When we are wronged we naturally want the wrongdoer to suffer the way we’ve suffered and feel the pain that we’ve felt. This is a common human sentiment.
And according to the Bible, it is deeply flawed.
Definition of Revenge
To many of us, revenge is ‘an eye for an eye,’ and the Bible seems to support this definition. But upon closer examination, we find that this sentencing guide was part of a larger system of justice and not a prescription for revenge.
Rules—such as this one—for the administration of justice exist because of the human tendency toward revenge, which is the act of inflicting harm to someone in response to a harm caused by that person.
Does the Bible Allow Revenge?
According to the Bible, vengeance belongs to God alone. Why? Because only God is truly righteous. Our sins are offenses against God, and since none of us are without sin, none of us have the standing to take revenge on another.
Is Revenge a Sin in the Bible?
When we act with vengeance, the sin of pride places us in the position of God. The sinfulness of revenge is articulated by Paul’s words in Romans 12:
- 17- Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Repayment for evil, outside of the prescribed justice process is itself evil. And evil does not justify evil.
- 19- Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. Vengeance is God’s sovereign right. We usurp His authority when we take for ourselves an act that belongs uniquely to God.
- 20- “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Repaying evil with kindness is not administering ‘sweet revenge’ (as people often assume from this verse). We are not burning our enemy with kindness, rather we are filling his basin (which he carried to us on his head) with coals from our own fire to share our warmth with his house. We are inviting him to experience the love of God. This is why Paul adds:
- 21- Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. To give in to vengeance is to give in to evil. We neutralize and overcome evil when we act with mercy, forgiveness, and kindness.
Jesus on Revenge
Paul is not the only one to promote repaying evil with kindness. Not only has he quoted Proverbs 25:21-22 to make his case, but he is echoing the instructions given by Jesus:
Referring back to the Old Testament, Jesus invites us to refrain from retaliating against someone who wrongs us. A strike on the cheek, specifically, is more of an insult than an injury. Jesus tells us that we do not have the authority to return insult for insult, much less with an even harsher response.
He goes on later to say that we should ‘love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us’ (v 44).
Jesus on Justice
But Jesus is not advocating a free-for-all where anything goes and we just have to deal with it. In Matthew 18:15-19, Jesus sets clear guidelines for confronting another believer who sins against us:
- We are to first go directly to our brother to reason with him.
- If he does not repent, we may bring witnesses into the conversation.
- If we still have not won him over, the matter must be declared before the whole church.
- Only after this step fails can a sentence (banishment, not retaliation) be administered.
Jesus closes this passage by saying ‘where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them’ (v 20). This ‘two or three’ is not a quorum for proper worship (as modern readers assume), but a necessity in the proper administration of justice.
Justice: A Community Responsibility
God put measures in place in the law to ensure that the community, not individuals, carried out justice.
- Courts: And I charged your judges at that time, “Hear the disputes between your people and judge fairly… (Deuteronomy 1:16) As in our modern justice systems, the ancient Israelites used courts with judges, codes of conduct, and burdens of proof to establish guilt or innocence of those accused of wrongdoing.
- Witnesses: One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. (Deuteronomy 19:15) Modern justice relies on forensic evidence that seems to bypass witnesses. But even this evidence must be established by witnesses who testify to its reliability. Still, the greatest weight is afforded to direct eyewitness accounts. In ancient Israel, requiring multiple witnesses protected the accused against a malicious witness who might administer revenge by manipulating the justice system.
- Execution by the Assembly: Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” (Numbers 15:35) Not only was execution a public affair in the Old Testament, but it was a community affair. God required that the assembly carry out His justice not out of spite, but so that the pride and malice of individual hearts would not pervert the process.
- Refuge Cities: Six of the towns you give the Levites will be cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone may flee… (Numbers 35:6) The Lord established refuge cities where accused wrongdoers could safely await trial, to ensure that they would not be subject to vengeance before they could be properly tried for their offenses.
So having examined the parameters of justice and their purposes, we can more easily identify and assess the acts of vengeance that we witness throughout the Bible.
Examples of Revenge in the Bible
Vengeance against the Midianites: Numbers 31 describes God’s vengeance, which he ordered the Israelites to carry out. The Midianites had previously treated Israel with hostility and deception, so the Lord sent Israel into battle against them. There are several key considerations in this story:
- This is God’s vengeance, not man’s (v 1). The people of Israel did not decide to retaliate against Midian. They went only when instructed by God to do so.
- This is a community action (v 4). This was not an act of individual vigilantism, but a national military campaign involving thousands of soldiers.
This is an act of vengeance that is consistent with God’s sovereignty and with the parameters of justice.
Other examples are not so honorable.
Revenge for Dinah: Genesis 34 recounts the story of Dinah, who had been raped by Shechem the Hivite (v 3). When Dinah’s brothers learned of the violation, they convinced Shechem’s father to have all of his men circumcised so that Shechem could marry Dinah (v 15).
And while the men were still in pain from their circumcision, Dinah’s brothers attacked and slaughtered all of them at the height of their weakness. (v 25)
Their father, Jacob, rebuked their vengeful actions for inviting enmity toward their family (v 30).
The Murder of Abner: Abner had been the commander of Saul’s armies during Saul’s war with David (2 Samuel 3:6). After the death of Saul, Abner came to David to make new arrangements (v 12).
But David’s adviser, Joab, was wary of Abner (v 25), and—without David’s knowledge—Joab killed Abner, not over his present discourse with David, but in retaliation for Abner’s earlier killing of Joab’s brother (vs 26-27).
David’s response was one of rebuke and remorse. He ordered Joab and his men to walk in mourning before Abner’s funeral procession (v 31), even as David himself lamented Abner in song (v 33).
Consequences of Seeking Revenge
In our final example, we witness the dire and lasting consequences of revenge that is administered without discretion and left unchecked by justice:
Judges 19 recounts the story of a Levite traveling through the territory of Benjamin, who was overwhelmed by the men of the city where he was sheltering for the night (v 22). The attackers took his concubine, raped her repeatedly, and left her for dead (v 25).
In retaliation, the man dismembered his concubine and sent the parts to the twelve tribes of Israel (v 29) in order to rally the people of Israel against the tribe of Benjamin. This act of wholesale revenge led to the near-destruction of the tribe of Benjamin.
Retribution without justice leads only to the perpetuation of evil. When justice was absent from the land, the people learned this the hard way.