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Vengeance in the Old Testament
(Lecture at Stanford University/ USA (29.10.1988))

Autor:Schwager Raymund
Publiziert in:# Originalbeitrag für den Leseraum


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The works of the interdisciplinary group of scholars under the direction of Raymond Verdier (Paris) have convincingly shown that a system of vengeance existed in pre-national societies which everywhere exhibited similar characeristics. The sacred order required that an offense be compensated for and that an injury or damage be balanced by a counter-injury or counter-damage, so that both the offended and offending parties could once again live side by side on equal footing. Vengeance was essentially an "exchange" between peer groups, an "exchange", which showed similarities to other forms of exchange whose purpose was to regulate conflicts and guarantee coexistence of classes of equal rank.

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One of the studies of Verdier's research team deals with vengeance in the Old Testament (1)

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. On the basis of numerous examples, the researcher shows that ancient Israel was well acquainted with the aforementioned conceptions of vengeance. This study, however, only indicates what Israel had in common with other societies. It leaves unaddressed her own specific view of vengeance. Nor is the transition to the New Testament ever explained. Verdier himself, to be sure, briefly notes that Jesus teaching stands in marked and open opposition to the norms of the vengeance system. Since these studies never show Jesus' view as part of a development, it remains an unassimilated detail.

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In the following paper I would like to sketch in short strokes how Jesus' teaching was prepared for by an intensive development within the religious experience of Israel. I would like to discuss here two major moments which cannot really be separated but which for the sake of an overview can be distinguished; namely,

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  1. the centralization of vengeance in Yahweh as the only legitimate "avenger" and
  2. tendencies toward the undoing of the universal vengeance system.
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In between the discussion of both steps we should focus our attention briefly on a few linguistic pecularities which shed light on Israel's ideas of vengeance.

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a) Yahweh as the Only True Avenger

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In the Book of Deuteronomy Yahweh speaks through the mouth of Moses:

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"See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside
me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there
is none that can deliver out of my hand. For I lift up my
hand to heaven, and swear, as I live for ever, if I whet
my glittering sword, and my hand takes hold on judgment
I will take vengeance on my adversaries, and will requite those who hate me." (Dt. 32: 39-41)

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In this "Song of Moses" Yahweh introduces Himself as a god who alone takes the entire order of justice on earth in His hands and executes a retribution which no one can escape. To be sure, Deuteronomy is acquainted with numerous norms which obligated (obliged) people to repay misdeeds harshly, even, in some cases, with death (cf.Dt. 12: 1 - 26: 19). But these norms are always expressly commandments of God. Those who act in accordance do so at Yahweh's behest. It is, moreover, reported in the narrative parts of the books of Israel how Yahweh orders his people or particular individuals to take vengeance on enemies and how He supports these acts of vengeance (Number 31: 2f; Dt. 20:16-18; Joshua 10:8-13; Judges 7, 11:29-36; 1 Sam: 15:1-33), At first glance such conceptions do not seem to be peculiar to Israel. The system of vengeance, as the studies in "Vengeance" clearly show, was always understood in early societies as a sacred order guaranteed by the gods. The differences are nonetheless unmistakable for the following reasons.

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1) Israel did not perceive the norms as sacred norms as such, going back to a primeval mythic time, but as linked to the conviction that God chose His people within history, entered a convenant with her, and gave her commandments. Even if the concrete content arose out of Israel's long experience, which was no doubt similar to that of many other nations, nonetheless, the belief in Yahweh led to a different interpretation of these commandments. Israel saw in them the expression of the will of a personal god who brings forth something new in history.

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2) The convinction that finally all members of the people are of equal value and are therefore entitled to their due, was connected to the convenant idea. Belief in Yahweh led to sharp criticism, especially by the prophets of the prevailing order of justice in Israel, where mistreatment in particular of the poor, widows, and orphans was often never redressed as the laws prescribed. As a result Israel's understanding of Yahweh as lone legitimate avenger did not lead to a global legitimization of the existing order of retribution, but on the contrary, was often directed precisely against the same. One saw in the divine "avenger" an advocate of the poor, the widow, and the orphan who did not find justice in this life.

