How Modern Vendettas Compare With Blood Vengeance In The Age Of King David


Author: David Shepherd

(MENAFN- The Conversation) This article includes reference to the killing of an Aboriginal Australian.

The English language has borrowed an Italian word, vendetta, to refer to a family blood-feud. Thanks in part to Hollywood's long fascination with the mafia , family-based retributive violence continues to be strongly associated in western culture with parts of Italy and the Italian-American diaspora.

Yet a growing body of research , is making it clear that kin-based blood vengeance isn't just found in films. It is surprisingly prevalent in the real world, found commonly in approximately 30% of countries, including almost a third of countries in Asia-Pacific and Europe (notably the Balkan region), and almost half of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and north Africa.

Given that western religions originated in the Middle East and are still prevalent there, and given the dependence of Judaism, Christianity and even Islam on the Hebrew Bible, it is important to understand how the Bible conceptualises blood vengeance.

In this ancient canon of western religion, there is clear evidence of legal mechanisms regulating the avenging of illegitimate bloodshed by kinsmen. However, my research on King David in the books of Samuel and 1 Kings shows how the Bible offers a glimpse of the ancient dynamics of blood-guilt and blood vengeance in practice, rather than merely in theory.

Bad blood

Recent research has drawn attention to the role that blood vengeance sometimes plays in modern civil wars – shaping patterns of violence, but also restraint.

Civil wars feature prominently in David's own story, which begins with the slaying of the famous Philistine giant Goliath and then charts his rise to the throne of Israel and Judah, and the blood-soaked struggle to succeed him. It is against this backdrop that blood vengeance is often played out. The theme recurs regularly as King David first struggles to defeat Saul, his rival from the tribe of Benjamin, and later puts down an armed insurrection by his own son Absalom.

In the modern era, blood vengeance can sometimes be exercised long after the original killing. In one case in rural Crete, a 25-year-old avenged his uncle who was murdered in 1958 by killing a distant relative of the murderer almost half a century later, in 2005.

So too in the ancient stories about David, we read of a minority community (the Gibeonites) being permitted to execute blood vengeance against the descendants of the deceased Saul , for Saul's earlier illegitimate killing of their kinsmen.


Saul and David by Rembrandt (1650). Mauritshuis

Whether blood revenge is required against the perpetrators or their relatives, the prospect of it can lead those vulnerable to vengeance to flee the threat of retributive violence.

In 2010, after an Aboriginal man in Australia killed a fellow tribesman in his village, the entire family of the killer fled to Adelaide to avoid the“payback” required by tribal law.

Similarly, when David's son Absalom murders his half-brother Amnon and flees the scene of the crime, he too seems to be motivated by his desire to escape blood vengeance. This best explains why Absalom ends up in Geshur, an ancient city beyond the jurisdiction of his father, King David.

The fear factor

While blood vengeance may spiral into a cycle of violence, research among modern Chechen communities in Russia, suggests that it can also discourage violence and reduce the risk of escalation.

This deterrent effect may be seen at various points within stories about King David. In a crucial episode in David's rise to the throne , he is insulted by Nabal, a powerful chieftain of the Carmel region of Israel.

When David swears to repay this offence by killing Nabal and the males of his household and sets out to make good on his promise, Nabal's wife, Abigail, intervenes on his (and her own) behalf. In appealing to David, she warns him that killing Nabal for this insult, however egregious, would be unwarranted.

She insists that the reason David should refrain from illegitimately killing Nabal is that to do so would invite“bloodguilt” (in Hebrew, literally“bloods”) on himself. This would, crucially, have damaged his prospects of eventually attaining the crown.


David and Abigail by Antonio Molinari (17th century). Wiki Commons

When David spares Nabal's life, he does so because he fears the consequences of“bloodguilt” which almost certainly included blood vengeance. This deterrent is also seen later in the David stories, when he refuses to kill a kinsman of his old enemy, Saul, even after the man curses him.

From these and other examples, it is clear that anxiety about innocent blood and the consequences of shedding it profoundly animate the stories of King David in the ancient books of Samuel and 1 Kings. While the phenomenon of blood vengeance remains a feature of the modern world, to fully understand it, we must first seek to understand its debt to antiquity.


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