I like to talk about trajectories in scripture. This may sound odd to some. A trajectory, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a path, progression, or line of development resembling a physical trajectory.” When I talk about scriptural trajectories, I’m referring in particular to the last part of that definition–a line of development. (Compare also the use of this term in the Wikipedia article on Biblical Theology.)
Many Biblical passages need to be read not simply to find out what the say, and who they are saying it to, but also to discover where God is going with a particular set of commands. In Christian theology we might identify a trajectory in a tabernacle and a sacrificial system that leads eventually to direct, personal access to God’s throne as described in the book of Hebrews. The command to offer a lamb might seem to merely indicate that God likes animal sacrifices. If we view it in the light of the trajectory, we may find that God does not like sin, and likes us to be reminded of it each time. In addition, it can remind us of the cost of sin on a regular basis, and also tell us that even if we are very far from God, he is nonetheless willing to make a way for us to approach him.
Another trajectory in scripture is the view of vengeance. We often see “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Leviticus 24:19-20) as an illustration of barbaric punishment, set aside by Jesus in favor of forgiveness. But I like to picture these points on a graph and then ask where they’re going. Before the “eye for an eye” rule, vengeance was according to the desires of the avenger. Some of the results of that can be seen in Genesis 34 with the disproportionate revenge of Dinah’s brothers (Jacob’s sons) to action taken against their sister. If we move forward from that to God’s claim to be the only true avenger (Dt. 32:35 as quoted in Romans 12:19), we are tracking what I call a Biblical trajectory.
I want to illustrate this concept briefly from Numbers 35:10-34, the command to establish cities of refuge. I’m not going to provide the text here, but you may want to go read it before you read what I say about it.
You can extrapolate the existing situation from the statements in the chapter itself. If one Israelite killed another, a relative of the slain might could seek vengeance, irrespective of whether the person did so intentionally or not. So God introduced the cities of refuge. Now note here that we are not looking at some of the better laws, even of the Torah itself that tell the people not to harm a neighbor. The law provides a place of refuge so that an innocent person can flee there and be safe from the avenger. A trial can be held, and if the person is found to have killed intentionally, then he is no longer safe. In addition, he must spend the remainder of the life of the High Priest in the city of refuge.
Now this law leaves a number of weaknesses:
- If the avenger can get the killer before he makes it to the city, he can kill him.
- The killer must stay in the city for what might be a very long period of time.
- The execution of justice is still left to one seeking vengeance as a general rule.
The cities of refuge in Numbers 35 thus don’t present an ideal. What they do is show God providing a limiting rule on an existing custom of vengeance to make it more humane. Romans 12:19 presents an even more humane solution as does Leviticus 19:18. But God knew that an ingrained command could not be dealt with simply by saying it was to go away. Thus he also established limits on the practice of vengeance, leading the way toward a better world of forgiveness, and of justice executed by more impartial persons.