"The avenger of blood may execute the murderer, putting him to death on sight."I ran into that bit from the Pentateuch in "Judas on a Pole," an episode in the second season of Bones. The writers used an 'Olde Englishe' translation that many Americans perceive as 'Biblical,' and that's another topic.
If someone murdered a member of my family, I would be very angry. There'd be something wrong with me if I wasn't.
Anger is a "capital sin," a sin that's particularly serious because it leads to other sins. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1866)
That doesn't mean that I've committed a sin every time I experience anger. I'm human, so I experience emotions. Emotions aren't good or bad by themselves. What matters is what we do with them. (Catechism, 1767)
If I hang on to anger, let it build into a desire to harm or kill someone else: that's where it becomes a sin. (Catechism, 1762-1775, 2302-2303)
Many Americans seem to feel that God has anger management issues. After Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," followed by 273 years of hellfire lectures: that's understandable. (December 1, 2013)
Perceiving our fear as God's anger isn't limited to Americans. After the Eden incident, we developed a distorted image of God. I think it's more accurate to say that God 'gets angry' at our behavior: not us. (Catechism, 397-401)
There's quite a bit going on in that part of Numbers, including a legitimate desire for justice.
Murder, deliberately killing an innocent person, is wrong. So is exposing someone to mortal danger, unless there's an extremely good reason for doing so. As a Catholic, I can't even refuse to help a person in danger. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2268-2269)
Numbers 35:19 and the rest of the Pentateuch settled into the form we know somewhere between 600 and 500 B.C. — more than two dozen centuries back.
By that time, descendants of Abraham had been living around the east end of the Mediterranean for upwards of a thousand years. Just as the laws and customs I know grew from those of the Germanic people of northwestern Europe: theirs reflected the attitudes and assumptions of lands in and near ancient Mesopotamia.
Penalties for breaking the law were harsh by contemporary American standards. Under the Code of Ur-Nammu, robbery was a capital offense. The Code of Hammurabi had the death penalty for charging someone with a capital offense without proof, selling stolen property, avoiding military service, robbery, and other crimes.
In a way, limiting penalties to "an eye for an eye" was an improvement on many legal codes of the day: or "going soft on crime," by some standards.
Someone being pursued by an "avenger of blood" had safe havens: comparatively safe. Numbers 35:9-28 and Deuteronomy 19:1-13 establish cities of refuge, "so that a homicide shall not be put to death unless he is first tried before the community." (Numbers 35:12)
Getting back to that verse from Numbers — Many of us have accepted, at least in theory, the idea that hunting down folks who hurt us is a bad idea. Some have even decided that restraining a killer is wrong, if there's a chance that the wannabe murderer might get hurt.
I respect folks who take strict pacifism seriously. But valuing the life of another so much that it kills me isn't required. Using any more force than necessary is wrong: legitimate defense isn't. (Catechism, 2263-2267)
At another end of the spectrum, we've got religious nutjobs like the fellow who killed his mother while screaming Bible verses. (November 24, 2010; July 24, 2009)
"The vengeful will suffer the LORD'S vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail.Claiming virtue and behaving badly isn't a new problem. (Matthew 15:7-11; Luke 13:15)
"Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
"Should a man nourish anger against his fellows and expect healing from the LORD?
"Should a man refuse mercy to his fellows, yet seek pardon for his own sins?
"If he who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?"
But how can I tell what's right, and what's wrong? Numbers 35:19 tells me that I'm supposed to kill a murder on sight, Sirach 28:1-5 says that I'm supposed to forgive injustice. How do I decide which parts of the Bible are "Biblical," and which I can ignore?
I'm Catholic, so reading the Bible is a very high priority. (Catechism, 101-133)
But I don't have to assume that Sacred Scripture was written from the point of view of a metaphor-challenged 20th century American. (October 13, 2013; January 14, 2011)
I also don't have to guess what verses of the Bible 'really mean.'
My Lord gave Peter authority that's been passed along without a break for two millennia. It's not just 'the Bible and me:' I learn from sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium. (Matthew 16:16-19; Catechism, 65-95, 2032-2040)
That's "Tradition" with a capital "T," by the way: a living transmission of our faith, managed by the Holy Spirit. (Catechism, 77-79)
Lower-case "tradition," clinging to the world of Leave It to Beaver and Happy Days, is something else. We can't bring back the past. (July 31, 2010)
Even if we could, our job is moving ahead, not returning to some imagined 'golden age.' We have a mandate to build a better world. (Catechism, 1928-1942, 2419-2442)
I became a Catholic partly because I know history. The Church has had good Popes; Popes who behaved very badly; and a few folks who said they were Pope, but weren't. We hid a really bad stretch, about a millennium back.
I had to decide whether I'd assume that the Church survived two millenia, occasionally-appalling leadership, and two resets of Western Civilization, because it's incredibly lucky: or because its claim to have outside help was true. And that's yet another topic. (February 28, 2013; January 13, 2011; October 2, 2008)
- "It's the End of Civilization as We Know It: And About Time, Too"
(February 9, 2014)
- "We're Huge, Ancient, and Changing the World"
(March 14, 2012)
- "Japan's Earthquake, Divine Retribution, and the Tower at Siloam"
(March 15, 2011)
- "Death Penalty, Life, and Being Catholic"
(October 5, 2010)
- " 'Vengeance is Mine, I will Repay, Says the Lord' — Works for Me "
(September 11, 2010)
- "You Shall Love the Lord Your God With All Your Heart, and With All Your Soul, and With All Your Mind"
Catechism of the Catholic Church
- "You Shall Love Your Neighbor As Yourself"
Catechism of the Catholic Church