The Avenger of Blood

The typical understanding of the bible’s teaching on civil government is that it is a special office directly ordained by God wherein a subset of humanity is given authority to wield the sword in a way that the rest of humanity may not – namely, for vengeance/punishment of wrondoers. It is thought to be sinful for an individual person to seek vengeance on their own, but proper for one of these people filling the special God ordained office to seek vengeance for the individual. The Westminster, Savoy, and 2nd London Baptist Confession all state

God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates to be under him, over the people, for his own glory and the public good; and to this end hath armed them with the power of the sword, for defence and encouragement of them that do good, and for the punishment of evil doers. (Romans 13:1-4)

However, I am not yet convinced this understanding is biblical. Everyone who holds this view starts with Romans 13. But because Romans 13 actually presents some very challenging logical difficulties for interpretation and even within the reformed tradition interpretation varies significantly, I think it is best to start with clearer statements in Scripture regarding the use of the sword for vengeance before addressing Romans 13. One very important, but almost entirely overlooked passage on vengeance is Numbers 35:9-34 (cf. Deut 19:1-13; Joshua 20:1-9)

  1. The cities of refuge are for men who accidentally kill someone to flee to (Num 35:11; cf Deut 19:1-13)
  2. If the people do not establish cities of refuge, then the “guilt of bloodshed” would be upon them for any manslayer (someone who accidentally kills someone) who is executed by the avenger of blood (Deut 19:10)
  3. The manslayer may flee to the city of refuge to seek a trial before the avenger catches him (v12; 22-24)
  4. But if it is not accidental, then he is a murderer and shall be put to death (v16-18)
  5. In which case the avenger of blood will execute him when he finds him (prior to a trial – see #2) (v19, 21)
  6. Or if the murderer flees to the city of refuge, the elders of his city are to take him back and hand him over to the avenger of blood (Deut 19:11-13)
  7. The congregation that conducts the trial appears to be the local congregation where the incident occurred, not the congregation in the city of refuge (Gill notes interpreters are divided on where the trial was) (v25)
  8. If the manslayer leaves the city, the avenger of blood may kill him and be guiltless (v26-28)
  9. The avenger of blood may only execute the murderer if two or more witnesses can testify to it (v30)
  10. Justice requires that the murderer (or the manslayer who leaves the city of refuge) be put to death (v31-34)


Who was the avenger of blood?

(Heb. goel, from verb gaal, “to be near of kin,” “to redeem”), the nearest relative of a murdered person. It was his right and duty to slay the murderer (2 Sam. 14:7, 11) if he found him outside of a city of refuge. In order that this law might be guarded against abuse, Moses appointed six cities of refuge (Ex. 21:13; Num. 35:13; Deut. 19:1,9). These were in different parts of the country, and every facility was afforded the manslayer that he might flee to the city that lay nearest him for safety. Into the city of refuge the avenger durst not follow him. This arrangement applied only to cases where the death was not premeditated. The case had to be investigated by the authorities of the city, and the wilful murderer was on no account to be spared. He was regarded as an impure and polluted person, and was delivered up to the _goel_ (Deut. 19:11-13). If the offence was merely manslaughter, then the fugitive must remain within the city till the death of the high priest (Num. 35:25).

Easton’s Bible Dictionary

The goel also served as someone who was to redeem the land of an impoverished Israelite who had sold it, since God ordained that no Israelite could lose his property permanently (Leviticus 25:23-34). The goel was also to redeem an Israelite who had become a slave (voluntarily or because they defaulted on a debt) (Lev 25:47-55). Matthew Henry helpfully summarizes the blood redemption role of the goel.

[N]ot only the prosecution, but the execution, of the murderer, is committed to the next of kin, who, as he was to be the redeemer of his kinsman’s estate if it were mortgaged, so he was to be the avenger of his blood if he were murdered (Num. 35:19): The avenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer, if he be convicted by the notorious evidence of the fact, and he needed not to have recourse by a judicial process to the court of judgment. But if it were uncertain who the murderer was, and the proof doubtful, we cannot think that his bare suspicion, or surmise, would empower him to do that which the judges themselves could not do but upon the testimony of two witnesses. Only if the fact were plain then the next heir of the person slain might himself, in a just indignation, slay the murderer wherever he met him. Some think this must be understood to be after the lawful judgment of the magistrate, and so the Chaldee says, “He shall slay him, when he shall be condemned unto him by judgment;” but it should seem, by Num. 35:24; that the judges interposed only in a doubtful case, and that if the person on whom he took vengeance was indeed the murderer, and a wilful murderer, the avenger was innocent (Num. 35:27), only, if it proved otherwise, it was at his peril.