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3) In accord with the ancient oriental ideology of the king, as it prevailed, say, in Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon, the royal ruler had to care for the well-being of the entire people and to intercede on behalf of the poor and oppressed. But since the king as the adopted son of the divinity was seen in these societies at the same time as the guarantor of the world order, any criticism of unjust actions had to respect the bounds of the prevailing order. Israel's faith however had a quite different character. The prophets applied their notion of Yahweh as lone legitimate avenger in a particular way against the earthly representatives of the sacred and judicial order, i.e., against the king, the princes, and the priests (cf.Mica 3: 5-12; Jeremiah 4: 9, 21: 11-14, 22:13-19, 23:9-24). The faith had the very opposite effect in Israel than that of making the existing order unassailable. It desacralized that order and stigmatized it as a brutal order of violence:

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".....Thus says the Lord God: A city that sheds blood in
the midst of her, that her time may come, and that makes idols to defile herself!
.....Behold, the princes of Israel in you, every one
according to his power, have been bent on shedding blood.
Father and mother are treated with contempt in you, the
sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless
and the widow are wronged in you... In you men take bribes
to shed blood; you take interest and increase and make gain
of your neighbors by extortion....Behold, therefore, I strike my hands together at the dishonest gain which you have made, and at the blood which has been in the midst of you."(Ezekiel 22:3-13)

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Numerous other divine utterances corroborate this word of God from the mouth of the prophet Ezekiel. Hosea, for example, says the following:

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"Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel; for the
Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or kindness and no knowledge of
God in the land; there is swearing, lying, killing,
stealing, and committing adultery; they break all bounds and murder follows murder. Therefore the land mourns..." (Hos. 4: 1f)

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The order of retribution which was actually practiced is depicted as mendacious. It is denounced as a brutal rule of violence. René Girard's so crucial point that violence breeds violence originates - historically for the first time - in Israel's belief in Yahweh. It arises not from an ethos of non-violence but from the conviction that Yahweh alone is the true avenger.

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4) Universality is yet a further specific element in the prophetic notion of vengeance. Yahweh is not merely a judge of that people which believes in him. His retribution also reaches to the neighboring peoples and ultimately to all nations. Verdier's research group usually draws a clear distinction between the system of vengeance which obtains between related tribes and war which is fought against foreign tribes. This distinction no longer obtains, however, since Yahweh, according to Israel's faith, is lord and avenger of all nations. Whether it be a conflict between individual men or whole nations, it is always Yahweh who in the final instance exacts retribution:

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"Babylon must fall for the slain of Israel, as for Babylon
have fallen the slain of all the earth... Though Babylon
should mount up to heaven, and though she should fortify
her strong height, yet destroyers would come from me
upon her, says the Lord." (Jeremiah 51: 49-53)

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Thanks to Israel's monotheism the notion of divine vengeance became a universal category to such an extent that both the history of Israel (2) and that of the nations are interpreted accordingly. The notion of divine vengeance enables the prophets to postulate a connection between unjust deeds and great historical events. The prophets succeed in this way in integrating all the bitter experiences of history, the great catastrophes and brutal defeats, into this view of Yahweh's activity. If Yahweh appears not infrequently as an easily aroused despot who rules the world with brutal harshness, this need not indicate primitive or vengeful feelings on Israel's part as has sometimes been maintained. The expressions which sound so shocking to us reveal that Israel has not shied away from expressing even the darkest aspects of her historical experiences or covered them over with seemingly pious thoughts.

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5) Since the practical order of justice in the light of Israels's faith in Yahweh was always full of injustice, the faithful could expect justice only from God. As a result, the prophets, as well as ordinary faithful or indeed the entire people, appealed again and again in their prayers to Yahweh for vengeance. Once again it is not a case here of primitive feelings being brought to expression as it might at first seem. Rather these prayers express the bitterness due to injustice suffered which found no redress in the human order.

