Blood feuds have been around for as long as there have been sinful human beings on this planet. According to the Wikipedia article on feuds, a blood feud is "a feud with a cycle of retaliatory violence, with the relatives of someone who has been killed or otherwise wronged or dishonored seeking vengeance by killing or otherwise physically punishing the culprits or their relatives."
These types of vendettas aren’t new, but neither are they a thing of the past. Today in Albania, for example, more than 5,000 families are involved in blood feuds. In the last 20 years, more than 10,000 Albanians have died and another 20,000 are under a "death sentence" because of these feuds. These feuds develop into a vicious cycle of murder, retaliations, and all-out warfare. This can span generations — often, the original cause is long-forgotten while the feud continues, simply because new generations grow up being taught to further the animosity. Unfortunately, these vendettas typically end in the mutual extinction of both families.
This type of circular, escalating violence was common in Old Testament times. (Remember Genesis 34?) But this is not God’s way. God’s way was expressed by Jesus in Matthew 5: "I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (vs 44) But here’s God’s dilemma: how do you take barbaric people who are prone to violent blood feuds and teach them to love their enemies instead?
The answer is, slowly, one baby step at a time. And it starts with what we find in Deuteronomy 19. Imagine the God of Loving Your Enemies saying this: "Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." (vs 21) Show no pity?! That doesn’t sound like a loving God. Not to mention following that up with instructions to either take life or maim people. And in fact, many Christians point to this verse as evidence that the God of the Old Testament is somehow different from the God of the New Testament.
On the contrary, I believe that God’s instruction to take only one life for only one life was an absolute mercy when you consider the alternative — which was a generations-long blood feud. When confronted with a society whose members would "repay" an accidentally-cut-off hand with murder, what shall you do? When dealing with people who would gladly run out and murder hundreds to avenge the death of one relative, where shall you begin? God decided to begin by limiting violence. He decided to begin by cutting the cycle of escalating vengeance off at the knees.
The cities of refuge were part of this plan. A person who had killed another could flee to one of these cities — even while the "blood avenger" was pursuing them. Once they made it to the city, they would have the opportunity for a fair hearing on the matter. If it was determined that the killing was an accident, they would be allowed to remain safely in the city. However, if it was determined that they had purposely killed the other person, they would be turned over to the "blood avenger" to be put to death.
As I read the chapter, it dawned on me that an added benefit of having an accused killer flee to a city of refuge was that this necessarily put some distance between them and their family. I think this would have greatly lessened the temptation to kill other family members — especially since the "blood avenger" would be pursuing the accused to the city of refuge. Yes, God was doing everything He could to move the Israelites forward in their understanding of matters of fairness, justice, and mercy — in this case, by saying "Show no pity"!
Nowadays, even the "eye for an eye" seems barbaric to us. But I bet it wouldn’t if we lived in a time and place where blood feuds were common. We’d be grateful for at least some restriction on the "acceptable" level of violence. I think it’s incredible that God takes the situation He is given and — in whatever He does — works to start bringing as much peace and harmony as possible. When He is dealt an ugly hand, He doesn’t whine and complain or demand new cards. No, He takes the cards He’s been given and works them — like a Master.
I’m so glad He’ll take us step by step and not just expect or require us to take huge leaps that are impossible for us. If we’re not ready for "love your enemies," He’s willing to begin with "an eye for an eye." He doesn’t force us to take the hand He wants to deal. He willingly joins in our game and takes the cards we dole out to Him.