In a very helpful (but not perfect) paper THE LEVIRATE AND GOEL INSTITUTIONS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT With Special Attention to the Book of Ruth, Donald A. Leggett elaborates.

The duty of blood-vengeance may well be the oldest and most pressing responsibility of the goel in Israel…

The law of retaliation does not place the point of gravity in the offended and his claim to have a breach healed. The point of gravity lies outside or, rather, above both parties, in a power maintaining justice for its own sake. Every action which deviates from the right must be balanced; it is just as necessary for the sake of justice that he who commits injustice should suffer a loss, as that he who suffers an unjust loss should receive satisfaction.

…The Psalmist (9:13 [12]) speaks of the Lord himself as the Divine Avenger of Blood who does not forget the cry of the afflicted. The Lord is portrayed as Divine Avenger in II Kings 9:7 26, “And you shall strike down—the house of Ahab your master, that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord. … As surely as I saw yesterday the blood of Naboth and the blood of his sons—says the Lord—I will requite you on this plot of ground.”

…in Israel there is a distinctive emphasis on the sanctity of human life. Human life is sacred, for man is created in the image of God. The crime of murder is a particularly heinous crime since it constitutes an attack on God himself, for which the murderer’s life is to be taken by the goel of blood. The goel acts as the agent of the Lord himself… The goel was the instrument for the administration of justice in the early period of Israelite history… The ius talionis of Exodus 21:23-25 restricted the retaliation to that which was consistent with the crime itself…

From the limited examples of blood-vengeance in the Old Testament we see this duty being performed especially by a brother of the victim (Judg. 8:19 ff.; II Sam. 3:27) or by a son of the victim II Kings 14:5), though undoubtedly a more distant relative was involved at other times Sam. 14:11; I Kings 16:11), as was the entire family in one instance (II Sam. 14:7)…

[T]o say that Yahweh was the ultimate Seeker of the blood, the one to whom the blood belonged and to whom it was released, proves nothing concerning the nature of the agent that He employs in the recovery of the blood. It does not supply any reason why the agent should be a public official rather than a relative of the deceased.

Not Exclusive to Israel

Leggett also compares the practice of blood vengeance in Israel with other ancient cultures.

In Assyria we do find direct mention of the next-of-kin who is involved in the duty of blood-vengeance… it is apparent that in Assyria there was one who could be called the avenger of blood, who was authorized to take the life of the murderer…

There is no mention of the avenger of blood in the Hittite laws, but this does not mean that blood-vengeance was non- existent among the Hittites. Of importance is the Edict of Telipinus, which mentions “the lord of blood.” It reads:

The rule of blood is as follows. Whoever commits a deed of blood, whatever the ‘lord of blood’ says—if he says ‘Let him die,’ he shall die; but if he says ‘Let him make restitution,’ he shall make restitution: the king shall have no say in it.

It is likely that the “lord of the blood” is comparable to the goel of blood. He is the head of the family of the murdered victim or one of the heirs of the murdered victim.

Of importance, as well, is a letter written by Hattusilis III to the Babylonian king Kadasman-Enlil II, in which the Hittite king complained of the murder of his merchants in Ugarit and in North Syria and assured the Babylonian king that
when a case of murder occurred among the Hittites the murderer was given over to the relatives of the victim… It would appear then that among the Hittites the blood- feud existed, and the relative of the murdered party played a role in avenging the death of the victim…

Schaeffer asserts that “the functions of the Hebrew goel . . . are assumed to a very large extent by the wali of Arabic literature.” … According to Hardy, “at the moment of striking the mortal blow the avenger had to cry aloud that he was taking vengeance for his murdered kins-man, so as to inform any witnesses that this was a judicial killing and not itself an unjustified attack.”…

It is clear from our discussion that blood-vengeance was practiced by many peoples in the ancient Near East in addition to the Israelites. As has already been pointed out, such similarities should occasion no particular surprise in the light of the historical nature of biblical revelation. In the final analysis, the basic difference in outlook and in operation between Israel and the surrounding nations can be explained only from Israel’s unique view of man as made in the image of God… No compensation for the life of the murderer was possible [contrary to these other nations which allowed for “blood money” to be paid instead of execution], for he had shed the blood of one made in the image of God.* However, it was only the murderer’s life which was to be taken [in contrast to some other cultures that permitted members of the murderer’s family to be killed]. A clear distinction between premeditated and accidental slaying was laid down in Old Testament law. Moreover, the goel of blood in Israel, rather than acting out of motives of personal vengeance, was intended to be the instrument of divine justice with a mandate from Yahweh, the Ultimate Seeker of the blood of the murdered victim. An attack upon man made in the image of God was an attack upon the Lord, himself.

