The Demands of This Generation

All across the United States, and all across the world, people have erupted into protest because of the murder of one man, George Floyd, by police officers. Of course, George Floyd’s murder is hardly unique. The reason his needless and senseless death has provoked such intense and sustained protest is that his murder in the name of the U.S. citizenry is all too common. Work on this essay began long before George Floyd’s name became notorious for the needless and senseless death he died, but an essay such as this cannot ignore current events. George Floyd’s murder and the brutal treatment of peaceful protesters by police and other enforcers of the status quo prove that a critical tipping point has been reached. We have a choice either to turn toward violence or away from it. In which direction we turn will determine the fate not just of individuals, but the destiny of our society as a whole. It is my hope that in some small way this essay will help us turn toward the pathway of life.

Will He who planted the ear not listen? Will He who formed the eye not look?

(Psalm 94:9)

The authors of Scripture, like the psalmist quoted above, are all in agreement that God has excellent hearing and eyesight. God’s penetrating vision and acute hearing mean that nothing escapes his notice. And what particularly catches God’s attention is human suffering. God’s ears bend toward the sound of weeping. His eyes are ever watchful for the the sick and the wounded, the disadvantaged and the scorned. While to us it may seem that no one sees the injuries we suffer or that no one listens when we try to complain, the Scriptures insist that God sees, God hears, God knows. The sights and the sounds of suffering we so easily ignore amid the din of economic activity, the roar of industrial output, and the monotonous drone of getting on with our lives God does not ignore. He takes careful account of these sights and sounds, and though he may allow a day, or a year, or the span of several generations to pass for society to repent, he always demands the accounting be settled in favor of the innocent victims of society’s cruelty and indifference.

Sharp Eyes and Attentive Ears

To illustrate God’s keen sense of hearing we might recall the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Today these twin cities are infamous for their sexual transgressions, but according to the ancients the outstanding sin of the people of Sodom was hard-heartedness toward their fellow human beings.[1] The Sodomites took no concern for others. They considered themselves to be self-sufficient and insisted others must be the same. They had no patience for weakness or misfortune or failure. Although the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were wealthier than the people of any other land, they looked upon their fellow citizens as competitors for scarce resources. They looked upon wayfarers and strangers as pests and parasites to be exterminated and as objects to be preyed upon and exploited. That is why an outcry went up against Sodom and Gomorrah from the people they abused. The citizens who fell ill or fell on hard times and the strangers who were cheated and mistreated cried out against the hard-hearted Sodomites. And although those cries were drowned out in the city streets amid the clinking of coins and the rattling of wares, by the calls of the merchants and the haggling of the vendors, God’s ears were attuned to the outcry (Gen. 18:20-21). It was a sound he could not ignore….

Print VersionGod’s hearing is also central to the story of the Exodus. Pharaoh noticed that there were too many undocumented workers in Egypt and decided something had to be done about all these “illegals.” First he enslaved them, but their numbers only increased, so he adopted a radical policy of child separation. The baby boys of these immigrant workers were separated—permanently and irrevocably—from their mothers by killing them. No one in Egypt could hear the cries of the Hebrew mothers or the screams of the Hebrew babies over the noise of construction and the tumult of progress. The brick industry was booming and what the Pharaoh cared about above all else was the growth of the economy. But God’s hearing is sharp. He heard the sobs of the mothers who refused to be comforted. He heard the echoes of the infant screams that were suddenly cut short. And those sounds rang in God’s ears (Exod. 3:7-10). So one day he appeared to Moses in a burning bush with a message to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!”

When it came time for the children of Israel to enter the land promised to Abraham, God warned those who were destined to be well off not to take advantage of the poor. “Don’t squeeze the poor for the little they have,” he warned. “Pay them fairly for their work, and don’t hold back their wages. Don’t rob them of their dignity when you give them a loan and don’t take away their means for repayment.” For if they did any of these things, God would be sure to hear about it (Deut. 24:6-22). He pricks up his ears at the prayers of the poor. Money lenders and landlords and employers and investors had best be sure they didn’t land themselves in trouble worse that Pharaoh’s or Sodom’s and Gomorrah’s.

