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Tag: Avenger of Blood

Kline’s “Oracular Origin of the State”

In Episode #11 of the Glory Cloud Podcast, Charles Lee Irons and Chris Caughey discuss Meredith Kline’s understanding of the Covenant of Common Grace. It’s a helpful podcast that I recommend all libertarians listen to as it provides the proper biblical framework for approaching the question of civil government. I also recommend this more in-depth lecture from Irons on the topic.

In the episode, they discuss Kline’s essay The Oracular Origin of the State. Kline argues that God institutes the city-state in Genesis 4 in response to Cain’s complaint. I have to say, I think he rather significantly misinterpreted Genesis 4.

Kline’s thesis is that when Cain complains “whoever finds me will kill me,” he was primarily concerned that he would be executed by vigilantes, rather than by the proper authorities. Thus God assures Cain that only the divinely appointed city-state ruler may execute him as a manifestation of God’s judicial oversight. According to Kline, Cain’s great concern was that his execution would be disorderly, “lawless,” “mindless,” “anarchical terrorism,” and “absolute anarchy” rather than orderly and lawful by a “minister of God” in a city-state. God sympathizes with Cain and institutes the city-state. Thus Genesis 4 should be “Understood as a foundational revelation of the judicial order of the state.” “To Cain, God signified that for mankind in general he would provide in his common grace an institutional agent to bear the sword of his wrath in the temporal course of world history (cf. Rom 13:4).”

That’s obviously not Cain’s concern. And it’s obviously not God’s concern. God does not swear an oath to Cain that he will be executed by the proper authorities once he reaches a city-state. Rather, he says he will not be executed by anyone at all, which is a response to Cain’s complaint that he will be executed. In a footnote, Kline acknowledges “God’s judgment on Cain’s act of murder was, indeed, distinctive in its sentence of exile rather than the death penalty subsequently prescribed for that crime; but that is another matter.” That is not another matter. It is the very matter at hand.

Rather than subjecting Cain to the established justice: execution for murder, God cursed Cain to wander the earth in exile. Normally, Abel’s murder could be avenged by any image bearer, thus God had to let everyone know that the normal procedure does not apply to Cain. He is not to be executed per lex talionis clarified in Genesis 9:6, but is rather to be left a vagabond and exile to wander the earth cursed by the ground.

Kline says

The consequences of the judicial dereliction Cain anticipates (Gen 4: 14b) will be, he laments, that everyone in the family of mankind, kinsmen all of his innocent victim, Abel, will be let loose in a mindless blood feud to take vengeance on him (v 14d): “Everyone who finds me will kill me.” [11] Hidden from God’s face, he will have no judge to appeal to. Society east of Eden will be devoid of God’s judicial ordering. Cain will be exposed to lawless men bent on vengeance. He will be ex lex on a God-forsaken earth.

This betrays Kline’s presuppositions, rather than his exegesis. The text says absolutely nothing about such vengeance being “lawless” and “mindless.” In fact, this process of a kinsman executing vengeance upon the murderer was the default, lawful practice under Old Covenant law. Numbers 35 and Deuteronomy 19 explain the role of the avenger of blood (the kinsman of the murder victim, not a state official). Numbers 25:19 says “The avenger of blood himself shall put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death.” This is precisely what Cain was afraid of – his lawful execution. For more on this, see The Avenger of Blood.

John Frame has correctly understood this.

Some have found divine warrant for the state in Gen 9:6, where God commands Noah’s family to return bloodshed for bloodshed. But this is a command given to a family. There is no indication of any new institution being established. And in the law of Moses, the execution of murderers was carried out, not by the state as such, but by the “avenger of blood,” kin of the murder victim, Num 35:19, 21; Deut 19:12. The family, here, is the instrument of justice. We have no reason to believe, therefore, that any special institution beyond the family for the establishment of justice was created in Gen 9:6… Was there, at this point in history, also a divinely appointed “state”? I would say no if, again, “state” refers to something above and beyond the natural authority of the family. As far back as Genesis 9, as we have seen, God called the family to execute vengeance for bloodshed, and so no new order was needed to administer capital punishment… Thus I believe we may eliminate from our consideration the views of the Lutherans and Meredith Kline, as well as others, who see the state as a distinct institution ordained by God, with powers and responsibilities different from those of the family.

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John Frame on Gen 9:6, the Avenger of Blood, and Romans 13

Understanding that the avenger of blood (Deut 19; Num 35) was a “private” individual, not any kind of “public” servant or government official is key to understanding the biblical nature of libertarianism (more on this in the future). Researching this issue led me to John Frame’s essay “Toward a Theology of the State.” While there is much to disagree with in the essay, Frame does one thing correctly that most people do not. Rather than starting with Romans 13, he starts in the Pentateuch and seeks to understand the authority of the sword from the fall onward and then interprets Romans 13 in light of that. That is my approach as well. Here is a brief summary:

First, Frame notes that Genesis 9:6 does not establish any kind of new institution called the state, but rather gives the authority of the sword to the family.

“State” is not a biblical category in the sense that “family,” “people of God,” “Israel,” and “church,” are biblical categories… But in what passage did God establish the state? Some have found divine warrant for the state in Gen 9:6, where God commands Noah’s family to return bloodshed for bloodshed. But this is a command given to a family. There is no indication of any new institution being established. And in the law of Moses, the execution of murderers was carried out, not by the state as such, but by the “avenger of blood,” kin of the murder victim, Num 35:19, 21; Deut 19:12. The family, here, is the instrument of justice. We have no reason to believe, therefore, that any special institution beyond the family for the establishment of justice was created in Gen 9:6.

Second, he recognizes that a natural outgrowth leads to various ways of ordering this authority as societies grow, but that these changes (including numerous judges, a head judge, and then a king) do not introduce anything essentially different in nature than the authority given to families.

What we see in Scripture, rather, is a kind of gradual development from family authority to something which we would tend to call a state. The borderline between family and state is not sharp or clear… Jacob’s family multiplied and became a nation. From nuclear family, it became an extended family, and then a “clan,” or indeed a group of clans… The picture to this point, then, is that as Israel developed from nuclear family to extended family to clan to nation, family authority became more elaborate and complicated… Was there, at this point in history, also a divinely appointed “state”? I would say no if, again, “state” refers to something above and beyond the natural authority of the family. As far back as Genesis 9, as we have seen, God called the family to execute vengeance for bloodshed, and so no new order was needed to administer capital punishment… New machinery, of course, was put in place (by some combination of tribal tradition and Mosaic appointment) to resolve disputes, but that too was essentially a family function… Apart from his prophetic and priestly functions, Moses was essentially the chief of the clan leaders, the head of the family of God. Had God not selected him directly, the people might well have selected him or someone else as a chief of chiefs, without violating the overall family structure. Such a choice would merely have been a natural continuation of the movement toward greater complexity as the nation increased in size. Indeed, there was popular ratification of Moses’ rule… During the period of the judges, no new institutions were added… From the viewpoint of the people, they are selecting another tribal ruler [the king], a “chief of chiefs,” who bears the same sort of authority held by the other chiefs or elders, but over a broader territory.

Third, he notes that this is the authority referred to in Romans 13.

Once kingship appears in history, are we then able to speak of an “institution of the state”? Well, it isn’t too important what you call it, as long as you understand what is going on. Yes, God has ordained authority within the family. Yes, he warrants the extension of that authority to extended families, tribes, nations. Yes, he warrants the popular selection of leaders to implement that authority (a selection into which, of course, he is always free to intervene, and over which he always exercises providential superintendence). Yes, that authority includes the power to use deadly force and to resolve disputes which cannot otherwise be resolved. In that sense, we may say with Paul in Rom 13:1 that “the authorities that exist have been established by God.” But it is important to remember that the authority of the state is essentially a family authority, not something different. For that reason, I consider it somewhat misleading to talk about a “divine institution of the state,” or to speak of “family, church, and state” as “God’s institutions,” on a level with one another. I shall, however, use “state” to refer to the family elder-structures beyond the nuclear and extended families.

Frame’s error is that he thinks the authority in Gen 9:6 was given to families as such, or as he later calls it, to “mega-families” (extended families with a patriarch). Genesis 9:6 never says that. The authority was given to all mankind, who merely happened to be organized in a family at the time (and families tend to make for a default/natural outworking of that authority). That’s why Cain worries that “anyone who finds me will kill me.” (Gen 4:14). (Note Frame’s attempt to deal with the problem of societies not made up of intact family structures).

And there you have it. God has given all mankind the authority to justly wield the sword to execute vengeance against physical violence and that is what Paul is referring to in Romans 13. God never instituted a special office for select individuals to rule over the rest of humanity with monopolistic authority to wield the sword in a way that no one else has authority to. Paul is simply addressing Christians who lived in an empire that wrongly claimed exclusive right to that God-ordained authority (John 18:31).


Post Script:

Commenting on Genesis 9:5-6 in Lex Rex, Rutherford says

The consequence is vain: His blood shall be shed by man; therefore by a magistrate ? it followeth not; therefore by a king ? it followeth not… There was but family-government (p. 28)

Rutherford incorrectly argues it’s just a general descriptive proverb about the fate of a murderer, not a command to execute murderers, but he correctly notes that it neither says or implies anything about a ruler/magistrate.

Matthew Henry notes

by man shall his blood be shed, that is, by the magistrate, or whoever is appointed or allowed to be the avenger of blood. There are those who are ministers of God for this purpose, to be a protection to the innocent, by being a terror to the malicious and evildoers, and they must not bear the sword in vain,Rom. 13:4 . Before the flood, as it should seem by the story of Cain, God took the punishment of murder into his own hands; but now he committed this judgment to men, to masters of families at first, and afterwards to the heads of countries

I believe that Henry is mistaken that God took the punishment of murder into his own hands before the flood, but he correctly recognizes there was no civil government when God commanded Noah and his descendants (all mankind) to execute murderers. When Henry argues “afterwards to the heads of countries” we would simply ask when and where did God do this?

William Findley notes

In this second infant state of the human race, too few in number to form a civil society, capable of enacting and executing penal laws, it pleased God himself, among other precepts, to prescribe death to be inflicted by man, as the penalty for murder; and as there were not, at that period, civil courts, or officers for public prosecution, he enjoined the brothers (explained to include others near of kin) of the deceased, to execute the sentence, under the penalty of God himself requiring his brother’s blood at his hands, as he had formerly done the blood of Abel at the hand of Cain. This precept, given to the family of Noah, then containing the whole human race, is still in substance equally applicable to all nations, and at all times. It is the only punishment adequate to the offence; but the appointment of the brother, or near of kin, to be the avenger of blood, arose from the then state of society, and pointed out the expediency of civil government, when men became sufficiently numerous for that purpose. (11-12)

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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.

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