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Homicide in the Ancient Near East

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Homicide, the unlawful killing of a human being, is among the most heinous offenses, if not the most heinous offense, in human society. The ancient Israelites and other peoples in the ancient Near East sought to promote justice after a killing by identifying and punishing the perpetrator.

Not all homicides were unlawful; in fact, some were justified. A person might have been authorized to kill members of an enemy force or a person who had committed a serious crime. The circumstances of a homicide determined whether it was unlawful. The Decalogue (or Ten Commandments) includes a law against unlawful killing: the famous King James translation of the Bible incorrectly uses the term kill rather than murder in its translation.

According to the Bible, the family of the victim had the responsibility for ensuring that the slayer was held accountable for the death: one member of the family, called “the blood redeemer” or “the blood avenger,” had the right and responsibility to kill the slayer on sight with impunity. (Exod 21:12-14, Num 35:9-28, Deut 19:1-13) This institution, the blood feud, should not be understood as the kind of feud portrayed in Hollywood movies. Only the slayer was in danger, not his family or associates, and only one member of the victim’s family served as the blood avenger.

If a slayer could flee to a town designated as a refuge, the blood avenger’s right to kill him was put on hold. Other people then conducted a trial to determine whether the slayer had killed intentionally or accidentally: according to Deut 19:12, the elders of the killer’s hometown conducted the trial, but according to Num 35:12, the killer stood trial before a pan-Israelite assembly. If it was determined that the slayer had killed intentionally, he was handed over to the blood avenger for execution, but if the slayer was judged to have killed accidentally, he could stay in the place of refuge in safety. (The Bible assumes a male killer in these laws; it is unclear whether the same process would apply to a female killer). The monarchy and central government rarely played a role.

By contrast, in Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq), the state was responsible. Anyone could initiate the legal process by informing the authorities. The authorities would then investigate the case and hold a trial. Records from actual trials indicate that sometimes the members of the victim’s family were asked whether they would prefer the execution of the slayer or the payment of compensation from the slayer. At times, the king himself would supervise the case or even serve as judge. 

The vast difference in the treatment of homicide in biblical Israel and Mesopotamia was due to their socioeconomic differences. Ancient Israel was a decentralized, rural society with only a weak bureaucracy. The basic unit of society was a family group consisting of extended families who acted as a mutual aid society in times of need. In contrast, Mesopotamia was highly urban, with a social organization that was centralized, specialized, and bureaucratic. The monarchy and central government had control over the justice system.

There was a significant amount of trade conducted by merchants who traveled throughout the ancient Near East, and when one of them was killed, a crisis could ensue because there was no agreed-upon body of international law. If a national of one country was slain, his king might try to convince the king of the country in which the foreigner was killed to take action, even to the point of sending a costly gift as an incentive (because foreign trade was so important). The king might also try to convince the other king to apply the punishment used in his own country, since countries did not share the same penalties for slayings. A number of territories made treaties with countries that were their trading partners in order to ensure that they would receive compensation for the deaths of merchants and the loss of their goods.  

  • Pamela Barmash

    Pamela Barmash is professor of Hebrew Bible and biblical Hebrew at Washington University in St. Louis and served as director of Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Studies there. She is the author of Homicide in the Biblical World (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and is editor of Exodus in the Jewish Experience: Echoes and Reverberations (Lexington Books, 2015) and the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Biblical Law.