Avenger of blood (definition)

Avenger of blood (Hebrew “go’el”): The Hebrew name for the clansman, “next of kin,” upon whom devolved the duties: (1) of avenging, on the person of the murderer, the blood of a murdered kinsman—in this capacity the more specific term “go’el ha-dam” (blood-avenger) was generally used—and (2) of redeeming the property or the person of a relative that had fallen into debt.

Among Primitive Peoples.

(1) Among primitive peoples of low political development—such as the ancient Greeks, Germans, and Slavs, some North American tribes, the modern Sicilians, Corsicans, and Arabs—the clan or family had to assume the right to protect itself. One of the most important clan duties then was plainly for the nearest of kin to hunt down and carry out the death-penalty on a person that had slain a member of the sept or family. That this idea of family retribution—which even to-day is by no means extinct in some comparatively civilized communities—was also current among the ancient Hebrews may be seen from Gen. xxvii. 45, where the existence of the custom is clearly taken for granted. It appears, furthermore, from Josh. vii. 24, and II Kings ix. 26, that, in the most primitive period, such a vendetta was extended to the entire family of the murderer, as is still the custom among the desert Bedouins. The Hebrew religious justification for the system of family blood-revenge was undoubtedly the firm belief that GOD, in order to insure the sacredness of human life, had Himself fixed the deathpenalty for murder (Gen. ix. 5 et seq.; Lev. xxiv. 17). In the earliest times blood-money was not accepted either for murder or for excusable homicide. Such a payment would have made the land “polluted by blood” (Num. xxxv. 31 et seq.). Una venged blood “cried out” for vengeance to GOD (Gen. iv. 10; Isa. xxvi. 21; Ezek. xxiv. 7 et seq.; Job xvi. 18). The Avenger of Blood, then, was regarded as the representative, not only of the murdered man’s family, but of Yhwh Himself, who was the highest avenger (Ps. ix. 13 [A. V. 12]).

Modification of the System.

Such a stern system, however, could not, of course, survive unmodified after the community had begun to advance from the purely savage state. Abuses of the privilege of blood-revenge must have soon become evident to the tribal chiefs, as one finds in Ex. xxi. 12 (compare Gen. ix. 6) that the commonly accepted formula that a life must be given for a life is modified by a careful legal distinction between wilful murder and accidental manslaughter. In order to establish a case of wilful murder, it must be shown that weapons or implements commonly devoted to slaughter were used, and that a personal hatred existed between the slayer and his victim (Ex. xxi. 12; compare Num. xxxv. 16; and Deut. xix. 4). The law enumerates three exceptions to this general principle: (a) The slaying of a thief caught at night in flagrante delicto is not punishable at all; but if he is captured by day there is blood-guilt which, however, is not liable to the blood-revenge (Ex. xxii. et seq.). (b) If a bull gored a human being to death, the punishment was visited upon the animal, which was killed by stoning. Its flesh in such a case might not be eaten. If gross contributory negligence could be proved on the part of the animal’s owner, he was liable only for blood-money(Ex. xxi. 28). (c) Where the master kills his slave, the offense is punishable only when the latter dies at once, and then probably not by the death-penalty, as some of the rabbinical writers thought (Ex. xxi. 23).

Six Cities of Refuge.

The later codes develop at some length the very just distinction between wilful murder and accidental homicide. Six Cities of Refuge were appointed for the purpose of affording an asylum to the homicide, where he might be secure from the hand of the avenger (Deut. xix. 12) until the elders of the community of which the accused was a member should decide whether the murder was intentional or accidental (Num. xxxv. 9-34; Deut. xix. 1-13; Josh. xx.). According to the later procedure, at least two witnesses were necessary to establish a case of wilful murder (Num. xxxv. 30; Deut. xix. 15). In case, however, it was not possible to apprehend the murderer or manslayer, the adjudication might take place and a verdict be rendered in his absence.

It appears from Josh. xx. 4 that the elders of the city of refuge chosen by the slayer had the right to decide as to whether he should be permitted to have a temporary asylum or not. If the case were simply one of unintentional manslaughter the slayer was immediately accorded the right of asylum in the city of refuge, where he had to remain until the death of the reigning high priest (Num. xxxv. 25), whose death, in ancient Hebrew law, marked the end of a legal period of limitation (Num. xxxv.; Deut. xix.; Josh. xx.). If the “go’el ha-dam” were to find the slayer of his kinsman outside the limits of the city of refuge, he had the right to kill him at sight.

The Family Executioner.

In a case in which the verdict against the slayer was one of wilful murder, the murderer incurred the blood-revenge without any restrictions. If he were already in a city of refuge, the elders of his own city were obliged to fetch him thence by force if necessary, and to deliver him formally to the Avenger of Blood, who thus became little more than a family executioner (Deut. xix. 11 et seq.).

Two very important restrictions should here be noticed: (a) Although the entire family or gens to which the murdered man belonged were theoretically entitled to demand the blood-revenge (II Sam. xiv. 7), still, in the practise of later times, only one member—for example, the next of kin, who was also legal heir—might assume the duty of carrying it out. According to the later Jewish tradition, when there was no heir, the court had the right to assume the position of the “go’el.” (b) The law expressly states that the blood-revenge was applicable only to the person of the guilty man and not to the members of his family as well (Deut. xxiv. 16; compare II Kings xiv. 6). This is a most significant advance on the primitive savage custom that involved two gentes in a ceaseless feud. Anent this advance, it is interesting to note that, in the time of the kings, the king himself, as the highest judicial authority, was entitled to control the course of the blood-revenge (II Sam. xiv. 8 et seq.).

