Bible and the theme of Revenge

Angry Jesus

Picture comes from This Website

This is no fun and game post, but rather an excerpt from my Masters thesis in progress. I discuss the theme of revenge in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

In this section, I discuss very divergent and conflicting notions of revenge in the Bible. I suppose this only goes to show that Bible is a collection of multiple books (and booklets, pamphlets, letters, scrolls), written and edited by multiple persons living in different times and places.

So, here is probably a question to all those Christian theologians and lay-theologians, believers, church-people or anybody who wants to engage his or her mental/logical/theological gears: Having read the following discussion of passages from the Biblical text, would you say that, biblically speaking, revenge can be justified in certain situations?

The Biblical text—both the Old and New Testament—are replete with injunctions about revenge and murder that often seem to contradict each other. Therefore, it can be problematic to conclude with certainty, a single Biblical pronouncement on the issue of revenge. Romans 12:19 is often cited as an injunction against private revenge: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord” (King James Version). Paul is referring to Deuteronomy 32:35 that begins thus: “To me belongeth Vengeance, and recompense…” Even though Paul quotes Deuteronomy to dissuade Christians from seeking private revenge, it also becomes clear from those verses that God’s own nature is not necessarily of forgiveness as the person of Jesus Christ in the Christian Trinity personifies. Rather, as Kerrigan writes, there is a strong indication that “God’s own mode of punishment is vengeful” (23).

The Old Testament stresses God’s retributive justice in other parts of the text: almost all of Psalm 94 makes the similar point: “O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth, shew thyself. Lift up thyself, thou judge of the earth; render a reward to the proud” (94:1-2). Few verses later this Psalm repeats the same theme, “And he shall bring upon them their own iniquity, and shall cut them off in their own wickedness: yea, the Lord our God shall cut them off” (94:23). It could be concluded that these Old Testament sections support God’s retributive justice and at the same time forbid private revenge. However, equally convincing are the Old Testament verses that strongly suggest justification for private revenge or lex talionis. For example, Numbers 35:19 records this injunction: “The revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer: when he meeteth him, he shall slay him.” Thus, as per these Biblical verses, a person who has wronged, hurt or murdered in cold-blood certainly deserves revenge or death at the hands of the wronged party or person.

Additionally, Numbers 35:22-25 clearly makes a distinction between a cold-blooded murder and an inadvertent killing or manslaughter, and urges the civilized society to afford protection from an angry revenger. Deuteronomy chapter 19 echoes similar commands that urge protection for an inadvertent killer from a bloodthirsty revenge. Even though these contradictory Old Testament verses—regarding God’s vengeance in Deuteronomy and support of lex talionis in Numbers—offer rather confusing views about private revenge, still, both of these injunctions clearly equate revenge with justice. In other words, there is a justified revenge and an unjustified revenge. In this thesis, this idea of justified and unjustified revenge plays a significant role in Hamlet’s endless rationalizations. First, he wants to be certain that the Ghost’s testimony can be corroborated so that his revenge is just. However, once it is corroborated Hamlet is torn apart between the Biblical injunctions against private revenge and the cold-blooded murder that he now must commit.

In effect, Hamlet’s confusions correspond with intricate—or rather muddled—web of Biblical text on these issues.

Furthermore, Hamlet’s engagement with the Biblical injunctions about revenge has other important strands. Notably, according to the Biblical text, revenge can also be justified in order to pay back for wrongs other than murder, violence or bodily harm. For example, in the context of revenge, Proverbs 6:32-35 makes a special mention of the transgression of adultery. A cuckolded husband is considered within his rights to take revenge on the adulterer. Moreover, these sections of Proverbs stress that the cuckolded man absolutely cannot forgive or compromise with the other man who dishonors him by having sexual relations with his wife: “For jealousy is the rage of a man: therefore he will not spare in the day of the vengeance. He will not regard any ransom: neither will he rest content, though thou givest many gifts” (Proverbs 6:34-35). In the light of these Biblical verses, Hamlet and his father’s Ghost’s continued emphasis on Gertrude and Claudius’s “adultery” only underlines one more potent reason—or rather an unavoidable duty or obligation as far as Hamlet is concerned—for taking revenge. **The End**

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About Rajiv

I am a 30-something aspiring and emerging writer based in Christchurch, New Zealand. I blog about books, reading, writing and ideas. More info on my work and short fiction can be found at
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