Here I want to consider two further examples of God’s hearing and sight which are mentioned in the Gospels. In part I want to examine them because I think they may solve a certain mystery I’ve pondered for a long time, but in greater part I want to examine them because Jesus called attention to these examples as warnings to his generation, and I believe Jesus’ warning is applicable to our generation as well.

The Souls Beneath the Altar in the Vision of the Seven Seals

First let’s begin with the mystery. In the Apocalypse of John, the revelator describes a scene in which the souls of the martyrs cry out to God in heaven. The martyred souls pray for justice, asking that God punish the evil doers who killed them for their faith. In response to their prayers a seal on a heavenly scroll is opened and the breaking of the seal throws the natural order into convulsions. The undying voice of the martyrs is powerful. Their demand, “No justice, no peace!” throws the whole world into chaos until their righteous demand is satisfied:

And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw beneath the altar the souls of those slain because of the word of God and because of the testimony they had had. And they cried out in a loud voice saying, “Until when, O Sovereign, O Holy and True, before you judge and avenge our blood from the inhabitants of the earth?” And a white robe was given to each of them, but it was told to them that they might have satisfaction in a brief time, when [the killing of] their fellow servants and their brethren who had yet to be killed, as they had been, was finished. And I saw, when he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black like sackcloth of goat hair, and the full moon became like blood, and the stars of heaven fell to the earth as a fig tree casts its fruit when shaken by a great wind, and heaven was torn back like a scroll rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. (Rev. 6:9-14)

One of the most striking things about the revelator’s vision is where he saw the souls of the victims. They are not located beneath God’s throne, as later Jewish traditions would lead us to expect.[2] In John’s vision the martyred souls are located beneath the altar: a strange place for any victim to be. Their placement beneath the altar is not satisfactorily explained as an attempt to re-imagine martyrdom as a kind of sacrifice. Sacrifices are offered on top of the altar, not under it. So this is the mystery: Why does John’s vision place the souls of the martyrs beneath the altar? We will return to this question after having examined Jesus’ apparently unrelated saying.

Woes and Innocent Blood

The saying of Jesus to which I refer is found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in two slightly different versions. I present them here side-by-side:

Matthew 23:34-36 Luke 11:49-51
Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and sages and scribes. Some of them you will kill and crucify and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and pursue from city to city, so that all the innocent blood poured out on the earth might come upon you, from the blood of Abel the righteous to the blood of Zechariah son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the shrine and the altar. Amen! I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. Therefore the Wisdom of God also said, “I will send them prophets and emissaries, and some of them they will kill and pursue, in order that all the blood of the prophests spilled from the founding of the world might be demanded from this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who perished between the altar and the sanctuary.” Yes! I say to you, it will be demanded from this generation.

In both Matthew and Luke this saying of Jesus is connected to a series of woes against the Pharisees and/or Scribes. It is unlikely, however, that this saying about Abel and Zechariah originally belonged with these Woes. One reason for doubting their original connection is the fact that the Woes are addressed to a specific group or groups (Pharisees, Scribes), whereas the Abel-Zechariah saying is addressed to Jesus’ entire generation. The fact that there are two separate addressees strongly suggests that Jesus originally spoke the Woes and the Abel-Zechariah saying on different occasions to different audiences.

Another reason for supposing the Woes and the Abel-Zechariah saying were not originally related is that by carefully comparing and contrasting the Lukan and Matthean versions of the saying it becomes evident that each evangelist took certain measures to help the Abel-Zechariah saying fit more comfortably in the Woes context.

One of the biggest differences between the two versions of the Abel-Zechariah saying is that in Matthew Jesus speaks his own words throughout the entire saying, whereas in Luke Jesus quotes someone else ([the author of ⟨?⟩] the Wisdom of God). There is no reason why the author of Luke would have changed Jesus’ saying in order to have him quote from an otherwise unknown pseudepigraphical source. From an historical perspective, however, there is no reason why Jesus could not or would not have quoted a source that was familiar in his own time, but which has subsequently disappeared over the millennia. Jesus, like you or I, was capable of reading contemporary literature and citing it when it served his argument.[3] The most reasonable conclusion is that the author of Matthew removed the quotation to help the Abel-Zechariah saying fit in with the Woes, where Jesus is the only speaker. Matthew’s adaptations obscure the fact that the Woes and the Abel-Zechariah sayings were originally spoken to separate and distinct audiences.

Another important difference between the two versions of the Abel-Zechariah saying is their placement. Whereas in Matthew the Abel-Zechariah saying appears immediately after the Woes, in Luke the Abel-Zechariah saying appears just before the final woe. It appears that the author of Luke is the one responsible for this adjustment. By moving the Abel-Zechariah saying up a notch, tucking it just inside the Woes, he was able to make it appear as though the Woes and the Abel-Zechariah saying had always belonged together.

Of course, if two authors working independently of one another both felt steps had to be taken to make the Abel-Zechariah saying fit more comfortably with the Woes, this is a sure sign that the two sayings were not originally related. Probably the Woes and the Abel-Zechariah saying were spoken to different audiences on separate occasions, but a compiler of Jesus’ words put the two speeches together because they both dealt with related themes: the Woes mention the killing of the prophets, while the Abel-Zechariah saying mentions the killing of innocent victims. In fact, by comparing the Lukan and Matthean versions of the saying we can see that the author of Luke tried to tighten the thematic connection between the Woes and the Abel-Zechariah saying by turning the innocent victims, Abel and Zechariah, into prophets. Neither individual is identified as a prophet in Scripture, and Abel is never identified as a prophet in any other ancient Jewish source, but most importantly neither Abel nor Zechariah is identified as a prophet in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ saying. The author of Matthew certainly would not have erased their identification as prophets if it had occurred in his source,[4] so we can safely conclude that the reference to Abel and Zechariah as prophets was added by the author of Luke in order to help the Abel-Zechariah saying fit the Woes context.

One further clue that the Woes against the Pharisees and Scribes were not originally uttered on the same occasion as the Abel-Zechariah saying is that in Matthew’s version of the Abel-Zechariah saying scribes are included among the heroes who became martyrs for the faith. Including scribes among the heroic martyrs is jarring in the context of the Woes, which criticizes the scribes of Jesus’ day, and for that reason the author of Luke probably eliminated the scribes from Jesus’ saying. On the other hand, including scribes in a list of Israel’s heroes is typical of Second Temple Jewish literature, and therefore the scribes probably belonged to the source from which Jesus quoted.

Reconstructing the Version Behind Luke and Matthew

From our foregoing discussion we can surmise that the original version of Jesus’ saying looked something like this:

Therefore, the Wisdom of God said: “I will send them prophets and emissaries, sages and scribes. Some of them they will kill and some of them they will hound. So all the innocent blood poured out on the [holy] land will be demanded from this generation. From the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary.” Amen! I assure you it will be demanded from this generation.[5]

One difference between the Lukan and Matthean versions of the Abel-Zechariah saying we have not yet discussed is the identity of Zechariah.[6] Luke’s version does not give Zechariah’s surname whereas Matthew’s version calls him Zechariah the son of Berechiah. Almost certainly the author of Matthew added this identification, and mistakenly as it turns out.[7] Zechariah the son of Berechiah was the most famous of the Zechariahs in the Hebrew Scriptures, and therefore confusion of this Zechariah with other, lesser known, Zechariahs is understandable.[8] Zechariah the son of Berechiah is the prophet whose visions are recorded in the Book of Zechariah. This prophet was active in Jerusalem at the time of the return from exile. But Zechariah son of Berechiah did not die the death Jesus describes. The death Jesus describes belongs to a different Zechariah, one who served as a priest prior to the Babylonian exile. [9]

Zechariah the priest’s death is described in 2 Chronicles as follows:

And after the death of Yehoyada the princes of Judah came and venerated the king. Then the king listened to them. And they abandoned the house of the LORD, the God of their fathers, and they served the Asherahs and the idols. So there was wrath against Judah and Jerusalem because of this, their guilt. And he [i.e., God—JNT] sent prophets among them to bring them back to the LORD, and they testified against them but they did not listen. And the Spirit of God cloaked Zechariah the son of Yehoyadah the priest, and he stood above the people and said to them, “Thus says God: Why do you transgress the LORD’s commandments? But you will not succeed! Because you have abandoned the LORD, he will abandon you.” Then they conspired against him and pelted him with stones at the king’s order in the courtyard of the LORD’s house. Thus, Yoash the king did not remember the kindness that Yehoyadah his father had done him; rather he killed his son. And as he [i.e., Zechariah—JNT] died he said, “See, O LORD, and demand!” (2 Chr. 24:17-23)

Jesus, or rather the source he quoted, made a connection between the deaths of Abel and Zechariah for some reason (or reasons) in order to make a certain point. What might those reasons have been? And what was the point the source was trying to make? And why did Jesus quote this source? We will tackle these questions one by one below.

What Has Abel to Do with Zechariah?

First, what is the underlying connection between Abel and Zechariah? They are certainly not the only two murder victims in Scripture. So why highlight these two in particular? One reason might be that these two figures each stood at opposite ends of a long story arc that begins with one exile and ends with another.[10] Abel was one of two sons belonging to the first human couple, Adam and Eve. His murder took place sometime after Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden for eating the forbidden fruit. Zechariah’s murder, on the other hand, comes toward the end of the history of the Davidic dynasty. It is, in fact, the last murder recounted in the Book of Chronicles prior to the fall of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon. And it is the Book of Chronicles that traces the entire story arc from the exile from Eden to the exile to Babylon. The two murders of Abel and Zechariah thus bookend the story arc that traces the rise and fall of Israel’s golden age under the Davidic kingdom.

But the connections between Zechariah and Abel go much deeper than that. Zechariah was a priest, and as such he offered sacrifices on the altar. When we read the story of Abel, we observe that Abel, too, acted like a priest when he offered lambs from his flock on an altar. It was precisely because God found Abel’s offering to be acceptable that Cain’s jealousy was aroused against his brother. Cain murdered Abel out of anger that his own offering had been rejected. So, from a Jewish point of view, Abel was the first murdered priest (or proto-priest) and Zechariah was the last priest murdered before the destruction of Solomon’s Temple.

“La muerte de Abel”
(The Death of Abel) by Santiago Rebull (1829-1902). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Not only did Abel and Zechariah play the same priestly role at opposite ends of history, it is also likely that according to Second Temple tradition the two figures presented their offerings at the same location. Second Temple Jewish tradition maintained that all the legitimate altars mentioned in Scripture stood at the same location. Already the Book of Chronicles makes the point that the altar upon which Abraham was to have sacrificed Isaac later became the site of the altar in Jerusalem (2 Chr. 3:1). Likewise, the altar that Noah built after the flood was supposed to have been built on the future site of the Temple’s altar.[11] So it is no great stretch of the imagination to suppose that Abel’s altar was likewise believed to have been situated on Mount Moriah (i.e., Zion).[12]

We have discovered three great convergences between the stories of Abel and Zechariah thus far: 1) Abel and Zechariah stood on opposite ends of the great arc of Israel’s history, 2) they both served as priests, and 3) they were both murdered at or near the altar in Jerusalem. But there is one more way in which Abel and Zechariah are united, and that has to do with God’s hearing and his sight.

When God confronts Cain about his murdered brother Abel, God says something rather peculiar: “The voice of your brother’s blood calls out to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). Abel was dead but his blood kept crying out for justice. And so God, whose ears strain to hear every cry against injustice, could not stop hearing the protests of Abel’s blood. The innocent blood spilled on the ground could not be sponged away, nor could its outcry be silenced. God could not and would not plug his ears to that protest and one reason why he could not ignore it was that the cry issued from his very doorstep. The altar where Abel’s blood was spilled stood right outside God’s front door, if indeed the Temple is the House of God.

