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The Avenger


Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God (Romans 13:1).

      As we saw in the last chapter, divorce has long been a perplexing subject. This chapter is not about divorce, but the discussion about divorce opens a door to understanding another, very different, issue:


When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house (Deuteronomy 24:1).

      The meaning of this seems obvious to me, but there has been an incredible range of interpretation ranging from the severe to the absurd. I have read are some tortuous explanations of this verse, but there really is no question what Moses meant by this. It does not mean that if the man finds his wife doesn’t wash often enough or keeps a dirty house, he can divorce her. What it does mean is that, if a man finds his wife has been adulterous, he can legally put her away. Furthermore, once she has been another man’s wife, he can never take her back.

      Of special interest is the expression, “you shall not cause the land to sin” (v. 4). This means that there is a societal interest in keeping marriage sacred. Footnote The law is first and foremost for the sake of the children. Society has a vested interest in protecting children, because they are the future of the society. Sexual relationships were regulated because unbridled sex can bring an entire country to the brink of ruin. There is, however, one major objection to the interpretation I have offered here. It arises from another law on adultery:


If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel (Deuteronomy 22:22).

      So, what is this thing about divorce for sexual uncleanness? If the woman was guilty of adultery, why was she not stoned? A common assumption is that the law was inexorably and always applied in the letter. That does not appear to be the case for two reasons. One is that there may not be the two witnesses that are required. The other is that there may be no one who wants the death penalty carried out. Consider these two related passages. One we have discussed, the other we have not.


If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour's wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you (vv. 23-24).

      Couple that with this:


Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily (Matthew 1:18-19).

      There are some important things here to think about. Joseph was not a scofflaw. He was a just man. He could have made her an example but decided not to, and thus arises an insight into the law: Mercy was allowed. Joseph would have been deemed the offended party. It was his call, and no one else’s. Now let’s add one more insight.

      Jesus came to the temple early one morning and immediately drew a crowd. He sat down and began to teach. While he was talking, there was a disturbance and the scribes and Pharisees entered, dragging a woman with them. They stood her in the middle of the crowd and said to Jesus: “Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act” (John 8:4).

      That the woman was caught in the act was important. Witnesses were required in all capital cases. Footnote Guesswork was not permitted and they knew it. Her accusers went on:


Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her (vv. 8:5-7).

      The motive of the Pharisees in bringing this case had nothing to do with justice or the law. They were looking for a cause to accuse Jesus, but he wasn’t biting. Now they had to deal, not with Jesus, but with the law. While the whole crowd could participate in stoning, under the law the witnesses had to go first. What came at issue here was mercy. Sinners, if they are not in denial about their own sins, can be the most merciful of people. Jesus stripped away all denial. All that was left was mercy.


And they which heard it, being convicted by their own con-science, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more (vv. 9-11).

      This is crucial in understanding issues of the law. The condemnation of the poor sinner was a matter of choice. God himself does not routinely kill adulterers, or we would have suffered massive depopulation by now. One of the most evil approaches to the law of God is to remove the mercy option. To be sure, there are some crimes where mercy is simply not possible. Footnote But to make the law automatic and inexorable is to make God into someone entirely different from who he is.

      Not a few struggle with this issue. One approach is to divide the law into various compartments—this law is in effect and that one is not—playing hopscotch through the law. There are, though, two significant divisions in what is called, “The Law of Moses.” The divisions are commonly called moral and civil. The division is problematic because some conclude that the civil law is abolished while the moral law remains. The problem is that the civil law is written, and Jesus said the written law would continue as long as heaven and earth remained. What people are describing by the term “civil law” is administrative law—the laws describing who is to administer and enforce the law, and how they are to go about it.

      There is in the Bible a basic law that differentiates between right and wrong, and applies to man, whenever and wherever he finds himself. The obedience to this law is personal and between a man and his God. For example, consider this promise made to Isaac.


And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws (Genesis 26:4-5).

      Long before Moses, there was a complete system of law, but there appears to have been no civil administration of that law. There is another set of laws that became necessary for men to live together in a community or society. These laws were administrative.

      For example, we have in this country a basic law that condemns murder. Then there is another set of laws controlling how we deal with the murderer. In our society, these are familiar: Trial by jury, due process, laws of discovery, chain of evidence, etc. These laws can actually vary from state to state. If you have ever sat on a jury, you have seen these laws applied by the court.

