Last month, three Jewish suspects were arrested for the murder of Arab teenager Mohammad Khdeir of eastern Jerusalem. Their action was said to be to avenge the slaying of three Israeli teens.
What does the Torah say about revenge killings? Cain is the first to suffer revenge, which is described as a vicious cycle of misery: “For Cain shall be avenged sevenfold and Lemekh (his killer) seventy-sevenfold.” Later, Moses tells the Israelites that when a killer seeks haven from his victim’s relatives: “I shall set you a place to where you may flee”.
Under ancient Israelite law, the Torah allows relatives of the killed to “redeem” or “free” the blood of their dead relative, even if he was killed by accident due to gross neglect. The killer may flee his pursuing avengers to any one of six major cities in ancient Israel or one of a further 42 Levite towns. If the avengers kill him before reaching the city, they are guiltless. However, once the killer is in the perimeters of the safe haven, an avenger would forfeit his own life for claiming the killers’ life.
The law of vengeance appears to be a pre-Torah, tribal-based law, which is accommodated within the bounds of Israelite law. This crude form of justice is referred to in the context of the Pinchas, who is rewarded with eternal priesthood for an act of “vengeance” which ended the immoral spectacle of a sexual orgy introduced to the Israelite camp by the Midianites, whom Israel were in turn commanded to destroy in revenge for their attack on their moral integrity.
In a gratuitous display of posthumous revenge, King David commands his son Solomon to bring about the death of several people who distressed him during his reign. One was Joab, David’s own chief of staff, who had zealously protected David’s reign but was condemned to death in David’s will to Solomon for having taken the initiative to murder his opponent’s defecting general Abner in cold blood.
King David had clearly considered it inexpedient to kill certain enemies during his own lifetime, and therefore used the euphemism in his words to Solomon: to bring his grey head down to the grave in blood. Revenge is a theme cited to this day in the Ashkenazi prayer-book, fuelled by the understandable bitterness of the Crusades and later pogroms which destroyed many communities from the early medieval Rhineland to Bogdaan Chmielnicki’s Ukrainian uprising. Rabbi Ariel Abel is a consultant to the For Life Projects, based in Blackburn.