*On the differences between Israelite and Near Eastern laws of homicide cf. M. Greenberg, “Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law,” Yehezkel Kaufmann Jubilee Volume, 1960, pp. 5-28. The main differences between biblical and cuneiform law, according to Greenberg, are that compensation of any kind is ruled out and vicarious punishment is excluded in the biblical law. There is also a striking distinction between biblical and cuneiform law in the treatment of offenses against property. Greenberg (p. 18) writes: “This unparalleled leniency of biblical law in dealing with property offences must be combined with its severity in the case of homicide, just as the leniency of nonbiblical law in dealing with homicide must be taken in conjunction with its severity in dealing with property offences. The significance of the laws then emerges with full clarity: in biblical law life and property are incommensurable; taking of life cannot be made up for by any amount of property, nor can any property offense be considered as amounting to the value of a life. Elsewhere the two are commensurable: a given amount of property can make up for life, and a grave enough offense against property can necessitate forfeiting life…. A basic difference in the evaluation of life and property separates the one from the others. In the biblical law a religious evaluation; in nonbiblical, an economic and political evaluation, predominates.” Cf. chap. 4, n. 159. 

The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge states

BLOOD-REVENGE: A custom nearly universal in the tribal or clan stage of society, often surviving later, binding the kin of a murdered man to secure satisfaction for the murder by the death of the slayer or of one of his clan. The custom depends upon two fundamentals of that stage of civilization: (1) the sacredness of life and the solidarity of the clan; (2) the lex talionis. Its essence is execution of the slayer or some of his kin by the representatives of the slain, not by public authorities; it belongs therefore to private as opposed to public justice… The duty set by the institution is binding, and so close is the relationship in the clan (see COMPARATIVE RELIGION, VI, 1, b, 1) that all its members may become involved, the result being a blood-feud between the clans of the assailant and the victim. Usually, however, the duty devolves upon the next of kin. Refusal on his part to exercise his right and perform his duty subjects him to utter contempt and even to outlawry.

Note the mention of blood-feud.

Until the early modern period, feuds were considered legitimate legal instruments[1] and were regulated to some degree. For example, Serb culture calls this krvna osveta, meaning “blood revenge”, which had unspoken but highly valued rules.[2]… In Homeric ancient Greece, the practice of personal vengeance against wrongdoers was considered natural and customary: “Embedded in the Greek morality of retaliation is the right of vengeance… Feud is a war, just as war is an indefinite series of revenges; and such acts of vengeance are sanctioned by the gods”.[5]…

According to historian Marc Bloch:

The Middle Ages, from beginning to end, and particularly the feudal era, lived under the sign of private vengeance. The onus, of course, lay above all on the wronged individual; vengeance was imposed on him as the most sacred of duties … The solitary individual, however, could do but little. Moreover, it was most commonly a death that had to be avenged. In this case the family group went into action and the faide (feud) came into being, to use the old Germanic word which spread little by little through the whole of Europe — ‘the vengeance of the kinsmen which we call faida’, as a German canonist expressed it. No moral obligation seemed more sacred than this … The whole kindred, therefore, placed as a rule under the command of a chieftain, took up arms to punish the murder of one of its members or merely a wrong that he had suffered.[7]

…The Celtic phenomenon of the blood feud demanded “an eye for an eye,” and usually descended into murder. Disagreements between clans might last for generations in Scotland and Ireland.”

Thus we can see that private blood vengeance was the default practice in ancient cultures. Mosaic law was divinely revealed clarification regarding the authority including procedures to insure that it was conducted properly. The cities of refuge may have served to reduce the likelihood of blood vengeance devolving into century-long blood-feuds between families, as occurred elsewhere.