      Now take this back in time to Israel in the days of the judges. Living in the land of Israel, an adulterous relationship occurs. Say, Baroc ben Ephraim learns that his wife has been sleeping with Juda ben Mannaseh down the road. By law, Baroc could gather the elders, establish the case, cast the first stone and have them both executed.

      Now let’s move the case to Alexandria and Egyptian law. The underlying moral law is still very much in effect. Adultery is wrong. Baroc can divorce his wife. But Egyptian administrative law may have had no provision for capital punishment for this offense. This underlines a major source of misunderstanding. An assumption is made that the administrative law, sometimes called the civil law, was abolished in Christ. Problem is, the administrative law was part and parcel of the written law—that part of the law that Jesus said would last as long as heaven and earth remain.

      But the administrative law may not be enforceable if there is no administration. The law remains, but it can only serve as a precedent for the will of God in a given time and place. A man or a woman may commit adultery and escape the death penalty, but the law remains to teach us how truly damaging the act is to human relationships. And in that way, it suggests a call for forgiveness and mercy, and it reveals why the call for mercy is needed.

       Of what I have said so far, this is the sum: Old Testament law is not nearly as inflexible as many seem to think. There were judges, priests, elders, and an entire administration. Some penalties were at the discretion of these people and there could be extenuating circumstances.

      I was discussing this with a group and someone pointed to the example of David and Bathsheba. Should they not have been executed for their crime? One obvious reason why they were not is that David was the head of state. There was no one above the king who could sit in judgment of him and call for his execution. God could have killed him, of course, but God had delegated judgment to a civil administration and was not willing to take it back. I think there is something very important in that simple fact. Even when civil government is corrupt, it is still the authority which has been authorized to judge. Paul faced this issue in an altogether different time and place:


Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves (Romans 13:1-2).

      And what was the governing authority when Paul wrote these words? Since he was writing the churches in Rome, it would seem that it was Roman authority he was describing as God’s servant, the bearer of the sword, and an “agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (v. 4). The agent is, in the Greek, the ekdikos, literally, the executor of justice. In Old Testament terms, he was “the avenger.”

      This raises an interesting distinction, not unlike our two Israelites living in Alexandria. Adultery was still a sin against God and neighbor, but Egyptian law controlled in matters of execution. So, living in the Roman empire, the state became the avenger.

      Who, in Mosaic Law, was the avenger? By the time of the monarchy, the state was the avenger, but in the period between Joshua and Samuel, it was different. Here is what the law required in these, the freest of times:


Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye be come over Jordan into the land of Canaan; Then ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you; that the slayer may flee thither, which killeth any person at unawares. And they shall be unto you cities for refuge from the avenger; that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment. And of these cities which ye shall give six cities shall ye have for refuge (Numbers 35:10-13).


      This is an early example of due process. Intentional murder was one thing. Manslaughter something else. But of special interest in this passage is the word “avenger.” In Hebrew, the word means “redeemer.” It is the same word in the familiar, “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.” Footnote

      The “redeemer” is a synonym for the next of kin who has the right to redeem his brother from slavery, or in this case to redeem his blood from the man who took it. It is revealing of what lies behind the death penalty under Moses’ law—a sharp distinction between vengeance and retribution.

      When Paul uses the term “avenger,” good Hebrew that he was, it was used it in the sense of the redeemer, of the balancer of the books. In Rome, the state was the avenger of blood, and there were no cities of refuge. In the time of the judges, it was different. Under that administration, there were cities designated as cities of refuge. If you accidently killed a man, you were guilty of manslaughter. If you went to one of the cities of refuge without delay, the avenger could not take your life. The cities were to be conveniently placed:


Lest the avenger of the blood pursue the slayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and slay him; whereas he was not worthy of death, inasmuch as he hated him not in time past (Deuteronomy 19:6).

      In other words, the killing was accidental, not premeditated. What is interesting here is that person with the legal right to redeem could legally take the life of a killer. It is not mere vengeance. It is retribution. A balancing of the books. Furthermore, you had to have the legal right of next of kin to do the deed. This is the Israelite law of manslaughter. It had a penalty short of death. He had to stay in that city of refuge until the death of the High Priest. Only then could he leave. But what if it was not manslaughter? What if it was premeditated murder? It was dealt with according to due process.


