“And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.
“Whoever sheds human blood,
by human beings shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made humankind.” (Gen 9:5-6)
BLOODGUILT, liability for punishment for shedding blood. The biblical concept of bloodguilt derives from the belief that deeds generate consequences and that sin, in particular, is a danger to the sinner.
The most vivid examples of this belief appear in connection with unlawful homicide, where innocent blood (dam naki (naqi); Jonah 1:14) cries out for vengeance (Gen. 4:10), is rejected by the earth (Isa. 26:21; Ezek. 24:7), and pollutes it (Num. 35:33–34).
Bloodguilt attaches to the slayer and his family (II Sam. 3:28ff.) for generations (II Kings 9:26), and even to his city (Jer. 26:5), nation (Deut. 21:8), and land (Deut. 24:4). The technical term for bearing bloodguilt damo bo, or damo bero'sho, meant originally "his blood [remains] in him/in his head" (Josh. 2:19; Ezek. 33:5), and the legal formula mot yumat damav bo (Lev. 20:9–16) means that in the case of lawful execution, the blood of the guilty victim remains on his own person and does not attach itself to his executioners.
The concept of bloodguilt in the Bible pervades all sources, legal, narrative, and cultic, and entails the following system of graded punishments for homicide.
The penalty is death by man (Gen. 9:6), or failing that, by God (Gen. 9:5; cf. Lev. 20:4–5). A man can be either the direct cause (Num. 35:16–21) or the indirect cause, e.g., a watchman (II Kings 10:24; Ezek. 33:6), priests (Num. 18:1, 3), homeowner (Deut. 22:8), or subordinate (I Kings 2:31–35). The punishment of the murderer is primarily the responsibility of the *blood-avenger (after court conviction, Num. 35:19; Deut. 19:12), but God is the final guarantor that homicide is ultimately punished.
His personal intervention is expressed by the verbs פקד (pakad (paqad), "attend to," Hos. 1:4); נקם (nakam (naqam), "avenge," II Kings 9:7); דרש (darash, "exact punishment," Ezek. 33:6); and שוב (השיב, heshiv, "return") in the idiom heshiv damim ʿal roʾsh (II Sam. 16:18; I Kings 2:33), which indicates that God will turn back to the head of the slayer the blood of the slain, the punishment the murderer believed he had averted. In the Bible, it should be noted, these idioms have become technical terms: the original phrase remains, but without the crudity of its more primitive implications in other ancient sources. God may postpone punishment to a later generation (II Sam. 12: 13–14; I Kings 21:21). Man, however, does not have this option (Deut. 24:16; II Kings 14:6) unless divinely authorized (II Kings 9:7, 26).
There is no commutation of the death penalty. The notion that deliberate homicide cannot be commuted is the foundation stone of criminal law in the Bible: human life is invaluable, hence incommutable.
Since accidental homicide also results in bloodguilt, the killer may be slain by the goʾel with impunity (Num. 35:26–27; Deut. 19:4–10). However, as his act was unintentional, the natural death of the high priest is allowed to substitute for his own death (Num. 35:25, 28). In the interim, he is confined to a *city of refuge to protect him from the blood-avenger (Num. 35:9ff; Deut. 4:41–43; 19:1–13; Josh. 20:1ff.) In cases where the slayer is unknown, the community nearest the corpus delicti must disavow complicity and, by means of a ritual, symbolically wash away the blood of the slain (Deut. 21:1–9; see *Eglah Arufah).
The penalty is death by stoning and the shunning of the carcass. The supreme value of human life in the Bible is best expressed in the law that a homicidal beast is also guilty and that not only must it be killed but its carcass, laden with bloodguilt, must be reviled (Ex. 21:28–29; cf. Gen. 9:5).
Unauthorized Slaughter of an Animal
The reverence for life that informs all biblical legislation reached its summit in the priestly law which sanctions the use of an animal for food on the condition that its blood, containing its life, be drained upon the authorized altar (and thereby be symbolically restored to God; Lev. 17:11). All other slaughter is unlawful bloodshed, punishable by death at the hand of God (Lev. 17:4).
No bloodguilt is incurred by homicide in self-defense (Ex. 22:1), judicial execution (Lev. 20:9–16), and war (I Kings 2:5–6). The priestly legislation may indicate some qualification of the view that war is justifiable homicide. For example, David was disqualified from building the Temple (I Chron. 22:8).
M. Greenberg, in: Sefer Yovel Y. Kaufmann (1960), 5–28; idem, in: IDB, 1 (1962), S.V.; K. Koch, in: VT, 12 (1962), 396–416; J. Milgrom, Studies in Levitical Terminology, 1 (1970), 22–33, 56–69.