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Thus Jeremiah laments:

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"I have not lent, nor have I borrowed, yet all of them
curse me...O Lord, thou knowest; remember me and visit me,
and take vengeance for me on my persecutors.(Jer. 15:10-15)

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The Israelites spoke similarly in prayer especially when they thought Yahweh was too slow in exercising his office of avenger, allowing the evil-doers meanwhile to triumph. Thus we read in Psalm 94:

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O Lord, thou God of vengeance, thou God of vengeance,
shine forth! Rise up, O judge of the earth; render to
the proud their deserts! O Lord, how long shall the
wicked exult? They pour out their arrogant words, they
boast, all the evildoers. They crush thy people, O Lord,
and afflict thy heritage. They slay the widow and the
sojourner, and murder the fatherless."
(Psalm. 94:1-6)

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It was the experience that not only the human order of justice had failed but also that Yahweh in his retribution could so often not be understood which aroused voices in Israel which critically questioned the entire idea of a divine order of vengeance and justice. But before we come to these voices, we should take brief notice of a peculiarity of language.

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b) The Language of Vengeance

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Exegetes have long been aware that the Hebrew words for vengeance, punishment, and retribution have rather peculiar meanings compared to our modern concepts. Long discussions ensued but the results have been inconclusive. K.Koch maintains that "The Old Testament has no single word for 'punishment'"(3)

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. He has also determined that "the words for 'misdeed, sin, wickedness' always encompass the meanings 'harm, decline, ruin' (re, rse, ht, pse, hms, awon, hawwa) just as the verbs and nouns for 'righteous action' also include the meaning of 'fortunate condition'" (4). Koch can only explain these lexical findings by concluding "that according to the Israelite conception sickness and need follow from the evil deed, while health and prosperity issue from the good deed"(5). He therefore rejects the idea that Israel had a doctrine of retribution in the sense of an external judical proceeding imposing a sanction for an evil deed. He is rather of the opinion that Israel had a notion of the "fateful sphere of the deed" (6) according to which a good deed in and of itself produces good fortune, while an evil deed in an of itself leads to calamity. Expression of Yahweh's vengeance would simply mean that God "completes" and puts into effect the inner relationship between deed and consequence. In opposition to Koch J. Scharbert argues: "The question of the Old Testament notion of retribution which K.Koch sought to negate must clearly be affirmed." (7) Such controversies may well be due to the fact that until now Old Testament scholars did not have such precise notions of the original system of vengeance as the Verdier researchers have worked out. On the basis of these ideas one can explain another lexical finding which is just as significant as the one Koch employs to support his case. The Hebrew verbs which we render in modern languages as 'avenge' or 'repay', can in another context have quite positive meanings at least in terms of their roots. For example: slm pi. means consistently 'pay, repay'(8) and the same word stem can, however, also mean 'have enough, have satisfaction, be satisfied'(9). Even the noun 'salom' which designates in Hebrew the most sublime Messianic longings for peace has the same word stem. Even this word with so many positive connotations can in certain contexts mean just the opposite: 'punishment, revenge, chastisement'(10). This double meaning which is perplexing to modern sensitivities can be understood rather well within the sphere of sacred tribal orders. Verdier emphasizes strongly that the demand for balance and exchange was decisive for the vengeance system. Just as one strove for a balance through the exchange of women and goods, so one sought a balance through the exchange of words. Thus a misdeed required a compensation to be rendered by the clan of the malefactor. In this context where every act of vengeance aimed at achieving equilibrium, 'avenging' and 'making peace' amounted practically to the same thing. At the same time 'retribution' was a 'consolation' for those who suffered an injustice or injury and not just in the sense of satisfying some subjective need for revenge but rather in the sense of an objective recognition of the evil suffered and of a social restoration of balance between the conflicting parties.

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c) Criticism of Retribution Thinking

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Even if the idea of Yahweh as the only legitimate and universal avenger in Israel was never generally rejected and supplanted by another concept, there was nonetheless experience which caused Israel to question the retribution belief from various perspectives.

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(1) In the light of the lasting and numerous unjust deeds in Israel which were not redressed by the human order, a strict retribution belief would have blocked any hopeful view toward the future. But since Yahweh was experienced as a lifeaffirming God who opened up a future for His people, the retribution of past deeds could be rendered inoperative by the priority placed on the future. Thus the prophets proclaimed Yahweh as a god who is prepared to forego vengeance and to forgive past evil deeds insofar as the people have turned away from them and set a new course for themselves. It was the new order of the future, not the mechanism of retribution, which was the chief concern of Israel's faith.

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"Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says
the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his
way and live?" (Ezekiel 18:32)

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The ancient system of vengeance with its almost mechanical cancelling out of damages by counter-damages was surpassed by the faith in a God who did not want to burden His people with the past but sought to open up for them a new future. Vengeance and benevolence were not equal aspects of Yahweh's countenance as Israel perceived it. Even when divine vengeance seemed at times to destroy eyerything, the faith in a divine goodness which again and again was able to overcome all misdeeds held the upper hand:

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"In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,
says the Lord, your Redemeer."(Isaiah 54:8; cf. Tobias 13:1-12)

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In fact Israel took as a clear indication that it had really encountered God - and not conceived Him merely anthropomorphically - her conviction that Yahweh could again and again avert His wrath and refrain from vengeance. Thus Yahweh says of himself through the mouth of the prophet:

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"I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again
destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy."(Hosea 11:9; cf. Ezekiel 28:25f)

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2) A new norm for private interpersonal relations was derived in Israel from the priority of goodness. According to this norm vengeance was forbidden and superseded by love of neighbor:

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"You shall not take vegeance or bear any grudge against
the sons of your own people, but you shall love your
neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord."(Leviticus 19:18)

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The prohibition of revenge, which in other societies held only for the innermost family circle, was extended in Israel to the entire people because Israel understood herself as a community of brothers and sisters.

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3) Despite faith in the priority of divine goodness much suffering and want persisted in Israel's day to day life. In the later period especially when the fate of the individual became paramount in religious inquiry, there were men who were no longer willing to account for their bitter lots in terms of divine retribution. Questions were raised against the belief in retribution itself. The Book of Job raises such questions most adamantly. Its large central section presents nothing other than a persistent verbal wrestling of a wretched individual with his so-called friends. René Girard has convincingly shown in "La route antique des hommes pervers" (11)

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that these friends are everything but true friends. In fact they are Job's worst enemies because they attack him not externally but in the innermost substance of his soul, seeking to burden him with every conceivable charge in order to bring him under the yoke of the retribution belief. Job, however, repels all attacks and resists even the most subtle attempts to find any failing or transgression which might cause him to doubt himself and acquiesce. Thus Job remains a lonely and unique figure in Israel's history, indeed, in all human history. To be sure many of the prophets before Job experienced almost total rejection from the people, but they could always appeal in their message to central aspects of the received faith in Yahweh. Job, on the other hand, could neither hold fast to a benevolent god since he stood afterall in dire need. Nor could he believe in the god of retribution precisely because he perceived this retribution in his case as totally undeserved. Likewise he could not appeal to a human tradition which rejected faith in God, for his would-be friends hold the tradition up to him with the greatest finesse. So Job remains as someone who has the impression of being tortured by all men and by God himself. Since Job did not want to conceive of God as a sadistic avenger, he had no other alternative than to appeal to God Himself (against the prevailing view of God) without receiving any direct answer.

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Job marks a revolution in the view of God which was at first softened by the frame or outer story within which the dramatic dialogue occurs. Nevertheless the full weight of the dialogue came to be felt. Job was not simply revolutionary in respect to Israel's belief in retribution. He also called into question that age old tradition of mankind which is impressively described in "La vengeance", for Job was not prepared to conceive his own individual suffering in terms of a collective system of retribution which functioned independently of his own experience.

