God to become an agency of positive sanctions, for that would involve asserting its authority as a compulsory agency of healing. There is no compulsory, earthly, covenantal agency of healing in history’
The example of restitution being laid upon individuals when a decision is given against them (for example Ex 22:1-5) is necessarily ‘negative’ but also necessarily ‘positive’ when viewed from the aspect of the person who’s had his property stolen or destroyed. In effect, the reparation heals the loss by the imposition of a penalty upon the offender.
The State’s provision for dealing with a corpse that’s found lying in open country (Deut 21:1-9) talks about the need to
‘...purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst...’
which can be seen as nothing less than the healing of the land from the defilement of shed blood when no negative sanctions are being imposed against anyone. Therefore, it’s necessary that the State be considered to be an instrument not only of negative sanctions against the transgressors but of positive sanctions made on behalf of the innocent and those violated. North does note (page 267) that
‘[The State] can reward one group only by imposing penalties on some other group’
which is an affirmation of that which I’ve written above, but he appears not to see the twin facets of positive and negative sanctions as being laid upon the function of civil authority. However, North is correct when he variously notes (page 267) that
‘It is...exclusively protective’
‘Its task is not to make men good; rather, it is to penalize biblically identified evil acts...’
The function of God’s ‘civil authorities’, therefore, is to establish His rule of order upon the society over which they find themselves. They’re not authorised to establish their own ideas of how men and women should run their affairs before God, but only to enforce what’s already been made known to them by God Himself.
In this way, when North says (page 267) that
‘It is not to be regarded by anyone as a creative institution’
he’s absolutely correct. There should be no revolutionary new Laws that are not an accurate reflection of what has already been revealed to them by God.
North goes one step too far in his interpretation of Ex 22:3 which reads
‘If a thief is found breaking in, and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him’
when he notes (page 268) that
‘[The thief found breaking in] can be lawfully killed by the person who resides there’
This isn’t the intention of the Scripture. The Bible is at pains to emphasise that the householder has the right to defend his property from an attack in the situation when he’s unaware of the threat posed. Therefore Ex 22:4 continues that
‘...if the sun has risen upon him, there shall be bloodguilt for him’
The householder isn’t given the legal right to kill an assailant who’s caught breaking in under the cover of darkness but only the legal right to defend his property. If, as a consequence, the thief dies, then the householder is to be cleared of all guilt regardless of what weapon that thief may have been carrying but he’s not allowed to see an assailant entering his property and seek to kill him.
The onus is upon him to stop him, not slay him - but if, in trying to perform the former, the latter occurs then he’s not to be held accountable as one who’s killed in cold blood.
Later, on the same page, North will note that
‘The person who is given cause to believe that an assailant is ready to kill him is entitled to kill the assailant’
but, likewise, the person is allowed to defend his life as is necessary - that doesn’t mean that death is a legal requirement but a permitted eventuality.
North is correct, though, when he notes (page 268) that
‘This execution [sic] of an illegal invader is not an act of personal vengeance; rather, it is an act that defends a lawful boundary’
but not when he again sees the householder as acting ‘in the name of the State’ in his next sentence. He specifies that the householder can use the authority of the State because
‘...no policeman is available to enforce the law’
but there’s no provision made under the Mosaic Law for any sort of police force - we’ve previously discussed this and noted that every individual Israelite was expected to be a law enforcer, not only in their personal lives but within the life of the nation.
North’s absolute statement (page 272) that
‘...whatever is not prohibited by law is allowed’
presents problems, not least because I noted under the discussion of Leviticus chapter 18 that intercourse between a father and his daughter isn’t prohibited anywhere in the Law. North may not have noticed this fact or he may be in favour of these sorts of sexual relationships.
As he didn’t come out at that point and give an explanation of the problem, it’s difficult to be definite as to his belief on this issue. But, if North is really serious about the statement above, then he’s certainly in favour of this behaviour - personally, my experience of North’s exposition at a number of other points throughout his book makes me think that this statement is just sloppy and half-baked (I hope it is, anyway...).
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