Exodus 22:3 If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be bloodguiltiness for him--he shall make restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.
Exodus 22:4 If the stolen property is found in his hand alive, whether it is ox, donkey, or sheep, he shall pay double.
Leviticus 17:4 and hath not brought it unto the door of the tent of meeting, to present it as an offering unto the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, blood shall be imputed unto that man; he hath shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people.
Deuteronomy 22:8 When thou buildest a new house, then thou shalt make a parapet for thy roof, that thou bring not blood upon thy house, if any man fall from thence.
1 Samuel 25:26 Now therefore, my lord, as the LORD liveth, and as thy soul liveth, seeing the LORD hath withholden thee from bloodguiltiness, and from finding redress for thyself with thine own hand, now therefore let thine enemies, and them that seek evil to my lord, be as Nabal.
1 Samuel 25:33 and blessed be thy discretion, and blessed be thou, that hast kept me this day from bloodguiltiness, and from finding redress for myself with mine own hand.
2 Samuel 21:1 And there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David sought the face of the LORD. And the LORD said: 'It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he put to death the Gibeonites.'
Psalms 51:14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation. My tongue shall sing aloud of your righteousness.
Hosea 12:14 Ephraim hath provoked most bitterly, And his blood on himself he leaveth, And his reproach turn back to him doth his Lord!
Save me from bloodguilt, O God,
God of my salvation;
My tongue will exult in your righteousness!”
We must understand the concept of “bloodguilt” in the Old Testament. To begin with, blood represented life—it was seen as the life of a man and as the life of a beast (Genesis 9:4); hence the restriction against eating any flesh that still has the blood in it (Deuteronomy 12:23, Acts 15:20). You can commit many crimes against another person, but the shedding of his blood is the most destructive, for it is one he may never recover from.
Hence the idea of “bloodguilt.” If you are guilty of shedding the blood of another, you are guilty of his blood. To take this idea one step further, in ancient Jewish practice, there was a member of the family who was seen as the “avenger of blood” (Numbers 35:19). Were one of his relatives murdered, it was his role to put the murderer to death. Note that this is not meant as a means of revenge, but as a means of exacting justice. The blood avenger had rules and restrictions that he had to abide by, and this was simply one means by which capital punishment was carried forth in ancient Israel. At the same time, God established places in Israel called “Cities of Refuge” where the guilty could flee if the murder committed was not premeditated (Numbers 35:11). If you made it to the city of refuge before the avenger of blood could kill you, you were given sanctuary. In turn, you were required to stay in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest; when the high priest died, you would be free to return without fear of retribution.
And in this ancient practice, we have a wonderful picture of Christ. Beloved, our sin makes us guilty of blood—not just the blood of bulls and goats through the generation, but of the blood of one another, and most importantly, of the blood of Christ. It was Christ, whose sacrifice was planned and set since before the beginning of creation (1 Peter 1:20), who shed his own blood as atonement for our sins. The penalty for sin is death (Genesis 2:17)—thus sin cannot be forgiven without the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22). Our own blood, being tainted by sin, both inherited and actual, is tainted and ineffectual in atoning even for our own sins, let alone for the sins of another, and thus, the necessity for another to provide a sacrifice for us.
Yet, the picture does not end there in terms of the idea of bloodguilt, for it is in Christ that we have our city of refuge—it is in Christ and in Christ alone that we who bear the bloodguilt of sin can flee for refuge. And what is even more glorious is that is that Christ, the great High Priest, went to his death so that we might be forgiven, no longer convicted criminals hiding for their lives, but forgiven men and women forgiven and adopted as sons and daughters. Oh, beloved, what a picture of Christ we have in the Old Testament laws of bloodguilt, and here, King David is crying out to God in faith that he would be delivered from the bloodguilt that his sin has brought him—forgiveness that only comes from God through Christ. This is something that David understood well and looked forward in hopes for the day of seeing the Messiah come.
And as a result of the salvation that is given by God, David rejoices and exults in the righteousness of God. The verb that David uses to describe his praise is !n:r” (ranan), which means, “to sing,” yet the verb is in the Piel construct, which, in Hebrew, intensifies the verb and gives it a sense of ongoing repetition. Hence, the idea that David is conveying is of an exuberant, ongoing praise of God, rejoicing in song over and over again in praise. Oh, were this to describe the praise that we give to God in the salvation that he offers us!
Christ has provided both a city of refuge and a sacrifice for our sins.
O worship the King all glorious above,
O gratefully sing his power and his love;
Our shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days,
Pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise.