The Law of Blood Atonement and Eschatology
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people; For He will avenge the blood of His servants, And render vengeance to His adversaries; He will provide atonement for His land and His people.”
This intriguing prophecy from Deuteronomy is commonly overlooked in discussions of eschatology. In fact, among Amillennialists, the significance of the Song is widely unknown. In 2016, I had a formal public debate with Dr. David Hester, professor at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Al.. As one of my major points, I noted that the salvation of Israel, to come at the parousia of Christ (Romans 11:26-27) , would be in fulfillment of Isaiah 27, which is a direct echo of the Song of Moses (32:28f). To understand the power of this argument, in relationship to Dr. Hester’s position, you must understand his theology.
The Law of Blood Atonement and Amillennialism
Allow me to note a few of the fundamental aspects of Dr. Hester’s eschatology:
1. Hester, along with the great majority of his fellowship of the churches of Christ, holds as a fundamental tenet, the idea that God was through with Israel at the cross.
2. As a direct corollary to this, Dr. Hester stated repeatedly that the Law of Moses was nailed to the cross. (Even though he never went to a single text and tried to demonstrate that exegetically).
These two related concepts are so foundational to Dr. Hester’s theology, and that of many Amillennialists, that they seem almost
unable to grasp the significance of something so vital as the Song of Moses to the story of eschatology. Even though Jesus and the NT writers cite the Song over and over again, as being fulfilled, or about to be fulfilled in the impending judgment, the implications of this are unseen, rejected or ignored.
In the aforementioned debate, I repeatedly noted that the coming of the Lord in Romans 11 would be in fulfillment of Isaiah (an Old Covenant promise to Old Covenant Israel) which in turn would be the fulfillment of the Song of Moses– which is about Israel and her last end. I observed and pressed the point that the Law of Moses could not pass until it was all – including the Song – fulfilled. But, that means that since the Song would be fulfilled at the coming of the Lord of Romans 11 (which Dr. Hester posited at the so-called “end of time”, that this demands that the Law of Moses remains valid until the end of time! This is, needless to say, fatal to Dr. Hester’s eschatology. If the Law of Moses would stand valid until the coming of the Lord, then to posit the coming of the Lord in the future is to impose the Law of Moses until that time. That is why in the debate, Dr. Hester said not one word – literally not one word – in response to this point and this issue.
If, as I suggest is undeniable, the Song of Moses and the Law of Blood Atonement lies behind much of the NT discussion of the vindication of the martyrs, then I suggest that it has a tremendous bearing on our understanding of the entire subject of eschatology. And this motif is devastating, not only for the Amillennialism of Dr. Hester, but, to all futurist views of eschatology.
The theme of the avenging of the martyrs of God is one that runs throughout scripture. From Genesis 4 where the blood of righteous Abel cries out from the ground, to Revelation, there is a constant thread, of the suffering of God’s saints and the promised vindication and glorification. Almost invariably that vindication is posited as taking place at the Day of the Lord (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:4-12 / Revelation 6:9-17). More on this momentarily.
For brevity, I will only make a few points about this great text of Deuteronomy 32 and how the New Testament writers utilized it.
First of all, this chapter is known as the Song of Moses, and foretold the events concerning Israel and her last days. The prophecy has nothing to do with any so-called “end of time” or the end of the Christian age (32:20; 29). The Song did not deal with Moses’ day either, as some have claimed. The Song foretold events far removed from Moses’ day, “many generations” to come.
Second, as a prophecy, the Song deals with the fate of Israel in her last days. Twice, the Song tells us that it is about Israel’s last end, her last time. It is not about the end of time, or the end of the Christian age.
Third, it is to be noted that Jesus appeared in the last days, the time foretold by the Song.
Fourth, it is critical to see that the NT writers tell us that they were living in the days foretold by the Old Covenant prophets (Acts 3:23f).
Fifth, the promise of the avenging of the martyrs – the Law of Blood Atonement – is one of Jesus’ favorite and most important eschatological topics. Furthermore, in Matthew 23:29f, Jesus emphatically and positively said that “all of the blood, of all the righteous, from righteous Abel (remember Genesis 4?) unto Zecharias, son of Berechais, whom you killed between the temple and the altar” would be avenged and judged in his generation in the judgment of Jerusalem.
So, Jesus appeared in the time foretold by the Song and promised what the Song foretold. And he said it would be fulfilled in his first century generation in the judgment of Jerusalem. This is irrefutable and inescapable.
Sixth, notice that YHVH said He would make atonement for the land and for the people. (Note: several translations render this “for the land, the people” which is more than a little intriguing and important, but we will not discuss that here).
Now, it is widely assumed that the atonement promised here is the death of Jesus. However – please pay careful attention here, and do not misunderstand what I am about to say – this ignores what the Law of Moses had to say about the Law of Blood Atonement and the atoning for blood guilt, which is what verse 43 is undeniably about.
The Law of Blood Atonement – No Sacrifice For Murder!
In Numbers 35, God made provision for the atonement of the land / people when murder had been committed.
“Whoever kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the testimony of witnesses; but one witness is not sufficient testimony against a person for the death penalty. Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. And you shall take no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the priest. So you shall not pollute the land where you are; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. Therefore do not defile the land which you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD dwell among the children of Israel.’” (verse 30f)
Simply stated: the only atonement that could be made for murder was the death of the murderer! There was no call for repentance offered. No “saving sacrifice” could be given to spare the guilty from their fate. This means that the Atoning sacrifice of Christ would not be applied to his willful murderers! There could be no escape.