The murder of Zechariah as depicted in the Synagogue of Dura Europos. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Just as peculiar as what God says about Abel’s blood, is what Zechariah says with his last breath. Many translations render Zechariah’s dying words in a manner similar to the NIV, which reads: “May the LORD see this and call you to account” (2 Chr. 24:22).[13] But in Hebrew Zechariah speaks only three words: יֵרֶא יהוה וְיִדְרֹשׁ (“See / LORD / and demand”). What did Zechariah want the LORD to see? What did the dying priest want the LORD to demand? Whereas we might abstractly suppose that Zechariah wanted God to see the injustice of his murder, the verb דרש suggests that Zechariah had something far more concrete in mind. Hebrew has an idiom according to which God can demand (דרש) the blood of a victim from the hand of the killer. In God’s covenant with the human race after the great flood we read: For your souls [i.e., for the taking of your lives—JNT] I will demand your blood: from the hand of every animal I will demand it, and from humankind I will demand each person’s soul [i.e., life—JNT] from the hand of his brother (Gen. 9:5). It seems likely, therefore, that as Zechariah, lying in a pool of his own blood, made his final request, what he asked for God to see was his own blood trickling under the altar that God might demand Zechariah’s blood back from the hands of his murderers.

What Point Did the Wisdom of God Intend to Make?

Having determined why the source Jesus quoted singled out Abel and Zechariah as examples of innocent victims, we must now consider what point that source was making when it cited them. Answering this question requires some guess work and imagination, but our guesses need not be wild speculation. Our examination of this source in which the Wisdom of God speaks to “this generation” has already turned up valuable clues that can lead us to informed conjectures and educated guesses.

As we have noted, Abel and Zechariah stand at the beginning and end of the great arc of Israel’s pre-exilic history. When the Wisdom of God speaks, she—in Hebrew sources Wisdom is always personified as a woman—warns that all the innocent blood that had been spilled on the land would be demanded from “this generation.” Which generation might that have been? The likeliest guess is that “this generation” was the generation that was to experience the sacking of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and that was to be deported to Babylon. It was the generation of the exile that experienced the punishment for the sins that had accumulated throughout the long years of the Davidic monarchy. The injustice and violence and indifference that had slowly become integral to the kingdom of Judah over its long history had finally reached its breaking point. That final generation paid the price for inequities that had built up over centuries.

We may also suppose that the author of the source Jesus quoted viewed his world through a priestly perspective. The two innocent victims Lady Wisdom mentions were priests. Both had been murdered at or near the altar. And the issue of ritual purity, a matter of particular concern to priests, appears to be at work just below the surface. Lady Wisdom warned that all the blood poured out on the land would be demanded from “this generation.” The land she referred to was probably the Holy Land, the land that had been promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their descendants. When those descendants entered into their inheritance God had warned the people not to defile the land as the Canaanites had done with their immoral practices: sexual perversions, idol worship, and the shedding of blood being foremost among them.[14] These practices polluted the land, seeping into the earth, making it sick until finally the land, nauseated by so much wickedness, vomited out its inhabitants (Lev. 18:24-25; 20:22-23).[15] This is what had happened to the Canaanites, Moses warned, and this is what would happen to Israel when and if it forsook the covenant. Now Lady Wisdom proclaimed that this is what was happening to “this generation,” the generation of the exile. So much innocent blood had defiled the land that Israel was about to be spewed out into exile. This was how the blood of the victims would be demanded from “this generation.”

Presumably the source from which Jesus quoted was composed during the Second Temple Period, sometime after the Jews of Babylon had been permitted to return to their ancient homeland. The author of this source attempted to make sense of the experience of exile, interpreting what had happened to Israel for his readers through the voice of Lady Wisdom. He imagined what she would have said to the last generation prior to the exile. The author of this source, probably a priest who served at the altar in the rebuilt Temple, knew that Israel’s return to its homeland was conditional. If Israel repeated the sins of their ancestors—especially through the spilling of innocent blood—they, too, would be vomited out of the land of promise. He ardently hoped that his readers would hearken to the voice of Lady Wisdom.

Why Did Jesus Quote the Wisdom of God?

If the author of the lost source Jesus quoted feared that Israel might one day repeat the sins of their fathers, Jesus believed these fears had been realized in his own day. Jesus lived at a time when a radical kind of militant Jewish nationalism was on the rise.[16] Around the time of Jesus’ birth, when the census was taken that all the people of Judea might be taxed, a new “philosophy” came into vogue which maintained that Israel should recognize no king but God alone (Josephus, Ant. 18:1-10, 23-25). Since God had not issued the decree for the census to be taken and since God had not levied the tax, this philosophy reasoned that true and loyal Israelites should avoid being counted and should absolutely refuse to pay the levy.

