Genesis 9:5 For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. 6 Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image. 7 And you, be fruitful and multiply, bring forth abundantly on the earth and multiply in it.”
“…I will surely require a reckoning…” Though God’s heart was grief stricken by seeing the wickedness in humans, God had not before the flood laid down many laws for the humans to follow. If He hoped they would use their free will solely for the good of one another, the humans had totally disappointed Him. But when God was totally distraught with the humans, He suddenly brought judgment on them and wiped out all by His chosen remnant. In this text God clearly lays down that there are rules to be followed, and that humans will be held accountable for their behavior. If the humans before this law were held accountable for what they did, now God clearly warns of consequences for human behavior – His judgment. “All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Romans 2:12-13).
“…of every man’s brother I will require the life of man…” The prohibition of killing one’s brother comes too late to save Abel. It also is the first suggestion that brotherhood means responsibility for one’s brother, and that all men are brothers.
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed…” This is the first retributive justice law prescribing the death penalty for those who commit murder. Was murder in fact a common form of violence that God so hated before the flood? Is it possible that God realizing that the human heart is full of evil concludes that murderers must be stopped or they themselves will wipe out humanity even though God has decided never to wipe out the human race again? God sees the need for greater restraints on humans – more laws, more severe punishments. God respects human free will, but imposes more consequences for the choices humans make. God rejects Lamech’s 77 fold law of vengeance (Genesis 4:24) and imposes only one death for each murder committed. Because this law is given long before there was the 10 Commandments, some commentators feel this is a universal law established by God, and not the Law of Moses which is obligatory only for Jews.
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed..” It is up to humans to cleanse themselves of murderers. God’s command shows that we do share a common humanity and are social beings. Whatever happens to any one individual is the concern of all humans; we are social beings and have social responsibilities. Humans must enforce this law and execute the killers. We each have a responsibility for and to all other humans – to protect life, to maintain the peace, to enforce order. We are not simply individuals – we have a relationship to and responsibility for all other humans and for human civility. We have a responsibility to establish and enforce justice. We have a responsibility to rid ourselves of violent evil. Humans must police themselves to maintain order and to punish killers. The commandments of God at this point regarding murder are punishment more than deterrant. (Is God at this point recognizing the reality of His free-willed humans – they can’t be stopped from doing evil but can only be allowed to experience the consequences of their choices?) God’s commandments do impose on humans a social order for the common good. In Genesis discerning right and wrong arises not from democracy but from revelation.
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” The rationale for the death penalty somehow is related to our being in God’s image and likeness. “… for God made man in his own image…” The rationale for not killing other humans is an issue of human dignity – each of us is made in the image of God. We are not to deface the image of God on earth. There is an intrinsic value in every human being. The prohibition on killing is not only a matter of self restraint; it is a matter of recognizing the God-established value that each human possesses. Genesis rejects a purely utilitarian evaluation of humans. The value of a human is not determined by his or her net worth, nor by how much he or she contributes to society, nor by what value society attributes to them. Each human conceived has value because each is in God’s image and likeness.
St. Isaac the Syrian (d. ca. 700 AD) said that Christians cannot come to understand the teachings of Christ “through the discipline of the justice of the Law. In the latter there is ‘an eye for an eye” and “a stripe for a stripe’, and so forth. But the grace of Christ commands, ‘Overcome evil with good,’ that is, ‘whosoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also…” For Christians Christ’s commands and teachings of love supersede the legal demands of justice of the Old Testament.
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed..” There is a logical problem in this statement. If we are to take the statement absolutely literally without imposing a rational interpretation on it, wouldn’t this lead to the ultimate extinction of everyone? Every executioner who sheds blood would also have to be executed by another human who in turn would be guilty of bloodshed. This is another lesson in learning that a literal reading of the text is an interpretation of the text. The text itself does not tell us to be reasonable; it simply gives us the Law. We need to interpret the text in order to understand it.
“And you, be fruitful and multiply, bring forth abundantly on the earth and multiply in it.” Though the verses preceding this one focus a great deal on capital punishment for murderers, here God turns to what seems to be His real concern – that humans be fruitful and multiply. Despite setting strict laws for dealing with murderers, God’s main focus is not on setting (arbitrary) rules for humans. God is mostly concerned with the humans having abundant life – being life giving and life protecting. As the Lord Jesus Christ said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).