It is difficult to decide exactly how long the custom of blood-revenge by the “go’el” remained in vogue among the Hebrews. According to II Chron. xix. 10; Deut. xvii. 8, the law of Jehoshaphat demanded that all intricate legal cases should come before the new court of justice at Jerusalem. It is not probable, however, that this regulation curtailed the rights of the “go’el ha-dam,” which must have continued in force as long as there was an independent Israelitish state. Of course, under the Romans, the right of blood revenge had ceased (John xviii. 31).

The Redeemer of His Kinsmen.

(2) As indicated above, the term “go’el” had also a secondary meaning. From the idea of one carrying out the sentence of justice in the case of blood-shed, the word came to denote the kinsman whose duty it was to redeem the property and person of a relative who, having fallen into debt, was compelled to sell either his land or himself as a slave to satisfy his creditors (compare Lev. xxv. 25, 47-49). It would appear from Jer. xxxii. 8-12 that the “go’el” had the right to the refusal of such property before it was put up for public sale, and also the right to redeem it after it had been sold (see the Book of Ruth).

From the Book of Ruth (iv. 5) it would appear that the duty of the nearest of kin to marry the widow of his relative in case of the latter’s dying without issue was included in the obligations resting upon the “go’el”; but inasmuch as the term is not used in the passage in Deut. (xxv. 8-10) in which this institution is referred to—the obligation resting upon the brother to marry his deceased brother’s widow—the testimony of so late a production as Ruth can not be pressed. The usage in the book may not be legally accurate.

From this idea of the human “go’el” as a redeemer of his kinsmen in their troubles, there are to be found many allusions to Yhwh as the Divine Go’el, redeeming His people from their woes (compare Ex. vi. 6, xv. 13; Ps. lxxiv. 2), and of the people themselves becoming the “redeemed” ones of Yhwh (Ps. cvii. 2; Isa. lxii. 12). The reference to God as the “go’el” and as the one who would “redeem” His people was applicable to the relationship between Yhwh and Israel in the exilic period, when the people actually looked to their GOD to restore their land for them, as the impoverished individual looked to his kinsman to secure a restoration of his patrimony. Hence, of thirty-three passages in which “go’el” (as a noun or verb) is applied to GOD, nineteen occur in the exilic (and post-exilic) sections of Isaiah—the preacher par excellence of “restoration”—for example, in xlviii. 20, xlix. 26, lii. 9, lxii. 12, etc.

  • A. H. Post, Studien zur Entwicklungsgeschichte des Familienrechts, 1890, pp. 113-137;
  • W. R. Smith, Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, pp. 22 et seq., 38, 47, 52 et seq.;
  • idem, Religion of the Semites, 2d ed., pp. 32 et seq., 272 et seq., 420;
  • Nowack, Lehrbuch der Hebr. Archäologie, i., ch. ii., 1894;
  • Kohler, Zur Lehre von dèr Blutrache, 1885;
  • Bissell, The Law of Asylum in Israel, 1884;
  • Jastrow, Avenger, Kinsman, and Redeemer in the O. T., in The Independent, Aug. 27, 1896;
  • Benzinger, Hebräische Archäologie, p. 335.

—In Rabbinical Literature:

Several primitive social regulations touching the rights of the bloodrelation, the “go’el ha-dam” (Avenger of Blood), areacknowledged by the Biblical law (Num. xxxv. 19 et seq.; Deut. xix. 12); although, according to the higher conception of the Bible, a murder is not so much a crime against the individual as against the community. This conception is carried still further by the rabbinical law, under which the avenging relative has no rights left. The hunting down of a murderer is no longer the business of the avenger, but of the state; accordingly, whether there is any relative or not, whether the relative lodges complaint or not, the state must prosecute the murderer (Sifre, Num. 160 on xxv. 19; Deut. 181). Every murderer, or one who had committed manslaughter, fled to one of the cities of refuge before his case was investigated; and there he was secure from any attack on the part of the avenger, who was forbidden, under penalty of death, to assail such a fugitive in his asylum (Mishnah Mak. ii. 6; Sifre, Num. 160 on xxv. 25). It was obligatory upon the court of justice to arrest the fugitive there, bring him to court, try him, and, if found guilty, to execute him. If it was proved that the death was a case of carelessness and not of intentional murder, he was sent back to the city of refuge in care of armed officers of the court, so as to protect him from the avenger (Mishnah Mak. ii. 5, 6). Should he leave his place of refuge, the avenger had, according to R. ‘Akiba, the right—and, according to R. Jose the Galilean, the duty—to slay him, but only when the fugitive had voluntarily left his retreat (ib. 7). But even here it is evident that the avenger enjoyed no peculiar prerogative; for, should the fugitive be slain by a disinterested party, the latter was not held accountable (ib.; for the correct reading of this passage compare Rabbinowicz, “Variæ Lectiones,” on the passage). One teacher, however, goes so far as to maintain that neither the avenger nor, still less, a third party can be permitted to take the man’s life, should he have left his asylum (Tosef., Mak. ii. 7; Gemara ib. 12a).

All these details, however, are hardly to be considered as ever having been matters of actual enforcement; for, although it is highly probable that rabbinical tradition contained much concerning the cities of refuge which existed during the second Temple, the regulations concerning the Avenger of Blood are rather of an academic nature and are scarcely drawn from actual life.

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