“Innocent until proven guilty” — a common phrase that describes our best ideals concerning justice. In many ways, seeds of that concept are embedded in legal provisions found in Numbers 35, thousands of years before the above phrase became popular. The cities of refuge and the laws preventing execution without at least two witnesses prove that God wants to protect Israel from complete vigilante justice. Though an “avenger” could legally take the life of someone responsible for a loved one’s death, they could not do so inside of a city of refuge, and trials protected people from unjust death sentences. Ultimately, God establishes all these laws and proceedings for His chosen people so that through His people, God might protect justice for the guilty and the innocent.
Psalm 94 fittingly begins with a reflection on God’s responsibility for retributive justice: “The Lord is a God who avenges.” We do not live in a land like the one Numbers 34 describes—a land under the Mosaic laws we have been studying—and so our relationship to vengeance has changed. Today, Jesus (Matthew 5:38-29), Paul (Romans 12:19-21), and Peter (1 Peter 3:9) tell us to leave vengeance in the hands of God. “Avengers” are now only supposed to be fictional super heroes, not your next-door neighbors.