Skip to content →

Blood Feud and State Control: Differing Legal Institutions for the Remedy of Homicide During the Second and First Millennia B.C.E.

Scripture does not teach that the use of the sword to justly administer vengeance is reserved for “rulers.” Rome claimed it was (John 18:31)

Some notable excerpts from Blood Feud and State Control: Differing Legal Institutions for the Remedy of Homicide During the Second and First Millennia B.C.E.

Since the discovery of the Laws of Hammurapi in December 1901–January 1902 the dependence of biblical law upon Mesopotamian law has been hotly debated. Among the most contentious issues is the adjudication of homicide, and the discussion has focused on particular odd cases in biblical law, such as an ox that gored or assault on a preg-nant woman, that appear to have been borrowed from Mesopotamian law.

The more common occurrences of fatal assault and the procedures to remedy them, however, have been largely ignored. What institutions insured that homicide was punished in biblical law,and what relationship did they have to Mesopotamian legal process? I will argue that the institutions that insured that a homicide would be investigated and remedied in biblical law were vastly different from those in Mesopotamian law and that the difference originates in disparate conceptions of the organization of society. Mesopotamian texts reflect the extensive involvement of the state in the process of remedying homicide. The members of the victim’s family participated in the process insofar as they had the right to make a claim on the slayer, but there does not seem to be any apprehension generated by the possibility of a blood avenger waiting to strike down the killer. By contrast, blood feud operated in biblical law, and places of sanctuary were needed to protect the killer…

According to the Hebrew Bible, the victim’s family bore primary responsibility for initiating the remedy of a homicide.6 The “blood avenger,” μdh lag, a close male relative of the victim,7 had the right to effect a remedy by killing the slayer on sight. There were no specialized or official personnel charged by a central government with the duty to investigate offenses or to arrest and prosecute a suspect.8

[8 Even in the case when a victim’s family could not come forward because the victim could not be identified (and presumably his family had not come searching for him), a local body representing the local community, the elders of a town, not a state mechanism, came forward on an ad hoc basis to address the problem (Deut. 21:1–9).]

…Blood feud came into play in biblical law because the victim’s family had the primary responsibility to respond to the slaying of one of its members. By contrast, the members of the victim’s family did not have to assume that responsibility in Mesopotamian law. They had the right to make a claim on the slayer, but the slayer was not in mortal danger from a blood avenger waiting to strike him down.10 In some cases, the victim’s family might play a role in determining the penalty, but it must be emphasized that the members of the victim’s family were not otherwise involved in the remedy…

[In Mesopotamia] The role of the claimant from the victim’s family here is to decide on the penalty. In general, it appears, families had the right to either execution or compensation; the legal institutions of a particular society were required to preserve the rights of the family to choose. This is to be distinguished from the role of the avenger in feud, where the avenger has the right and responsibility to take the initiative and kill the murderer on sight…

[T]he role of the monarchy and central government is different in Mesopotamian texts and the Bible. In the Hebrew Bible, their role is limited. Exodus 21, Leviticus 24, Numbers 35, and Deuteronomy 19 and 21 do not portray any involvement by the monarchy. The only reference to a central government is found in Deut. 17:8–10, where a local court could appeal to the levitical priests and the judge at the central sanc- tuary for clarification of the law in a difficult case: the facts of the case were then re- manded to a lower court. As to the role of the king himself, only the narrative of 2 Sam. 14:1–17 indicates that the king could overturn the law… In contrast, the crown and central authority played a major role in the rest of the ancient Near East. Once the legal process had been launched by a private individual, a central authority or monarchy assumed oversight of the situation…

The organization of society had a profound effect upon the concept of justice and the process of law in the Bible, and the treatment of homicide in biblical Israel was directly linked to the social structure of biblical Israel. Although the most influential culture of the ancient Near East, Mesopotamia, left its mark on almost every chapter of the Bible, the Mesopotamian adjudication of homicide differed radically from that in biblical Israel be-cause of the profound differences in social organization between the two cultures. In Israel, kinship ties were strong, and the family acted as a mutual aid society, whereas in a heavily urban and centralized Mesopotamia, a bureaucracy had control. This is striking because biblical law was based upon Mesopotamian law and yet at the same time differed so greatly. The institutions that assured that a homicide would be investigated and remedied in biblical law were vastly different from those in Mesopotamian law. The difference originates in disparate conceptions of the organization of society. Blood feud operated in biblical law: a relative of the victim had the right to kill the slayer on sight with impunity, and the process by which homicide was adjudicated enabled the family to exercise its role while providing safeguards for the slayer. By contrast, in Mesopotamia, state institutions insured that homicide would be remedied. The victim’s family had the legal right to make a claim upon the killer, but the fear that a blood avenger was about to strike down the killer is simply not manifest in Mesopotamian law.

Published in Brandon Adams