On Avenging Oneself
~ Leviticus 19:17-18 ~
The purpose of this passage is, in part, to set a limit to the measures an individual may take to personally redress a grievance he has against his neighbor. If his neighbor has sinned against him, he may confront him and “reason frankly” with him. The Hebrew word (yākah) means to rebuke, reprove, or correct. What the law has in view here is precisely the situation Jesus had in mind when he said, “If your brother sins [against you], rebuke him, if he repents, forgive him” (Lk. 17:3). Such verbal correction, it should be noted, is not merely permitted, but encouraged. Rebuke for wrongdoing is beneficial. “Whoever heeds reproof,” Solomon says, “is prudent” (Prov. 15:5). He is “on the path to life” (Prov. 10:17) and “will dwell among the wise” (Prov. 15:31). On the other hand, “A scoffer does not listen to rebuke” (Prov. 13:1). “He who hates reproof is stupid” (Prov. 12:1). “Poverty and disgrace will come to him” (Prov. 13:18). It is as if he “despises himself” (Prov. 15:32). Hating reproof may, in fact, lead to an untimely death (Prov. 15:10). This is why David said,
Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness;
let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head;
let my head not refuse it (Ps. 141:5).
Reproof is never a pleasure either to give or to receive, but it is nevertheless an act of kindness. David no doubt smarted under Nathan’s pointed, “Thou art the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7). But the rebuke had its intended effect. It brought David to repentance (2 Sam. 12:13; Psalm 51). In the end he would agree with the Proverb, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (27:6).
This highlights the fact that the goal of reproof is repentance, which involves not only internal remorse for the wrong done, but also restitution to the victim (Ex. 21:33-36; 22:1-15; Lev. 6:1-5; Num. 5:6-8). When restitution is made, the victim is restored to a state of wholeness. By the very nature of the case, however, some offenses cannot be amended by restitution. No restitution is possible for murder, for instance. David could not restore Uriah to Bathsheba. In every case, however, in which restitution is possible, it is a necessary aspect of genuine repentance.
Jesus applies Leviticus 19:17, not only in Luke 17:3, but also in Matthew 18:15. Compare the passages below.
“You shall reason frankly with him [your brother]”
“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him”
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother”
The Matthew passage goes on to give us a more expansive account of Jesus’ teaching on the subject. If the offender does not listen, the offended party is to take one or two others with him and confront him a second time. If the offender still does not listen, they are to take the matter to the elders of the church (assuming the offender is a member of the church). The elders should then hear the case and render judgment, imposing whatever church discipline may be appropriate (Matt. 18:16-20; 1 Cor. 5:1-3; 6:1-8). Anything beyond verbal correction and seeking the discipline of the church is forbidden, unless it is a legally actionable offense, in which case he may take the offender to court in order to recover damages as specified under God’s law.
This legislation is given by God in order to impose a limit on what an individual may do to redress a wrong done to him. The offended party may rebuke his neighbor, but he may not personally exact vengeance on him (v. 18). He may not strike him. He may not seize his property, or do anything else to harm him or what belongs to him.
It should be pointed out, however, that this law does not forbid the use of force in self-defense. It forbids after the fact vengeance. While a violent criminal act is in progress, a victim may use force to defend himself. What he may not do is hunt the perpetrator down afterward and take his own vengeance. This is the meaning of the distinction which is made in Exodus 22:2-3 between a thief who “is found breaking in” and one on whom “the sun has arisen.”
If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has arisen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him.
While the crime is in progress, the homeowner is justified in using force; not so after the fact. Afterward, “when the sun has risen on him,” there is a strict limit to what he may do. (See The Ethics of Killing in Self-Defense.) He may rebuke him with the hope that the thief will be moved to repentance and make amends for his theft; but he may not do anything more on his own. Thus this law forbids personal vengeance, vigilante action, feuds, duels, etc. It forbids these things not because the Lord is uninterested in amends being made to the victim, but because he is interested in justice, and justice can only be served when there is a due process of law. This includes the gathering of evidence, the examination of witnesses, the application of relevant case law, the rendering of an official verdict, and the administration of appropriate punishment. A just end must be reached by just means by those whom God has authorized for the task.
It should be stressed that it is not the desire for vengeance which is forbidden in this passage, but the seeking of vengeance in an unlawful way by taking the law into one’s own hands. The desire for vengeance is a desire to see justice done, and refers specifically to the desire of the victim, who has a very personal interest at stake. It is a desire to see the wrongdoer suffer the due penalty of his wrongdoing, especially if he should he continue unrepentant. This is a legitimate desire. This should be clear from the fact that Scripture represents the Lord as being a “God of vengeance” (Psalm 94:1). “Vengeance is mine, and recompense,” says the Lord (Deut. 32:35; cited in Heb. 12:19; Heb. 10:30). He will take vengeance on his adversaries (Deut. 32:41; Nah. 1:2) and avenge himself on his foes (Isa. 1:24).
Moreover, the Lord not only avenges himself on his enemies, but also on the enemies of his people, who are very dear to him, whom he deems to be the apple of his eye (Deut. 32:10; Zech. 2:8). In Deuteronomy it is stated that the Lord “avenges the blood of his children” (Deut. 32:43). He is a “jealous and avenging God” (Na. 1:2). This is why the martyrs have confidence to pray, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10)
What is forbidden in the passage is “extralegal retribution,” an attempt to bypass the judicial process and take the law into one’s own hands. Ultimately, vengeance belongs to the Lord, but he has authorized rulers and judges to act on his behalf.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God... [T]he one who is in authority…is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Rom. 13:1, 3, 4).
This is why Paul says in another place, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19). This is sometimes taken to mean that the victim of wrongdoing should do nothing at all toward seeking a remedy for the injustice committed against him. This is not Paul’s meaning, however. Certainly he encourages his readers to patiently endure mistreatment and to respond in kindness (Rom. 12:20), but he does not forbid recourse to the proper authorities to make things right. What he prohibits is avenging ourselves, or taking the law into our own hands. We are either to leave the matter to God alone or else seek the aid of his appointed ministers of justice. To take the law into our own hands is itself a lawless act.
In addition to setting a limit on what an individual may do to seek a remedy for a wrong done, the passage also encourages a patient and forgiving spirit when wronged. It opens with a prohibitive commandment, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart,” and closes with the corresponding positive injunction, “But you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These two commandments stand like book ends to the instruction in between them. The passage should be understood as follows.
You shall not hate your brother in your heart [when he sins against you], but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him [by seeking to harm him in return]. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people [for the offenses they commit against you], but you shall love your neighbor as yourself [by eschewing personal vengeance and showing patience and kindness in return]; I am the Lord.
This is no different in spirit than what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount.
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well (Matt. 5:39-40).
Please note that the offenses Jesus mentioned are relatively minor—a slap on the cheek, taking an article of clothing. They are unjust acts, certainly, but offenses which are capable of being rather easily absorbed. Paul said something very similar in his first letter to the Corinthians.
To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!” (1 Cor. 6:7-8)
It is the case, then, that Moses, Jesus, and Paul encourage forbearance when wronged. It sometimes happens that refusing to retaliate for a wrong suffered, but instead showing kindness in return, results in the softening and repentance of the offender. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals [of shame] on his head [leading to repentance]” (Rom. 12:20). This voluntary repentance, whether elicited by “reasoning frankly” with the offender or by returning evil with good, is preferable to a lawsuit. A lawsuit, however, is not forbidden. The Lord has established the courts for the very purpose of maintaining the rights of the innocent against those who seek to harm them.