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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
An injured party's desire for retribution or repayment from those who harmed him or to demonstrate his innocence against false accusations. Vengeance demonstrates God's righteousness in compensating the wrong with right. He takes vengeance against the murderers of the helpless (Psalm 94:1-6 ) and enemies of his people (Joel 3:19-21 ). The idea of vengeance is incorporated into Israel's moral code, making them as his people accountable for their infractions. Vengeance most frequently translates the Hebrew naqam and is used of God (Isaiah 1:24 ) and human beings (Exodus 20:20-21 ) in meting out legally deserved punishments. Personal vengeance from a designated family member was required to avenge an unlawful death (Numbers 35:19-21 ). In cases of uncertainty over unintentional death, the perpetrator could find protection from the victim's surviving relatives in the cities of refuge (Numbers 35:22-29 ). As Israel developed from a loose confederation into a kingdom, carrying out vengeance became a state function (Deuteronomy 24:16 ). The lex talonis, requiring "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth" (Exodus 21:23-25 ), is widely understood as prohibiting disproportionate punishment. Still basic to this principle is that wrongs had to be avenged. Without the perpetrator's execution the land remained defiled (Deuteronomy 19:11-13 ). Vengeance reflects a sense of justice in restoring the right. It was also a national function, as Israel retaliated against its neighbors. Samson kills three thousand Philistines for blinding him (Judges 14-16 ). God is the avenger of last resort in destroying the Egyptians as Israel's enemies (Exodus 15:1-18; Deuteronomy 32:35-36 ). Vengeance is approached differently in the New Testament. Government remains as the executor of divine vengeance against law breakers (1 Peter 2:14 ), but personal vengeance is prohibited. Jesus requires that an ethic of helping one's enemies replace retaliation (Matthew 5:38-48 ). Similarly Paul forbids returning evil for evil and seeking personal vengeance (Romans 12:17-21 ). This apparent dissimilarity lead Marcion in the second century, Schleiermacher in the eighteenth century, and some scholars since then to conclude that the Old Testament religion was inferior to that of the New Testament. Such a view characterizing the Old Testament as absolute demand for vengeance overlooks Joseph's forgiving his brothers (Genesis 45:1-4 ) and David's sparing the lives of Saul (1 Samuel 26 ) and later Saul's family (2 Samuel 9:9-13 ). God does not completely destroy Israel but forgives them, preserving a remnant in spite of their transgressions (Micah 7:18-20 ). Divine vengeance in the Old Testament is not to be understood as God's desire for self-gratification in exacting punishment, but as an expression of displeasure over all unrighteousness to restore the original balance (Joel 3:19-21 ). Vengeance anticipated redemption. The relative seeking revenge was called the ga'al haddam [ Numbers 35:19 ), the avenger or redeemer of blood. This provides a necessary background for understanding Christ's death as satisfying God's vengeance to provide redemption. Divine retributive righteousness seeking revenge against the sinner becomes in Christ redemptive. Forgiveness rather than vengeance is the basis for Christian morality. Vengeance incapable of being placated is reserved for Christ's and the church's enemies who unbelievingly reject its resolution in Christ's death.
David P. Scaer
Bibliography . H. McKeating, Exp T, 74:239-45; G. E. Mendenhall, The Tenth Generation .
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
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Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Vengeance'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/bed/v/vengeance.html. 1996.