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Bloodguilt refers to the liability for punishment for shedding blood. The biblical concept of bloodguilt derives from the belief that deeds generate consequences and that sin, in particular, is a danger to the sinner. The most vivid examples of this belief appear in connection with unlawful homicide, where innocent blood (dam naki (naqi); Jonah 1:14) cries out for vengeance (Gen. 4:10), is rejected by the earth (Isa. 26:21; Ezek. 24:7), and pollutes it (Num. 35:33–34). Bloodguilt attaches to the slayer and his family (II Sam. 3:28ff.) for generations (II Kings 9:26), and even to his city (Jer. 26:5), nation (Deut. 21:8), and land (Deut. 24:4). The technical term for bearing bloodguilt damo bo, or damo bero'sho, meant originally "his blood [remains] in him/in his head" (Josh. 2:19; Ezek. 33:5), and the legal formula mot yumat damav bo (Lev. 20:9–16) means that in the case of lawful execution, the blood of the guilty victim remains on his own person and does not attach itself to his executioners.

The concept of bloodguilt in the Bible pervades all sources, legal, narrative, and cultic, and entails the following system of graded punishments for homicide.

Deliberate Homicide

The penalty is death by man (Gen. 9:6), or failing that, by God (Gen. 9:5; cf. Lev. 20:4–5). A man can be either the direct cause (Num. 35:16–21) or the indirect cause, e.g., a watchman (II Kings 10:24; Ezek. 33:6), priests (Num. 18:1, 3), homeowner (Deut. 22:8), or subordinate (I Kings 2:31–35). The punishment of the murderer is primarily the responsibility of the *blood-avenger (after court conviction, Num. 35:19; Deut. 19:12), but God is the final guarantor that homicide is ultimately punished. His personal intervention is expressed by the verbs פקד (pakad (paqad), "attend to," Hos. 1:4); נקם (nakam (naqam), "avenge," II Kings 9:7); דרש (darash, "exact punishment," Ezek. 33:6); and שוב (השיב, heshiv, "return") in the idiom heshiv damim ʿal roʾsh (II Sam. 16:18; I Kings 2:33), which indicates that God will turn back to the head of the slayer theblood of the slain, the punishment the murderer believed he had averted. In the Bible, it should be noted, these idioms have become technical terms: the original phrase remains, but without the crudity of its more primitive implications in other ancient sources. God may postpone punishment to a later generation (II Sam. 12: 13–14; I Kings 21:21). Man, however, does not have this option (Deut. 24:16; II Kings 14:6) unless divinely authorized (II Kings 9:7, 26).

There is no commutation of the death penalty. The notion that deliberate homicide cannot be commuted is the foundation stone of criminal law in the Bible: human life is invaluable, hence incommutable. This concept is not found in any other body of law in the ancient Near East.

Accidental Homicide

Since accidental homicide also results in bloodguilt, the killer may be slain by the goʾel with impunity (Num. 35:26–27; Deut. 19:4–10). However, as his act was unintentional, the natural death of the high priest is allowed to substitute for his own death (Num. 35:25, 28). In the interim, he is confined to a *city of refuge to protect him from the blood-avenger (Num. 35:9ff; Deut. 4:41–43; 19:1–13; Josh. 20:1ff.) In cases where the slayer is unknown, the community nearest the corpus delicti must disavow complicity and, by means of a ritual, symbolically wash away the blood of the slain (Deut. 21:1–9; see *Eglah Arufah ).

Homicidal Beast

The penalty is death by stoning and the shunning of the carcass. The supreme value of human life in the Bible is best expressed in the law that a homicidal beast is also guilty and that not only must it be killed but its carcass, laden with bloodguilt, must be reviled (Ex. 21:28–29; cf. Gen. 9:5).

Unauthorized Slaughter of an Animal

The reverence for life that informs all biblical legislation reached its summit in the priestly law which sanctions the use of an animal for food on the condition that its blood, containing its life, be drained upon the authorized altar (and thereby be symbolically restored to God; Lev. 17:11). All other slaughter is unlawful bloodshed, punishable by death at the hand of God (Lev. 17:4).


No bloodguilt is incurred by homicide in self-defense (Ex. 22:1), judicial execution (Lev. 20:9–16), and war (I Kings 2:5–6). The priestly legislation may indicate some qualification of the view that war is justifiable homicide. For example, David was disqualified from building the Temple (I Chron. 22:8).


M. Greenberg, in: Sefer Yovel Y. Kaufmann (1960), 5–28; idem, in: IDB, 1 (1962), S.V.; K. Koch, in: VT, 12 (1962), 396–416; J. Milgrom, Studies in Levitical Terminology, 1 (1970), 22–33, 56–69.

[Jacob Milgrom]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.