The Community’s Role

The cities of refuge, as we saw above, brought the congregation into the matter as judge (see this thought-provoking video, particularly the comments about the jury’s innate sense of justice). Thus private blood vengeance was not exclusively an act involving the next of kin. The community as a whole was responsible for insuring that justice was done and that blood-guilt did not go unpunished or that more blood-guilt was caused by executing someone who was innocent (though note that the murderer was still handed over to the goel if he was found guilty). The next of kin had a primary responsibility, but the community at large still held the ultimate responsibility. That is because God’s command in Genesis 9:6 to execute the murderer was given to all mankind generally, not exclusively to anyone in particular. In the event that a next of kin was not available or willing, the community still had a responsibility to see that justice was done.

The role of the next of kin could perhaps be maintained in Israel much longer than in other nations because of the divinely ordained family structure that was required to be maintained in Israel. But in other cultures where family ties were not kept as strongly, particularly in cities were individuals and nuclear families dwelt together, justice was not abandoned because of a lack of next of kin. Rather, the community was responsible for establishing a just process for executing vengeance on the wrongdoer. Leggett comments:

A question must be asked about what happened to the murderer if the goel did not act on behalf of the murdered kinsman. Was the punishment of the murderer the exclusive prerogative of the avenger of blood? Since the family structures within Israel became progressively weaker after the period of the settlement in Canaan, could it have been possible that Israelite society depended entirely on the avenger of blood for the execution of murderers? There must have been periods in Israel’s, history when indeed this was the case: we think particularly of the period of the Judges when the structures of public, justice were weak. Pedersen writes, “Where kinship ends, there is no longer an avenger. The lonely and the kinless is like the accursed; anyone who comes across him may slay, him,” In the opinion of Falk, “cases of murder … were not originally considered to be of public concern but only of consequence to the relatives of the victim.”

The laws governing blood-vengeance show clearly an involvement of the public authorities, whose task it was to limit and regulate blood-vengeance in the interests of public justice. There is a responsibility which rests on the community to see that the land is not defiled through the shedding of innocent blood, but that expiation be made by the blood of the murderer. It is most likely then that in those cases where there were no relatives or where relatives were unwilling to undertake this duty, the judicial authorities intervened. The laws of Numbers 35 which speak of the involvement of the goel of blood in the executing task do not militate against this conclusion, for they apply to the case; where blood- vengeance is being actively pursued…

Salmon suggests that public intervention where the relatives were inactive can be seen in the execution of Joab for the slaying of Abner (I King 2) and in the execution of Saul’s sons for the extermination of the Gibeonites (II Sam. 21). “In both cases murder goes unpunished for a long time, in both cases this is probably to be attributed to the power of the murderer and his family and the relative weakness of the family of the victim and in both cases, the intervention of public authority is required to settle the matter.” At this point we would call attention to the statement of Daube: “The sources show that the moral leaders of the Hebrew people were fully awake to the inadequacy and iniquity of the system of redemption described. At some period, it appears, they demanded that where a man had no relatives who could protect him from oppression, the state [used throughout Leggett as synonymous with “community”] should intervene in his behalf. One Psalm contains a description of the ideal king, and it is said of him that he undertakes to redeem you if you are without relatives able to do it: ‘He shall redeem their (the needy’s) soul from deceit and violence, and precious shall their blood be in his sight. . . .’ The state [community or community-apointed delegates] ought to see to it that the laws concerning redemption be really carried out.” …

[Salmon] writes:

The crime of murder, whoever the victim, had indeed become a public offence by the time of BC [Book of the Covenant] . Not that the practice of blood-vengeance had been abolished; we have already seen that this was not the case. But the community became the guarantor that, whether by private or public action, the innocent blood should be avenged and the murderer punished. More accurately, it was not that the community became the guarantor, but rather that the identity of the ‘community’ shifted. In the presettlement period, and even to some extent thereafter, the ‘community’ which was the guarantor of vengeance and punishment was a familial group: the household, clan, or tribe. But the settlement established new patterns of life and relationships, and the primacy of the family group gave way increasingly to other patterns of organization—primarily to that of the city. These other judicial structures, these other ‘communities,’ were forced in many cases to assume responsibilities formerly borne by familial groups. One of these was that of guaranteeing the punishment of murderers and the attendant expiation of the pollution caused by the shedding of innocent blood. Where family structures were still capable of executing these responsibilities, they were both allowed and expected to do so. But where they were not able to do so, the responsibility fell on the shoulders of the ‘new community,’ principally the city.