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(4) A response to the penetrating question of retribution was already outlined some two or three centuries before Job in the prophetic songs of God's suffering servant. This answer was so new for Israel that it was left lying there, as it were, ununderstood, for a very long time. The author of the dramatic dialogue of the Book of Job did not deal with it, nor does he even seem to be aware of its existence. The suffering servant is portrayed in the Book of Isaiah as one who each day opens his ear anew to God and thereby learns a manner of acting which corresponds neither to the long tradition of mankind nor to instinctive human reflexes which seek to repel attacks:

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"Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as
those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and
I was not rebellious, I turned not backward. I gave my back
to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard..." (Isaiah 50:4-6)

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The servant says expressly of himself that he has learned his new way of acting under the daily inspiration of God. He thereby professes that he has recognized God as a reality which no longer motivates him toward vengeance but to its opposite.

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This surprisingly new way of behaving appears, to be sure, as a purely individual affair, such that it is hard to see how it could have a larger meaning for the history of mankind. Nevertheless the servant is presented as someone who has a mission in respect to all peoples of the earth (Is. 49:6) and who causes kings and nations to marvel (Is. 52:15). But how can this improbable mission succeed? We find an answer in that song in which not the servant speaks of himself, but a third party, looking back on the servant's fate after his violent demise, says of him:

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"...yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and
afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities..." (Is. 53:4f)

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The group of "observers" interpreted the fate of the strange disciple of God at first according to the received categories of retribution and concluded accordingly that the slain servant was struck down by God whose vengeance he experienced. However, this interpretation could not be maintained. Through a process of conversion they arrive to a quite different view in which the servant was seen to have been slain for their own transgression.

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d) Significance of the New Experience

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We find in the songs of the slain suffering servant two strikingly new elements: a new experience of God which led to a new way of acting and broke with the age-old wisdom of retribution and a process of conversion. Through conversion, bitter experiences, which hitherto were always viewed in terms of God's vengeance, now appear in a new light as the fruit of human violence. Both breakthroughs were so new for Israel's faith that they could not be fully assimilated in their far-reaching implications and remained as peculiar anomolies. Only centuries later could they be fully received in Jesus' gospel and in the interpretation of his fate. Even then, they were still foreign to the typical understanding, so much so in fact, that their full meaning became obscured in the course of the history of Christianity. The old retribution belief was again invoked to account for the death of Christ. It is the achievement of Verdier's research team to have made clear how much vengeance and retribution thinking belonged to the age-old wisdom of human societies. Confronting this ancient wisdom with biblical experience we come to a similar result as Girard who approached the problem from a somewhat different perspective.

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Bible citations from the RSV (Revised Standard Version)

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 1. A.Lemaire. Vengeance et justice dans l'Ancien Testament.In: La vengeance. Études d'ethnologie, d'histoire et de philosophie. Vol.3: Vengeance, pouvoirs et idéologie dans quelques civilisations de l'Antiquité. Textes réunis et présentés par R. Verdier - J.P.Poly. Paris 1984, 13-33.

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2. "In den so entstandenen Geschichtswerken (wir nennen sie 'deuteronomistisch') ist die Vergeltungslehre der Grundgedanke: sooft Israel gegen seinen Gott sündigt, fällt es in allerlei Feindesbedrängnis; wenn es sich dann aber wieder bekehrt, befreit es sein Gott von seinen Bedrückern. In diesem eintönigen Schema verläuft die Erzählung des Richterbuches." H. Gunkel. Vergeltung im Alten Testament. In: Um das Prinzip der Vergeltung in Religion und Recht des Alten Israels (Wege der Forschung 125). Edited by K. Koch. Darmstadt 1972, 1-7, here 4.

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3. K.Koch, Gibt es ein Vergeltungsdogma im Alten Testament. In: Prinzip der Vergeltung (siehe Anm. 2), 130-180, here 164.

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4. K. Koch, Die israelitische Auffassung vom vergossenen Blut. In: Prinzip der Vergeltung (cf. note 2), 432-456, here 433.

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5. Ibid.

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6. Ibid. 434.

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7. J. Scharbert, SLM im Alten Testament. In: Prinzip der Vergeltung (cf. note 2) 300-324, here 322.

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8. Art. slm (G.Gerleman). In: THAT II, 934.

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9. Ibid. 925.

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10. Ibid. 930.

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11. R. Girard, La route antique des hommes pervers. Paris 1985.

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