Don K. Preston
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people; For He will avenge the blood of His servants, And render vengeance to His adversaries; He will provide atonement for His land and His people.”
This intriguing prophecy from Deuteronomy is mostly overlooked in discussions of eschatology. Yet, I suggest that it has a tremendous bearing on our understanding of the entire subject!
The theme of the avenging of the martyrs of God is one that runs throughout scripture. From Genesis 4 where the blood of righteous Abel cries out from the ground, to Revelation, there is a constant thread, of the suffering of God’s saints and the promised vindication and glorification. More on this momentarily.
For brevity, I will only make a point or two about this great text.
First of all, this chapter is known as the Song of Moses, and foretold the events concerning Israel and her last days. The prophecy has nothing to do with any so-called “end of time” or the end of the Christian age (32:20; 29).
In our written debate, (on this website) Jerry McDonald initially argued that the Song dealt exclusively with Moses’ day. This is completely false, since the Song foretold events far removed from Moses’ day, “many generations” to come, and in Israel’s last days. (Jerry actually changed his position three times in our debate. First, he claimed that the Song applied strictly to Moses’ day. Then, it was to be fulfilled (spiritually) in Revelation. Then, the Song of Deuteronomy 32 is not even in Revelation!)
Second, as a prophecy, the Song deals with the fate of Israel in her last days. It is not about the church per se.
Third, Jesus appeared in the last days, and the NT writers repeatedly affirm that they were living in the days foretold by the OT prophets. They even quote from the Song repeatedly to speak of events either taking place, or about to take place.
Fourth, the promise of the avenging of the martyrs is one of Jesus’ favorite and most important eschatological topics. Furthermore, in Matthew 23:29ff Jesus emphatically and positively said that “all of the blood, of all the righteous, from righteous Abel (remember Genesis 4?) unto Zecharias, son of Berechais, whom you killed between the temple and the altar” would be avenged and judged in his generation in the judgment of Jerusalem. So, Jesus appeared in the time foretold by the Song and promised what the Song foretold. And he said it would be fulfilled in his first century generation in the judgment of Jerusalem. This is irrefutable and inescapable.
Fifth, in the Song YHVH said He would make atonement for the land and for the people. (Note: several translations render this “for the land, the people” which is more than a little intriguing and important, but we will not discuss that here. The word “and” is not in the original).
Now, it is widely assumed that the atonement promised here is the death of Jesus. However– please pay careful attention here, and do not misunderstand what I am about to say– this ignores what the Law of Moses had to say about atoning for blood guilt, which is what verse 43 is undeniably about.
In Numbers 35 God made provision for the atonement of the land / people when murder had been committed.
“Whoever kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the testimony of witnesses; but one witness is not sufficient testimony against a person for the death penalty. Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. And you shall take no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the priest. So you shall not pollute the land where you are; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. Therefore do not defile the land which you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD dwell among the children of Israel.’” (verse 30ff)
Simply stated: the only atonement that could be made for murder was the death of the murderer. There was no repentance offered. No sacrifice could be given. There could be no escape. This is the Law of Blood Atonement.
Here is a critical point: Throughout Israel’s history, she is depicted as the willful murderer of the prophets. Even when Jesus was on trial, and Pilate found no fault in him, the crowd demanded his death, and cried out, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25f). The leaders of the people understood what they were doing!
In stark contrast, Peter offered the people an “out” declaring that they did not know what they were doing when they called for Jesus’ blood. He even said the leaders did not know what they were doing! (Acts 3:14f). Peter’ declaration must be tempered somewhat by the fact that Jesus said the leaders did have the greatest guilt, and the fact that they basically admitted that they had purposefully killed an innocent man (Matthew 27:3-4; John 19:11). What Peter was doing was seeking to offer “amazing grace” in his remarks, for without that offer only judgment remained.
With all of this in mind, let’s go back to Deuteronomy 32. In that text Moses foretold the time– Israel’s last days– when God would avenge the blood of His martyrs. Thus, there is no doubt that the killing of the innocents is in the forefront. What was the provision for making atonement for such killings? Well, in the case of those who “innocently” i.e accidentally or in ignorance, killed someone, there was a way of escape. They could flee to a city of refuge per Numbers 35.