It should be noted that even when lex talionis extended beyond crimes against man to include crimes against God (as a result of God’s dwelling in the land of Canaan – see here and here), the authority remained communal (as opposed to exclusively the role of a magistrate).


In surveying the practice of blood vengeance in ancient cultures, a curious exception occurs.

There is a difference of opinion as to whether blood- vengeance was practiced in Babylon during the time of Hammurabi.34

34. These differences are to be seen in the varying opinions of M. David and G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles. M. David, “The Codex Hammurabi and its Relation to the Provisions of the Law in Exodus,” OTS, 7, 1950, p. 169, writes, “With the Babylonians the whole penal law is regulated by the state; law courts of the state acted autonomously and saw to it that the laws were observed. No traces whatsoever are to be found of blood-vengeance.” See esp. David, n. 71. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, The Assyrian Laws, 1935, p. 33, on the contrary write, “As neither the Babylonian code nor the Assyrian laws deal generally with the offence of murder, it must be supposed that it still came under the rules of the ancient blood-feud as among other Semites; and it is remarkable that this custom is not regulated by legislation as is the case with the Hebrews. The desire indeed and right of the family to seek vengeance dies hard and the state, even though it may disapprove, dares not interfere, at any rate until the central authority is very strong.” It is their opinion that “if the blood-feud was recognized in the time of Hammurabi it was probably limited to cases of intentional killing….” The Babylonian Laws, 1, 1952, p. 314. Cf. further B. van Oeveren, op. cit., pp. 24-31.

Whatever the answer to this question, it is true to say that there are no specific references to any relative who performs a duty comparable to that of the avenger of blood in Israel.

More recently, Pamela Barmesh argues

[T]he 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…

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)…

[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 sanctuary for clarification of the law in a difficult case: the facts of the case were then remanded 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.

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

It is not the case that simply living in a city requires the state to assume exclusive jurisdiction over blood vengeance. As seen in Israel, the existence of cities with defined procedures co-existed with the role of the goel. The city aided in the judgment, but the authority of the goel was left untouched. Why then did Babylon assume monopolistic authority to execute vengeance? Consider Genesis 10:8-12. Nimrod is recognized to be both the first king of Babylon and the first king/emperor in the world. Matthew Henry notes

He is here represented as a great man in his day: He began to be a mighty one in the earth, that is, whereas those that went before him were content to stand upon the same level with their neighbours, and though every man bore rule in his own house yet no man pretended any further, Nimrod’s aspiring mind could not rest here; he was resolved to tower above his neighbours, not only to be eminent among them, but to lord it over them… he gathered men under his command, in pursuit of another game he had to play, which was to make himself master of the country and to bring them into subjection. He was a mighty hunter, that is, he was a violent invader of his neighbours’ rights and properties, and a persecutor of innocent men, carrying all before him, and endeavouring to make all his own by force and violence.


I thus interpret the passage, that the condition of men was at that time moderate; so that if some excelled others, they yet did not on that account domineer, nor assume to themselves royal power; but being content with a degree of dignity, governed others by civil laws and had more of authority than power. For Justin, from Trogus Pompeius, declares this to have been the most ancient condition of the world. Now Moses says, that Nimrod, as if forgetting that he was a man, took possession of a higher post of honor… he metaphorically intimates that he was a furious man, and approximated to beasts rather than to men. The expression, “Before the Lord,” seems to me to declare that Nimrod attempted to raise himself above the order of men… Nimrod was so mighty and imperious that it would be proper to say of any powerful tyrant, that he is another Nimrod. Yet the version of Jerome is satisfactory, that thence it became a proverb concerning the powerful and the violent, that they were like Nimrod. Nor do I doubt that God intended the first author of tyranny to be transmitted to odium by every tongue.

Thus if Nimrod was the first violent conquerer, what would he think about private blood vengeance? Would he tolerate the idea that the people he conquered and killed had divine authority to execute him? Certainly not. Thus, once “central authority is very strong” the state conveniently assumes a monopoly on the administration of justice.

In the advance of civilization the State assumes exclusively the function of Capital Punishment and the custom [of blood vengeance] becomes obsolete.