This philosophy’s stringent idealism of devotion to God to the exclusion of all human governments, especially to the government of the Roman oppressors, was one side of the coin. It promoted a certain kind of Jewish pride, pride in their customs, in the righteousness of their religion, and in the purity of their race. The other side of the coin was bitter hatred of the enemy, defined as anyone who was not a Jew, and an ugly intolerance even for fellow Jews who saw things differently. This militant Jewish nationalism bred religious violence: violence toward Gentiles and violence toward non-conforming Jews as these nationalists attempted to enforce their interpretation of Judaism upon their fellow countrymen.

Violence, this philosophy reasoned, would cleanse the Holy Land from the impurities that kept Israel enslaved. With violence fellow Jews would be forced to obey the Torah and with violence the foreign peoples and the imperial government would be driven away. For when the people of Israel finally took their faith seriously they would engage in a holy war to purge the Holy Land of the Roman presence, which defiled it. And although the odds against winning such a war appeared staggering, Israel would be invincible because it would have God on its side. Israel had only to start the war with the evil empire, God would finish it.

The Temple in Jerusalem became a natural focal point for this violence.[17] Adjacent to the Temple Roman soldiers were garrisoned in the Antonia Fortress to keep an eye on the worshippers. Their presence became a symbol of Roman oppression and so naturally became a magnet for militant nationalist confrontations. The Temple was also where faithful Jews enacted many of their most important religious rites. For the militants the Temple itself was a symbol of Jewish nationalism. To ensure that the national shrine remained pure, certain religious extremists were known to enforce their standards of conduct on the worshippers, sometimes with threats, sometimes with beatings, sometimes by murder and assassination.

Jesus was one of those first-century Jews who saw things differently. According to Jesus redemption would not come through more violence, redemption would come—of all things—through love. Not that Jesus was an admirer of the Roman Empire—far from it! He knew as well as any how the Romans dominated their conquered peoples through terror. But Jesus believed armed rebellion to be a hopeless cause. As long as Israel fought Roman imperialism on its own turf, meeting violence with violence, countering hatred with more hate, Rome would win. The Romans had mastered the art of war making.

But God has mastered the art of peace making. Jesus looked around at his unjust world full of cruelty and suffering and noticed God doing good indiscriminately to all people, to Jews and non-Jews, rich and poor, evil and good natured, deserving and undeserving alike. “Look how God causes his sun to rise on the evil as well as the good!” Jesus exclaimed. “Look at how he sends the rain not only on those who bless him, but on the ungrateful and the wicked, too!” (Matt. 5:45). God is the creator and master of all things, and yet he exercises his kingship by doing good to everyone. Perhaps there’s something in that. Perhaps God is no fool. Perhaps there is a deeper and stronger power in goodness than there is in the ability to terrify and to harm and destroy. Perhaps if we can learn to do good not only to our neighbors and friends, but also to strangers and even to enemies, we can tap into that power by which God rules the world. Perhaps it is possible to overwhelm evil with good.

Jesus called this loving, life giving power the Holy Spirit, and he called the Holy Spirit’s redeeming activity the Kingdom of Heaven. “If I drive out demons by the Finger of God,” Jesus said (in Matthew’s version it says “by God’s Spirit”), “then the Kingdom of Heaven has come upon you” (Luke 11:20; cf. Matt. 12:28). The driving out of demons was symbolic of a much greater redemption. The same evil spirits that invaded and exploited individuals, causing them to violently lash out against their companions and to inflict injuries on themselves, animated the empires that invaded and exploited Israel, inflicting misery and suffering through brutal governors and turning brother against brother through fear and enticements and deceit.[18]

Jesus believed that if Israel united together in pursuing the way of the Kingdom of Heaven, redemption would come into the world through the power of the Holy Spirit. He not only believed it, he demonstrated how it could happen. It could happen through acts of mercy to the poor, giving generously to those in need, healing the sick, restoring dignity to the despised and ashamed, and countering abuse with the life force of love.

