Blood vengeance is a primitive form of the law of retribution according to which a kinsman must vindicate the rights of a relative whose blood has been shed. Even in civilized societies the force of this primitive law could still be felt. According to the ancient Greek concept every act of bloodshed, even when committed in self-defense, created a certain defilement that required purification (Plato, Laws 916). Not only the criminal but also his family was defiled until the slain man's life was appeased by exacting vengeance. The initial crime could easily lead to a series of mutual crimes, a blood feud, or vendetta. In primitive societies a whole family or even a whole clan was annihilated for a murder committed by one of its members.
Ancient Israel, too, had the practice of blood vengeance based on the law of talion according to which, to restore the loss suffered by a crime, repayment had to be made strictly in kind: "Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth" (Ex 21.23–25). This law rests on both the principle of the sacredness of blood (Lv 17.14) and that of clan solidarity. In Israel's primitive way of thinking, life resides in the blood; when a man loses his blood, his life is extinguished (see blood, religious significance of). Blood, therefore, as the seat of life, belongs to Yahweh, and its wanton shedding demands the life of him by whom it is shed (Gn 9.5–6). Blood spilled on the ground cries to heaven for vengeance (Gn 4.10; Jb 16.18; Ez 24.6–8; 2 Mc 8.3), and an account is demanded from him who shed it (Gn 4.11; 9.6; 2 Sm 4.11; Ez 23.37, 45) by a near relative or avenger acting in Yahweh's name.
Clan solidarity, the second aspect of blood vengeance, is realized in the person of the avenger, who represents the interest of the family or clan of the one slain. The duty of blood vengeance was based on the theory that the family, clan, or tribe was a sacred unity. When the blood of any one member was shed, it was the community's blood that was shed; thus, it fell upon a representative of the community to atone for the crime by shedding the blood of the murderer.
Israel, however, endeavored to restrict the evils connected with blood vengeance. According to Israelite law only the murderer himself, not his family or clan, was to be punished for the crime (Dt 24.16; 2 Kgs 14.6; 2 Chr 25.4). Whereas earlier Israelite custom made no distinction between premeditated and unintentional killing (Gn9.6), the more benign interpretation of the Deuteronomic law allowed a man who killed another unintentionally to seek refuge in certain designated cities of asylum (Ex 21.13; Nm 35.9–29; Dt 19.1–13; Jos 20.3–9). If, after a fair trial, the slayer was judged guilty, the punishment was still the prerogative of the avenger of blood (Dt 19.12); he was not free to pardon the slayer or accept a monetary compensation in exchange.
Bibliography: w. e. mÜhlmann, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–6) 1:1331–32. w. kornfeld, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 2:546. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 258–259. m. greenberg, in The Interpreters' Bible, ed. g. a. buttrick, 4 v. (Nashville 1962) 1:321; 449–450. j. p. e. pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture, 4 v. in 2 (New York 1926–40; repr. 1959) 378–392, 420–425. r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mc hugh (New York 1961) 10–12.
[e. j. ciuba]