Here is a critical point: Throughout Israel’s history, she is depicted as the willful murderer of the prophets. For instance, notice that in Jeremiah 6, in the midst of accusations against Jerusalem for shedding innocent blood (Jeremiah 2) the Lord told the prophet to not even pray for the city! Nothing else could be done. They could not escape the impending judgment.
When we examine the rejection and killing of Jesus we find the same kind of hard heartedness. When Jesus was on trial, and Pilate found no fault in him, the crowd demanded his death, and cried out, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25f). The leaders of the people understood what they were doing. Note that when Judas brought the “blood money” back to the high priest, and said, “I have betrayed innocent blood,” the high priest responded, “What is that to us?” (Matthew 27:4f). Instead of being aghast at their crimes, the Sanhedrin simply shrugged their shoulders in indifference at their own guilt.
Interestingly, in stark contrast, Peter offered the (common) people an “out” declaring that they did not know what they were doing when the called for Jesus’ blood. He even said the leaders did not know what they were doing! (Acts 3:14f). However, Peter’ declaration must be tempered by the fact that Jesus said the leaders did have the greatest guilt, and that they basically admitted that they had purposefully killed an innocent man (Matthew 27:3-4; John 19:11). Peter was, essentially, seeking to offer “amazing grace” in his remarks, for without that offer only judgment remained.
With all of this in mind, let’s go back to Deuteronomy 32. In that text Moses foretold the time– Israel’s last days– when God would avenge the blood of His martyrs. Thus, there is no doubt that the killing of the innocents is in the forefront. What was the provision for making atonement for such killings? Well, in the case of those who “innocently” i.e accidentally or in ignorance, killed someone, there was a way of escape. They could flee to a city of refuge per Numbers 35.
Consider then that as Peter noted, the people killed Jesus in ignorance (Acts 3). Were they then to flee to a literal city of refuge, one of the six cities designated in Numbers and Deuteronomy? No. As the Hebrews writer said, he and his readers had, “fled for refuge to lay hold on the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:18) by turning to Jesus, the one that had been slain.
On the other hand, for the guilty, the nation that had in effect purposely killed its Messiah, what remained for those who refused to repent, was death by the sword, per the Law of Blood Atonement in Numbers 35!
The Law of Blood Atonement in the New Testament
In Acts 2:22f Peter affirmed that Israel was without excuse for not recognizing Jesus as their Messiah. Jesus was, “approved of God by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in your midst, as you yourselves also know.” He continued, “You have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” this One that they should have recognized as their Savior. In verse 36, he reiterated their guilt in crucifying Christ. He then called on them to repent.
What is so remarkable is that under Torah, there was no repentance, no deliverance for what they had done. There was only the Law of Blood Atonement under the Law. So, Peter was essentially- radically– calling them to leave Torah behind. To remain in that system was to remain in a system that offered them only death and destruction. They could die to the Law by entering Jesus, their Christ, or, they could remain under Torah, and die by Torah.
The choice was dramatic, “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus (the) Christ, for the remission of sins” or, face certain death and judgment from God for shedding innocent blood. Thus, Peter called on his audience, “Save yourselves from this untoward generation” (Acts 2:40.)
It is significant that Peter’s words echo Deuteronomy 32:5f, which called the generation of Israel’s last days “a crooked and perverse generation.” Peter was telling them that the fulfillment of the Song was upon them! They were in fact the “terminal generation” in which God would, “avenge the blood of His saints, and make atonement for the land, the people.”
When we couple the Song of Moses, Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 23 with Peter’s sermon, with the rest of the NT testimony the evidence is overwhelming. I suggest, in fact, that lying behind much of John’s Gospel is the Law of Blood Atonement, as the apostle chronicled the recalcitrance of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem.
Likewise, in Hebrews 6, the reference to fleeing for refuge to Jesus is a direct echo of the Law of Blood Atonement. The author urged his readers to flee to Jesus. He recalled the crucifixion of Jesus and warned them that to return to the folds of Torah, and not go onto the perfection in Christ was to willfully join in with those who crucified the Lord. To a Jewish reader, this could mean only one thing: Judgment would fall on them. Thus, in Hebrews to “sin willfully” (by returning to the fold of Judaism) was to “crucify Christ afresh” as chapter 6 said. But, it was also to bring “a fearful expectation of judgment” (10:26).
Jesus’ generation was the generation foretold by Moses in the Song. Just as the Song foretold, in Israel’s final generation, God would both avenge the blood of His saints, and bring judgment on their killers. In that same generation, He would call the Gentiles to be His people, due to the rebellious disobedience of Israel.
Deuteronomy 32 thus challenges our concepts of Atonement. We mostly think of it exclusively in terms of Jesus’ High Priestly functions. But as we have seen, this overlooks the issue of martyrdom, the Law of Blood Atonement and the application of Mosaic Covenant sanctions for shedding innocent blood. It is a tragedy of exegesis that this motif is so commonly overlooked.
There is no denying the efficacy of Jesus’ death and High Priestly praxis in making the Atonement. This is fundamental the very work of Christ as High Priest. That work, however, was for the repentant, for those of faith. It was for those who fled to him – and to the New Jerusalem, if you please– the true city of refuge. All of this is clearly true.
It is simply wrong however, to deny the aforementioned elements as they relate to martyrdom and the avenging of the blood of the saints. God decreed that there was no escape, no city of refuge for the unrepentant killers of His saints and of His Son. They met their fate in His awful judgment in AD 70. The Law of Blood Atonement – still fully in effect. It was applied to those guilty of killing the prophets, the Lord and his apostles and prophets. This is when the Song of Moses – and the Law of Blood Atonement – was fulfilled in the judgment of Babylon, and the angels sang: “He has avenged the blood of His saints!” (Revelation 19:1-2).