But there came a point when Jesus realized that he had failed to convince the majority of his contemporaries. Despite its brutality—or perhaps because of it—militant Jewish nationalism had populist appeal. Violent overthrow of the enemy fueled by lust for vengeance seemed more “realistic” to Jesus’ contemporaries than his “idealistic” notions about love having the power to change the world. As this sad realization dawned upon Jesus his tone, though not his convictions, began to change. If Israel would not accept redemption through the Kingdom of Heaven, then it would suffer the consequences of the violent populist ideology it had embraced. If Israel was intent upon soaking the Holy Land in blood, then it should be prepared to be vomited out as their ancestors had been once before.

Jesus quoted the words of Lady Wisdom because he believed he was living in another “last” generation. History was tragically repeating itself. What had been true of “this generation,” when Lady Wisdom exhorted Israel prior to the Babylonian exile, was once again true of “this generation” in the middle of the first century. It, too, would face the demand to give back the innocent blood it had stolen. His generation’s inability to pay back that demand would result in that generation being the last generation to enjoy the blessings and privilege of having a Temple.

Abel, Zechariah, and the Martyrs Beneath the Altar


The souls beneath the altar as depicted in a stained-glass window. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Having examined Jesus’ saying in which he quoted the Wisdom of God, we are now in a position to unravel the mystery with which this inquiry began: Why did John the revelator place the souls of the martyrs beneath the altar in his vision of the seven seals? The answer may be that John the revelator tapped into the same ancient Jewish tradition that connected the deaths of Abel and Zechariah by locating both murders at the site of the altar in Jerusalem. The innocent blood of Abel and Zechariah had flowed beneath the earthly altar, and therefore the revelator located the souls of the innocent martyrs beneath the altar in heaven. In this way the chorus of the martyrs’ souls joined with the sound and sight of Abel’s and Zechariah’s blood, which never ceased crying out for justice. For the revelator the souls of the martyrs occupied the same space and filled the same function as the blood of Abel and Zechariah.

Psychosomatic Union

The scriptural understanding of the union of the body and the soul explains why the revelator might have connected the souls of the martyrs to Abel’s and Zechariah’s innocent blood. According to Scripture the נֶפֶשׁ (nephesh, “soul,” or “life force”) resides in every living creature’s blood (דָּם [dām]):

וְאִישׁ אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִן־הַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם אֲשֶׁר יָצוּד צֵיד חַיָּה אוֹ־עוֹף אֲשֶׁר יֵאָכֵל וְשָׁפַךְ אֶת־דָּמוֹ וְכִסָּהוּ בֶּעָפָר׃ כִּי־נֶפֶשׁ כָּל־בָּשָׂר דָּמוֹ בְנַפְשׁוֹ הוּא וָאֹמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל דַּם כָּל־בָּשָׂר לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ כִּי נֶפֶשׁ כָּל־בָּשָׂר דָּמוֹ הִוא כָּל־אֹכְלָיו יִכָּרֵת

Every man among the sons of Israel or among the immigrants who have immigrated among you who hunts game, whether beast or fowl that may be eaten, must pour out its blood and cover it with dust. For the soul/life force [נֶפֶשׁ] of all flesh is its blood [דָּמוֹ], it is in its soul/life force [בְנַפְשׁוֹ]. And so I have said to the children of Israel, “The blood [דַּם] of all flesh you must not eat for the soul/life force [נֶפֶשׁ] of all flesh is its blood [דָּמוֹ]. Everyone who eats it [viz., blood—JNT] will be cut off. (Lev. 17:13-14)

According to this passage in Leviticus the blood of an animal must not be consumed because blood is the soul of every living creature. If souls can have a physical substance, that substance is blood. And that soul-substance is holy. While the animal’s flesh is permitted for human consumption, the soul-substance belongs to God.

We see the same relationship between the “soul” and the “blood” in God’s words to Noah, which we have already quoteded above:

וְאַךְ אֶת־דִּמְכֶם לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם אֶדְרֹשׁ מִיַּד כָּל־חַיָּה אֶדְרְשֶׁנּוּ וּמִיַּד הָאָדָם מִיַּד אִישׁ אָחִיו אֶדְרֹשׁ אֶת־נֶפֶשׁ הָאָדָם

And indeed, your blood [דִּמְכֶם] I will demand for your souls [לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם]. From the hand of every living creature I will demand it, and from the hand of a human being, from the hand of each man’s brother I will demand the soul [נֶפֶשׁ] of a human being. (Gen. 9:5)

Here in the space of a single verse “blood” and “soul” are interchangeable. God can either demand the blood of a victim or he can demand the victim’s soul from the killer. Either way, the demand is the same because blood is the substance where body and soul unites.

