We Have Fled for Refuge- #1: A Look at the Law of Blood Atonement

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We Who Have Fled For Refuge; A Look at the Law of Blood Atonement- #1

that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizede (Hebrews 6:18-20).

This passage in Hebrews 6 has long been a fascination to me, and has become even more so as my knowledge of the Tanakh has increased. The author is assuring his readers of the surety of God’s promises that YHVH had made to Abraham, to bless all nations through his seed. Those promises were being fulfilled in those first century days, as affirmed by Peter in Acts 3:21-24.

The author urged his readers not to turn back to observance of Torah, forsaking Jesus in whom they had placed their faith and hope, but, through persecution, peer pressure, etc. were now, at least in some cases, turning their back on Jesus and their new found faith.

He reminded them that to turn their back on Jesus as Messiah had severe implications and consequences:

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned (Hebrews 6:4-8).

It should be pointed out that the author does not simply give a “hypothetical” possibility of falling away, or turning their backs on Christ. In countless discussions with Reformed believers I have had them say that the author is simply setting forth such a hypothetical– though not truly possible – falling away to deter his readers from doing the impossible. But, as Paul Ellingworth has noted, the language of the text clearly “presupposes, but does not directly affirm, that apostasy can occur” (Paul Ellingwoth, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Carlisle; Paternoster,1993), 323). The illogic of saying that the author is using an impossible hypothetical to warn his audience truly makes no sense. If they knew that he was talking about something that simply could not happen, then discussing such an impossibility as a deterrent against something that could not happen would be fruitless and have no impact whatsoever! It would in fact be ridiculous.

Notice how the author says that to apostatize was to “crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame.” In other words, to forsake Christ is to cast their lot with those who cried out, “Crucify him!” (Mark 15:13). The seriousness of this charge– and the escape from it that is offered by the author – in the context of a book that is saturated with Hebraic thought and OT references cannot be overstated. To help understand that, we need to discuss the Law of Blood Atonement:

Numbers 35:16-28:

If anyone strikes someone a fatal blow with an iron object, that person is a murderer; the murderer is to be put to death. Or if anyone is holding a stone and strikes someone a fatal blow with it, that person is a murderer; the murderer is to be put to death. Or if anyone is holding a wooden object and strikes someone a fatal blow with it, that person is a murderer; the murderer is to be put to death. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death; when the avenger comes upon the murderer, the avenger shall put the murderer to death. If anyone with malice aforethought shoves another or throws something at them intentionally so that they die or if out of enmity one person hits another with their fist so that the other dies, that person is to be put to death; that person is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when they meet. “‘But if without enmity someone suddenly pushes another or throws something at them unintentionally or, without seeing them, drops on them a stone heavy enough to kill them, and they die, then since that other person was not an enemy and no harm was intended, the assembly must judge between the accused and the avenger of blood according to these regulations. The assembly must protect the one accused of murder from the avenger of blood and send the accused back to the city of refuge to which they fled. The accused must stay there until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil. “‘But if the accused ever goes outside the limits of the city of refuge to which they fled and the avenger of blood finds them outside the city, the avenger of blood may kill the accuse without being guilty of murder. The accused must stay in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest; only after the death of the high priest may they return to their own property.

In this passage what was known as the Law of Blood Atonement is set forth. As can be seen, premeditated murder was worthy of the death penalty to be exacted by the Avenger of Blood. For that crime / sin, there was no escape, no deliverance from the Avenger.

However, in cases in which someone “ignorantly” caused the death of another person, in cases of sudden outbursts of emotion, in cases in which there was no premeditated intent to kill another person, the Lord provided a “way of escape” from the Avenger:

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall appoint cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person accidentally may flee there. They shall be cities of refuge for you from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation in judgment. And of the cities which you give, you shall have six cities of refuge. You shall appoint three cities on this side of the Jordan, and three cities you shall appoint in the land of Canaan, which will be cities of refuge. These six cities shall be for refuge for the children of Israel, for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills a person accidentally may flee there. (Numbers 35: 9-15).

So, in cases of premeditated murder the Avenger of Blood was to exact punishment, on the murderer the judgment of death. In cases of un-premeditated death, what we today would call manslaughter, or second or third degree “murder” where there was no intent to commit murder, the “killer” could flee to one of the six cities of refuge. He was safe there, as long as he remained in that city. He had to stay in that city until the High Priest died, at which point they could return to their home and the Avenger could not exact judgment on them. To put this another way, the sentence of death was applicable for that one generation– the lifetime of the High Priest.

Sidebar: It is important– critical – to realize, as suggested already, that the Avenger of Blood was truly avenging the blood of the innocent victim – as his title suggests. This concept of the avenging the blood of the victim must be kept in mind as we proceed.

Note how the NT writers express some of these ideas.

In Acts 2, Peter told that huge audience, “you have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” Jesus (Acts 2:23).

He shows that Jesus was not worthy of that death: “Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know” (v. 22). Peter says they knew that Jesus was a man of God, yet they killed him anyway! Furthermore, God had vindicated His son, since: “God raised (him, DKP) up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it” (v. 24). Thus, Jesus’ resurrection was the “vindication” not of his death, but of his innocence. The vindication of his suffering was to come later in the death of his murderers, as Peter suggests.

Their guilt, their blood guilt, now hung over them like a dark, foreboding cloud. Was there to be no escape, no deliverance from their fate at the hands of the Blood Avenger? What did Peter say to them? He urged them: “Save yourselves from this untoward generation.” This is an echo of Deuteronomy 32:5ff- a prophecy of Israel’s last end, when God would avenge the blood of the martyrs (32:43).

I must add this comment on Deuteronomy 32:43. Notice that God promised that in Israel’s last end (32:19f / 32:29f) He would avenge the blood of the saints. But that is not all that He promised:

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.

Did you notice it? God said He would provide atonement for His Land and for His people. What is commonly overlooked is that this work of Atonement is in direct connection with the avenging of the blood of the martyrs. That avenging of the blood was the means of the Atonement for the land and people. When would this Atonement come? How would it be accomplished? Of course, the normal answer is that Jesus died to make the Atonement. While that is undeniably true, it is a limited, far too limited view.

Look again at Numbers 35:29-33:

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. 33 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.

Do you catch the power of The Law of Blood Atonement? Blood Atonement could not be made for the wilful murderer– except by his own death. The Avenger of Blood had to kill the murderer. Without the shedding of his blood, the land itself was polluted and incurred the Wrath of the Lord. To put this succinctly, Atonement for the land could only come through the destruction and death of the murderer. That is how Atonement for the land was achieved. This is how the blood of the victim was vindicated. What this means is that if “the land” i.e. the corporate body of the people, was guilty of murder– in this case, the murder of Jesus – Atonement could only come through the destruction and death of the corporate body- the nation. To express this another way, the vindication of the martyrs demanded the death of the their murderers– the corporate destruction of their murderers (Cf. Matthew 21:33f / 22:1-12 / 23:29f).

This thought lies behind Peter’s sermon on Pentecost. Thus, the doctrine of Blood Atonement serves as a critical, I would say fundamental, context for a great deal of Peter’s Pentecost presentation.

In the next installment of this article we will explore this further, so stay tuned. In the meantime, be sure to get a copy of my book, The Resurrection of Daniel 12:2: Future of Fulfilled? In which I discuss the avenging of the blood of the saints in great detail.

Stay tuned!