And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. (Genesis 9:5-6)
Is God here requiring that acts of vigilante justice be carried out in the post-flood world to keep violent men in check? In other words, is God saying, “If you witness a murder you must murder the murderer?” The short answer is no. But let’s explore why the answer is no.
We must ask ourselves a question to begin. And that questions is this, “Who exactly is God speaking to in this passage? Genesis 9:1 gives us the answer. “And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” God is speaking to Noah and his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth. These three men will become the fathers of all the nations of the earth. Importantly, Noah as the head of his family is a kingly figure. He, as the head of the only household, would be essentially king in a patriarchal world. His sons, themselves now princes, are the boughs from which all of the new branches of the human family tree will blossom in time. They themselves will become heads of families, and would as human populations grew and spread be thought of as patriarchal leaders. They alone, with their father, received the mandates from God in Genesis 9 that re-constitute the created order. When these four men stand before God, offering Him their thankful worship after having survived the cataclysm of the flood, they stand before Him as heads of households. They should be seen as the king of the earth and his princes. And if kings and princes, then they are the first civil magistrates. God is charging them with their duty to both communicate God’s mandates to their offspring, and to see that those mandates are carried out. Far from being a call to vigilante violence, it is in reality a call to construct societies for the orderly defense of the weakest.
In the pre-flood world, societies had been built by the strong for the strong. They had been built by violent men like Cain and Lamech. They were founded on the violence of those men, and they consolidated control over others by violence as well. Until the day that God’s grief grew full because His good creation was filled with the constant evil that was conceived in the hearts of men. Noah and his sons are not to build their societies on the same foundation. They are to consider the defense of the weak from the strong. They are to put “women and children first.” If you are from the Western Hemisphere, this is a very familiar way of thinking. But in many parts of the world, woman and children are thought of as expendable members of society. And in those parts of the world violence is a way of life. Two of the three branches (Ham and Japheth) fail to follow God’s command to organize societies around their weakest members. But Shem, who would be the father of Abraham, who is the father of the Jewish Civilization is the one son that succeeded. Israeli society was constructed by God through his prophets as a just society. And we who are Christians in the West are the heirs of societies that are termed “Judeo-Christian. Meaning that our societies, among other things, are built around the defense of the weak. We place women and children ahead of men, as men are taught to protect them at all costs, and die in their defense if necessary. This was a code of honor stamped deep in the western man’s identity for millennia. Older Western notions of chivalry, deferring honor to women, only marrying one and showing honor to her above all others, as well as being fathers that tend to their children, all these are related back to this same basic idea. Defense of the weak.
Civil government is not then the result of historical accidents and human ingenuity, it is revealed by God to humanity. And when God reveals a just civil government to man, it is a civil government that carries out the death penalty on murderers as a protective mercy to the weakest members of society. Even other criminals who are imprisoned for lesser crimes that are not worthy of death are put in danger if we allow the murder to live among them. As a man who has no hope of life outside of prison is much more apt to murder in prison since you can do no worse to him. This should help non-Christians to see (if they are willing) why the Christian position is positive towards the death penalty and negative towards abortion. One is “moral suicide”, as the person that took the life of another is surrendering his life as an equal punishment for an equal crime. It is justice. When a man plunges a knife into the heart of his fellow man he is plunging it into his own. But abortion is infanticide, as it murders the weakest, most helpless, and most innocent person in a society, a human baby. And the crime is committed by the most unnatural person, the baby’s mother.
Now the question arises, “Does the New Testament continue to affirm the power of the civil magistrate?” That’s where we will pick up in Part 6 of this series.