The media is currently focused on two huge news stories of great violence and bloodshed. The first is the gruesome war in Gaza between Israel and the Palestinians. The second story involves Ukraine, Russia, and the downing of the Malaysia Flight 17, causing the death of 298 civilians. I have watched my share of news reports—and can’t help but think of the role of blood and honor in both stories.
Blood and honor in the news? Well, journalists do not actually use the words blood and honor to talk about the events. But I believe blood and honor is just below the surface. To explain what I mean, we will explore what the Bible says about blood and honor. In this post, we will examine:
- how blood and honor are essentially about family honor,
- that blood can be both the result and cause of honor-based violence, and
- how the blood and honor of Jesus Christ is a completely different kind of catalyst—offering the possibility of peace instead of violence.
“Blood and honor” is essentially about family or kinship
In my forthcoming book, The Global Gospel, one of the things I do is explain nine different honor/shame dynamics in the societies of the ancient biblical world. One of these dynamics is referred to as “name/kinship/blood.” Basically, this refers to family honor.
- Think of Medieval England and the profound importance of a family’s “coat of arms.” What’s that about? It’s about the honor of one’s distinctive family name.
- Think of the saying, “Blood is thicker than water.” What’s that about? It’s the idea that relationships through family blood exceed all others in importance.
- What about protecting your family reputation and name. What’s that about? Family honor, of course.
- Add the word kinship to the mix and you have family honor spread across a large extended bloodline or clan of people—almost like an ethnic group. This is where family overlaps with God’s great promise to Abraham—that through his descendents, “all the families [that is, kinship groups] of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3).
Now many aspects of family honor are good, reflecting the way God made us to care for one another in our families.
However, because of devastating effects of sin on the human race, other aspects of family honor—or the dynamic of “name/kinship/blood” can result in great evil. You will see below that honor-based violence is often related to blood. You’ll see that blood is often both the result and the cause of honor competition and honor-based violence.
Blood as the RESULT of honor competition
The Bible’s first reference to blood is in Genesis when Cain killed his brother Abel. Cain felt jealous over the fact that “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Gen 4:4–5). In jealousy and revenge—what I call “honor competition”—Cain killed Abel. The murder of Cain is symbolized by blood.
And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand” (Gen 4:10–11).
What is the meaning of “your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground”? God is saying, This is murder!—the horrible injustice of killing an innocent man.
This, of course, has become a pattern for all of humanity; honor competition results in violence. Blood is the result of honor competition.
Blood as the CAUSE of honor competition
In 2 Samuel 4, the account is given of two men, Rechab and Banaah, who murdered Ish-bosheth, son of Jonathan the son of Saul (2 Sam 4:4–6). Rechab and Banal thought they could cover up their murder of Ish-bosheth by telling David they were doing him a favor:
And they said to the king, “Here is the head of Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul, your enemy, who sought your life. The Lord has avenged my lord the king this day on Saul and on his offspring” (2 Sam 4:8).
Rechab and Banal sorely miscalculated:
But David answered Rechab and Baanah his brother, the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, “As the Lord lives, who has redeemed my life out of every adversity, when one told me, ‘Behold, Saul is dead,’ and thought he was bringing good news, I seized him and killed him at Ziklag, which was the reward I gave him for his news. How much more, when wicked men have killed a righteous man in his own house on his bed, shall I not now require his blood at your hand and destroy you from the earth?” (2 Sam 4:9–11).
David immediately commanded that Rechab and Banaah be executed by “his young men.” In fact, “they killed them and cut off their hands and feet and hanged them beside the pool at Hebron” (2 Sam 4:12). What a gruesome result to their miscalculation.
The point here is that Rechab and Banaah thought that David would agree with the default culture of … avenging the blood of enemies by killing their offspring. As a man of God, David would have none of it. But it points to the fact that the default culture at the time recognized that family blood was a justifiable catalyst for honor-based violence; family-versus-family revenge was indeed culturally acceptable.
Blood represents family honor
Jerome Neyrey writes: [R]elatives who press for the advantage of family members are simply doing their duty to the kinship group, which is an honorable thing. Hence solidarity and loyalty among family members go without saying. Blood replicates the honor of the family.
“Blood replicates the honor of the family.” Yes, and anyone familiar with a blood feud will agree. The definition of a blood feud is: “a lengthy conflict between families involving a cycle of retaliatory killings or injury.” The cycle of violence is fueled by honor competition.
This is why in honor/shame societies, ethics is generally trumped by honor—usually the honor of the family, family blood. The rule of law is practically irrelevant:
In Sicily too, according to the writer Leonardo Sciascia, himself Sicilian, the family is the state, a be-all-and-end-all in itself. To any Sicilian, “the exact definition of his rights and duties will be that of the family.” The mafia, the Camorra of Naples, the Corsicans, the people in Provence and in Spain, share with the Arabs self-regulatory group concepts wholly opposed to the workings of the state with norms legally defined and voluntarily obeyed. Equality under the law, that central constitutional pillar, cannot be reconciled with codes of shame and honor.
Violence of family against family, tribe against tribe, nation against nation—is rampant throughout the world. An Internet search of “blood and honor” or “blood feud” brings out the ugly prevalence of this global scourge. Whether it is the Hatfields and the McCoys … or Sunni versus Shiite … Arian race against Jewish race … Chinese against Japanese … white race versus any others, it is, in essence, all honor-based violence fueled by blood.
The blood of Christ is different, hallelujah!
There is a huge contrast between the impact of blood and honor in the kingdom of this world and the blood of Christ in the kingdom of God. We have noted that blood can be both the result and cause of honor competition; we have noted that the cycle of blood feuds can be seemingly endless. But consider these verses which show that the blood of Christ is an entirely different kind of catalyst:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility … that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility (Eph 2:13–16, emphasis mine).
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Heb 10:19–22, emphasis mine).
Blood and honor in this world’s kingdom fuels family-against-family violence (blood feuds and vendettas)—but the blood and honor of Christ brings healing between families and kinship groups.
Blood and honor in this world’s kingdom is a catalyst for ethnic hatred and genocide—but the blood and honor of Christ is a catalyst for the acceptance, even the celebration of all ethnic groups and peoples.
Blood and honor in this world’s kingdom opens humanity to the life-killing spirit of jealousy, evil, murder, genocide, the devil—whereas the “blood of Jesus…opened for us” access to the conscience-cleansing Holy Spirit and life-giving presence of God—a new and living way!
This is our hope. This is the expectation and desire we have in Christ for a world so deeply scarred by violence and bloodshed. This is but one facet of an amazing multifaceted diamond we call “the good news”—the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
1. Jerome Neyrey: Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), p. 53.
2. Definition from: New Oxford American Dictionary 3rd edition © 2010 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Referenced by Mac OSX 10.8.2.
3. “A blood feud is 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. Historically, the word vendetta has been used to mean a blood feud.” See “Famous Blood Fueds,” accessed 17 June 2013, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feud#Famous_blood_feuds>.
4. David Pryce-Jones, The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1989, 2009), p. 38.