But if any man hate his neighbour, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally that he die, and fleeth into one of these cities: Then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die (vv. 11-12).

      Mercy was not an option for the elders of the city. Theoretically, the avenger might extend that mercy, but not the civil administration. There is one more thing about this. As in our Constitution, no man could be deprived of life or liberty without due process. And at least two witnesses were required.


Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die. Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death. And ye shall take no satisfaction for him that is fled to the city of his refuge, that he should come again to dwell in the land, until the death of the priest. So ye shall not pollute the land Footnote wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it (Numbers 35:30-33).

      There are some interesting things about this law. One is that you couldn’t pay off the elders to get them to let you go. Another very important issue is that a minimum of two witnesses was mandatory. One was not enough. Therefore, judicial execution was probably infrequent in those days. Did they allow circumstantial evidence into court? Probably not to the extent that courts do today. It is doubtful if O.J. Simpson would have been convicted under the law of Moses, just as he wasn’t under United States law. It may be that Scott Peterson, convicted of the murder of his wife and unborn son, would not have been found guilty under Israelite law.

      Our Constitution requires that no man should be deprived of life or liberty without due process of law. The same was true in Israelite law. I worry a bit about our system these days. I think the office of the prosecutor is the weak link. In the time of the Judges of Israel, there was one very important difference. When a crime came to trial, the judges were to make diligent enquiry. If witnesses or accusers had testified falsely, the penalty they had sought to impose would be carried out on the accuser. Footnote This should have a chilling effect on authorities who are tempted to plant false evidence to get a conviction. It is an unfortunate truth that the authorities have, on occasion, cooked the evidence to get a man they were sure was guilty. In such a case, then the District Attorney or the officers guilty of that should go to jail for the same term they were trying to pull off for a criminal. If you are ever called to serve on a Grand Jury or a Petit Jury, hold the prosecutor’s feet to the fire and be sure he has proved his case. Scott Peterson may well have killed his wife and unborn child. But he should not be convicted of murder merely because he is a proven louse, or because the jury has been led to hate him as a result of prosecutorial manipulation.

      So, let me take my summary a bit further. There is much about Old Testament law that we do not understand. We know that not one word of it has been abolished. We also know that we have to draw a line at the point of administration, and thus the enforcement, of the law. The enforcement of the law has not been abolished, but the authority to enforce has been given to the state.

      Now I want to get a little closer to the original language of something Paul wrote. Peter observed that Paul was hard enough to understand, even by those who read Greek. That difficulty is magnified for us, and nowhere more so, than in his letters to Corinth. But the struggle is essential in dealing with the topic at hand. Consider this, for example:


And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter kills, but the spirit giveth life (2 Corinthians 3:4-6).

      The word for “ministers” in this passage is the Greek, diakonos. It is closely related to diakonia, which is usually rendered “ministry.” The root of both words is diokos, “to pursue.” A deacon is a servant, but not necessarily a menial servant. He may have the duty of pursuing justice, for example, as a “civil servant.” He may be an administrator, one who executes public affairs, as distinguished from a policy maker or legislator.

      In this context, I think Paul’s use of diakonia would be better rendered, “administration.” Look at it this way:


But if the administration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: How shall not the administration of the spirit be rather glorious? For if the administration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the administration of righteousness exceed in glory (vv. 7-9).

      The glory in Moses’ face would fade over time. And the administration of death would also be replaced by the administration of the Spirit. Paul and the other apostles were able administrators of the new covenant.

      What I think is too often overlooked in Paul’s writing is his rejection of the diakonia, the administration, of the Jewish establishment. Their administration was corrupt. Moses’ administration was glorious, and adequate for the governance of a nation, but was not intended to govern the heart of man.

      All this comes together to shed light on a widely misunderstood teaching of Jesus. On two separate occasions, he told his disciples, “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). This is the moment when Jesus replaces the Jewish administration of the assembly of God’s people. In its place, for the church, he creates a new administration based on the apostles: “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (vv. 19-20).

      Thus, unilateral administration of the church is set aside. It takes two or three leaders to judge a matter. What we are seeing is a change of administration.

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