Blood Guilt

In the story of Jericho two spies were sent by Joshua, the Israelite commander, into the city before the invasion of Canaan began. In Jericho the spies found an ally in Rahab the prostitute who recognized the divine power behind the army of Israel and wanted to save her family. A simple bargain was struck in which the spies, whose lives were saved from local authorities by Rahab, agreed that Rahab’s family would be spared, but on one condition. Every person who would be saved must be in Rahab’s house. Any of them who left the house would die, and “his blood will be on his own head” (Joshua 2:19). Rahab took this arrangement to heart, and brought her family into her house to await the Israelite victory, which she and her family survived.

The concept of personal responsibility for our choices in life is pervasive in the Bible. When Solomon became king of Israel he warned a man, Shimei, who had been an adversary of King David that he would be safe and secure as long as he remained in Jerusalem, but if he ever left the city “you can be sure you will die; your blood will be on your own head” (1 Kings 2:37). This was not a complicated arrangement, but the man who had been warned and fully informed did make a trip out of the city after 3 years to retrieve runaway slaves from the Philistine city of Gath. Shortly after his return to Jerusalem he was reminded of the terms of his parole, and Shimei was executed shortly afterward. His blood was on his own head. He chose to do what he did despite knowing the cost.

The prophet Ezekiel was told in broad terms that every person is responsible for their own behavior, whether good or evil, and that one who persists in doing evil will be punished for his own sins, not son for father, and not father for son, but each person is responsible for their own behavior. After listing several kinds of sinful behavior, the Lord said, “Because he has done these detestable things, he will surely be put to death and his blood will be on his own head” (Ezekiel 18:13). No one but the sinner is responsible for the consequence of the sins.

Ezekiel himself was warned that while he wasn’t responsible for what people do, he was responsible for warning people about what they did. He was like a watchman for Israel, God said, and if a watchman saw enemy forces approaching and warned the people, he had done his job. If the people who were warned listened and thus saved their own lives, well and good. If anyone did not listen to the warning, then “his blood will be on his own head” (Ezekiel 33:4-5). On the other hand, if the appointed watchman gave no warning then when disaster came “I will hold the watchman accountable for his blood” (33:6). This was the position Ezekiel was in. He had to warn people of their wrong doing, whether they listened or not. In order for Ezekiel to save himself from blood guilt, he had to warn the sinners, whether they listened or not. Sinners who listened and changed would be saved, but each sinner would be responsible for his own sins, his own repentance. Ezekiel must warn them with God’s words, or else God would “hold you accountable for his blood” (Ezekiel 33:7-9). The reaction to the warning was up to those who heard.

Several times in Leviticus 20 this idea of personal responsibility for sin, lawbreaking, is emphasized in the sexual sins and rejection of authority listed there. Capitol crimes included cursing father or mother, adultery, incest with close relatives, homosexual acts, bestiality, and acting as a medium or spiritist, with the reminder over and over, “their blood will be on their own heads” (Leviticus 20:9-16. 27). This again is a basic and vital concept: the lawbreaker is justly responsible for the known outcome of breaking the law. None of these things listed as unlawful are needs, none of them are required behaviors, none of them are unavoidable, none of them are beneficial, but rather each is a voluntary act, an appetite pursued, a will surrendered. To know the law (and Israel was required to know the law and rehearse the commandments on a regular basis) and choose to voluntarily violate the law, no matter how attractive or rewarding that violation might seem, “their blood will be on their own heads.”

If people choose to do what leads to death, they are responsible for their own death. The follower of God, on the other hand, is responsible like Moses, or the spies, or Solomon, or Ezekiel, to give warning, to make clear what leads to life, and what causes death.