Parashat Matot-Massei: You shall not shed blood in My land

This reading contains the condensed genius of the historical innovation of ancient Israel: a law-based society, the outlaw of murder as an appropriate response to outraged passions.

Stephen Schecter, | updated: 14:14

Stephen Shecter
Stephen Shecter

The Israelites are camped in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho when Moses instructs them in the laws about the cities of sanctuary. The Levites are not to have a tribal land for they shall help the high priests in the work of the Sanctuary. Instead they are to be given forty-eight cities and some open land around them. But the Levites are to designate six of those cities as cities of refuge where killers who commit involuntary manslaughter may flee and remain there free from the vengeance of the victim’s kinsmen.

However, Moses explains, should judicial inquiry reveal that the man who fled there actually committed voluntary manslaughter then he shall be put to death and no ransom accepted for him. "So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are; for blood, it polluteth the land; and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it. And thou shalt not defile the land which ye inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the children of Israel."

In these few sentences we have the condensed genius of the historical innovation of ancient Israel: a law-based society, the outlaw of murder as an appropriate response to outraged passions, the rooting of the law in a power beyond individuals. And all wrapped up in the idea of holiness, as Israel shifts from a tribal society rooted in kinship to a nation founded on the hierarchy of law.

The theme runs throughout the Torah and echoes in the words themselves. It starts with Noah when God blessed him and his sons after the Flood and told them: Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, you shall not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require it; and at the hand of every beast will I require it; and at the hand of man, even at the hand of every man’s brother, will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made He man.

And later in Leviticus, instructing the Israelites in the injunction against eating blood, Moses says: And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eateth blood, I will set My face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life. Therefore I said unto the children of Israel: No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood.

And later again in Deuteronomy, when laying down the law of what is to be done when a corpse is found in a field, Moses explains the injunction to have the elders of the closest city wring a heifer’s neck in the nearest valley this way: And they shall speak and say: ’Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Forgive, O Lord, Thy people Israel, whom Thou hast redeemed, and suffer not innocent blood to remain in the midst of Thy people Israel.’ And the blood shall be forgiven them. So shalt thou put away the innocent blood from the midst of thee, when thou shalt do what is right in the eyes of the Lord.

This is the Torah’s answer to Cain, to Shimon and Levi, to Joseph’s brothers, to all who would argue that blood vengeance is an acceptable way of doing business.

This is what even today distinguishes Israel from its Arab neighbors, who think nothing of using murder to dispose of people outside the tribe and clan network, not to mention outside the religion of Islam.

It is also what makes Israel’s search for peace so intractable, for the conflict with its neighbors is not only one of religion, but one of society; between a society that is based on the rule of law and a society that is based on blood ties; between, as Muslim clerics have put it, a society that values life and one that glorifies death.

It is the text of ancient Israel, the Holy Bible, that forbade not only child sacrifice, but murder of any kind, murder premeditated and not premeditated, allowing only that in the latter case cities of refuge be established to halt the cycle of blood. For otherwise the entire society slides into violence and lawlessness, which makes life untenable for all.

Murder is therefore the great no-no. Left to human passions murder would be rampant. It takes a force outside the individual and stronger than his passions to curb it; religion or law, courts and evntually the police.  Ancient Judaism was such a civilizing force, and in that respect the Jewish religion was an historical innovation of premier importance. In that respect too we can understand the repeated command the Lord issued to the Israelites through his servant Moses to be a holy people unto Him.

For what is holy? To acknowledge that the land is God’s before it is man’s and that life is His before it is ours. That way we may be humble and restrained when our passions would urge us on to violence and murder, however strong our outrage. That way we may work to make our lives sufficiently secure that we and our neighbors can go about our business in safety. It is the first step toward holiness and to becoming a holy people.

It is the sine qua non in signing onto the covenant. It is also the backbone to defending it and the land without which our holiness is not complete. Then ruthlessness is justified, as Moses amply demonstrated to his wayward Jews time and time again, all the way from their exodus out of Egypt to their encampment in the plains of Moab by the banks of the Jordan.


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