New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge

Thus asserting exclusive authority of vengeance became a means of control. Leggett notes “A major factor in controlling and limiting blood-vengeance was the rise of a constituted legal authority in the form of a state government.” (119)


Thus at the time of the reformation blood vengeance, both private and communal, had been replaced by a state monopoly on the administration of justice. Calvin, it appears, fell victim to state propaganda and believed there was a divinely ordained office with exclusive monopolistic authority to administer justice. Being the gifted systematician that he was, he immediately saw the consequences of the avenger of blood. If the avenger of blood was God-ordained, then his entire understanding of the civil magistrate was wrong.

When God commanded that murderers should suffer death, He required that they should be condemned by the judges after due trial; but it seems to savor somewhat of barbarism, that he should now permit the relative of the dead man to take vengeance; for it is a very bad precedent to give the power of the sword to private individuals, and this too in their own cause. It was indeed formerly permitted, as we shall see in its proper place, to put to death robbers by night, as also it was lawful for the husband, or the father, of a ravished woman to kill the adulterer caught in the fact; but it is absurd that the law should allow a person to avenge the death of his brother. But it is not to be supposed that this license was ever accorded by God, that a man might neglect the public authorities, and inflict punishment on his brothers murderer, wherever he should meet him; for this would have been to give the reins to sudden anger, so that blood would be added to blood. Wherefore it is probable that the danger of this is here denounced, rather than the gate opened to private vengeance; as if it had been said, that unless a provision were made for the innocent, the fury of those whose kindred had been slain, could hardly be restrained; not because it was lawful for them to render violence for violence, but because they would not consider it a crime, and impunity would prove a stimulus even to them, if their just indignation should be pardoned. It must be understood, then, that when a man had been maliciously and willfully killed, a death inflicted by his relative in vengeance was not punished; because it was hard that a man should be capitally condemned as a criminal, who had only slain a murderer already exposed to capital punishment, under the impulse of that love towards his own blood, which is naturally implanted in all. This, however, was tolerated, and not approved of, because, as I have already said, punishments are to be inflicted by public judgment, and not by private will. But, since this indulgence was conceded on account of the people’s hardness of heart, God here reminds them how needful it was to provide an asylum for the innocent, because all murderers would else have been indiscriminately attacked.

It is rather interesting to note that private vengeance was outlawed in the Holy Roman Empire not long before Calvin. “At the Holy Roman Empire’s Reichstag at Worms in 1495 AD, the right of waging feuds was abolished. The Imperial Reform proclaimed an “eternal public peace” (Ewiger Landfriede) to put an end to the abounding feuds and the anarchy of the robber barons, and it defined a new standing imperial army to enforce that peace. However, it took a few more decades until the new regulation was universally accepted.” Calvin clearly accepted it.

Romans 13

Consider John Frame

“State” is not a biblical category in the sense that “family,” “people of God,” “Israel,” and “church,” are biblical categories… [I]n 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.

So if Scripture does not teach that God has ordained a special office of civil magistrate with the exclusive right to administer justice, what does Romans 13:1-4 mean? Romans 13 does not refer to the divine institution of civil government according to God’s preceptive will. Rather, it refers to God’s providential use of mighty men as his rod, according to his decretive will. Why then must we submit? Because we are under the time of the Gentiles, an extension of Israel’s loss of the theocracy. We are to patiently wait for our king to return, turning the other cheek to our persecutors. For a more detailed exposition of Romans 13, please see:


In conclusion, God has given all image bearers the authority to wield the sword to administer justice/vengeance. This must be done according to lex talionis (see my comments here and note the differences mentioned above between Israel and other nations). Communities are at liberty to decide the most prudent way to fulfill this collective task, such as through the use of civil magistrates or kings, but the civil magistrate or king is not thereby invested with special authority to wield the sword differently than they could apart from election by the community. God-ordained justice is indeed “over the people.” Recall Leggett’s statement “The law of retaliation does not place the point of gravity in the offended and his claim to have a breach healed. The point of gravity lies outside or, rather, above both parties, in a power maintaining justice for its own sake.” They are not at liberty to ignore it, subvert it, or pervert it. However, particular individuals are not God-ordained to a monopoly on punishing wrong-doers with the sword. Thus I do not believe WCF/2LBCF 23/24.1 has biblical support, as it is based on a misunderstanding of Romans 13. I would replace it with

God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained image bearers to execute vengeance according to lex talionis, for his own glory and the public good; and to this end hath armed them with the power of the sword, for defence and encouragement of them that do good, and for the punishment of evil doers.

Further Reading

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