Consider then that as Peter noted, the people killed Jesus in ignorance (Acts 3). Were they then to flee to a literal city of refuge, one of the six cities designated in Numbers and Deuteronomy 19? No. As the Hebrews writer said, he and his readers had, “fled for refuge to lay hold on the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:18) by turning to Jesus, the one that had been slain. The irony of the text should not be overlooked. It is incredible!
On the other hand, for the guilty, the nation that had in effect purposely killed its Messiah, what remained for those who refused to repent, was death by the sword per the Law of Blood Atonement in Numbers 35! Furthermore, for those who would return to Torah, after once believing in him, they would be guilty of purposely “crucifying again, unto themselves the Son of God.” In other words, they would give open consent to the purposeful, willful murder of Jesus. Thus, the writer said that all that could remain for them was destruction (Hebrews 6:6-8).
In Acts 2:22f, Peter affirmed that Israel was without excuse for not recognizing Jesus as their Messiah. Jesus was, “approved of God by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in your midst, as you yourselves also know.” He continued, “You have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” this One that they should have recognized as their Savior. Peter also affirmed that the apostles were “witnesses” of all that had taken place, thus fulfilling Numbers 35, and the demand for witnesses before punishment could be given. In verse 36, he reiterated their guilt in crucifying Christ. He then called on them to repent and incredibly, offered them forgiveness!
What is so remarkable is that under Torah, there was no repentance, no forgiveness, no deliverance for what they had done. There was only the Law of Blood Atonement. Peter could not direct them to offer more animal sacrifices to atone for what they had done. What they had done was murder; that is, if they failed to repent. No appeal to Torah could be offered.
So, Peter was essentially- radically– calling them to leave Torah behind. To refuse to repent was to agree, to consent purposely, to the murder of the innocent Jesus, thus, incurring and invoking the Law of Blood Atonement. To remain in that system was to remain in a system that offered them only death and destruction. They could die to the Law by entering Jesus, their Christ, or, they could remain under Torah, and die by Torah.
The choice was dramatic, “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus (the) Christ, for the remission of sins” or, face certain death and judgment from God for shedding innocent blood. Thus, Peter called on his audience, “Save yourselves from this untoward generation” (Acts 2:40.)
Significantly, Peter’s words echo Deuteronomy 32:5, which called the generation of Israel’s last days “a crooked and perverse generation.” Peter was telling them that the fulfillment of the Song was upon them! They were in fact the “terminal generation” in which God would, “avenge the blood of His saints, and make atonement for the land, the people.”
When we couple the Song of Moses, Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 23, with Peter’s sermon, with the rest of the NT testimony, the evidence is overwhelming. Jesus’ generation was the generation foretold by Moses in the Song. This is confirmed by the fact that the Song is directly quoted several times in the NT in the context of the persecution of the saints, and the promise of coming, imminent, vindication at the coming of the Lord (cf. Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:31f; Revelation 19:1-2).
As the Song foretold, in Israel’s final generation, God would both avenge the blood of His saints, and bring judgment on their killers. In that same generation, He would call the Gentiles to be His people, due to the recalcitrant disobedience of Israel. Of course, Paul said that his Gentile ministry was in fulfillment of the Song of Moses (Romans10:19; 11:14f).
Deuteronomy 32 thus challenges our concepts of atonement. We mostly think of it exclusively in terms of Jesus’ High Priestly functions. But as we have seen, this overlooks the issue of martyrdom, and the application of Mosaic Covenant sanctions for shedding innocent blood, i.e. the Law of Blood Atonement.
What we have said should in no way be construed as denying or depreciating the efficacy of Jesus’ death and High Priestly praxis in making the Atonement. That work, however, was for the repentant, for those of faith. It was for those who fled to him – and to the New Jerusalem, if you please– the true city of refuge. All of this is patently and undeniably true. What is equally true is that for the unrepentant, the murderers, the Law of Blood Atonement was their only fate.
It is simply wrong therefore, to deny the aforementioned elements as they relate to martyrdom and the avenging of the blood of the saints. God decreed that there was no escape, no city of refuge for the unrepentant killers of His saints. The only “atonement” for them was death and destruction and they met that fate in the awful judgment in AD 70.