It is possible that this verse in Genesis played a role in forming the revelator’s vision of the martyred souls beneath the heavenly altar. In the revelator’s vision God acts on behalf of the martyred souls by demanding their blood from the hands of their killers, in answer, it seems, to the promise to Noah that “I will demand your blood for your souls.”

Sympathetic Cosmos

In addition to the localization at the altar and the scriptural understanding of the psychosomatic union, there is one more motif that the revelator’s vision shares with the tradition about the deaths of Abel and Zechariah: catastrophic disturbance of nature in response to the victims’ demand for justice.

As the story is told in Genesis, when Cain murdered his brother he not only offended Abel, he violated the earth as well. Cain caused the earth to commit an unnatural and obscene act: he forced the earth to open its lips and suck Abel’s innocent blood (Gen. 4:11). As a consequence, the land refused to yield its bounty to Cain. What once had been fertile soil become barren and hostile because of what Cain had done to the earth. Zechariah’s murder was likewise believed to reverberate not only throughout the human community but throughout the natural world as well. Similar to the way Cain had forced the earth drink Abel’s blood, the blood of Zechariah nauseated the earth to the point that it was on the verge of vomiting out the inhabitants who had committed and put up with so much violence for so long.[19] The effects of Abel’s and Zechariah’s murders on the natural world are paralleled in the vision of the seals. In response to the martyred souls’ cry for justice the entire cosmos is shaken. The heavenly orbs are dimmed, the unmovable stars are wrenched from their places, the earth becomes uninhabitable.

In the stories of Abel, Zechariah, and the martyrs the havoc loosed by their murders on the natural order reflects the turmoil such murders generate in the social order. In each story the cosmos is sympathetic with the victims. It feels their pain and champions their cause. In solidarity with the victims the cosmos amplifies their cries for justice ensuring that the victims cannot be ignored. What these stories teach is that a society cannot avoid reckoning with its failures and agressions. If a society does not do so willingly and proactively, the collapse of the natural order will leave it no choice: it must either make restitution or be swallowed up in the crisis of its own making.

Direct Dependence Or Common Tradition?

While I suspect that Jesus’ saying about the blood of Abel and Zechariah being demanded from “this generation” holds the key to unlocking the mystery of the why the souls are located beneath the altar in the vision of the seals in Revelation, I do not think that it is necessary to suppose that the revelator was directly dependent on Jesus’ saying or the source from which Jesus quoted. It may be that the revelator drew on the same tradition that informed Lady Wisdom’s warning, a tradition that located the murders of Abel and Zechariah at or near the altar in Jerusalem and that maintained that the blood of these innocent victims, which could not be blotted out from that holy place, never ceased to call out for God’s attention. The LORD’s hearing and sight of the blood in which the soul dwells would not allow God to forget or excuse the killing of these men at the hands of their brothers.

A Timely Warning

Whether drawing from the same tradition or drawing directly from one another, the revelator, Jesus, and the author who gave voice to Lady Wisdom each adapted the tradition about the blood of Abel and Zechariah to his purpose by relating the demand for justice to different moments of divine judgement. The anonymous author who imagined the speech of Lady Wisdom wrote after the return to Zion. He emphasized that the demand for justice issued by the priestly blood beneath the altar had resulted in the destruction of the First Temple. The Babylonian exile had been the terrible judgment for Israel’s spilling of so much innocent blood. Jesus warned that the blood religious extremists were spilling at and around the Temple in his day would result in another terrible judgment: the destruction of the Second Temple. The revelator, who believed himself to be living in the last days, envisioned the cry of the martyred souls from beneath the altar as the catalyst for the final judgment.

No matter which judgement the tradents referred to, each was confident that his generation would be held accountable for the violence it committed against its members. If a society lacked the self-discipline required to restrain its violent impulses, God would judge that society by demanding back from it all the blood it had so needlessly shed. When a society could not meet that impossible demand (For who can pay back to the victim his blood we have spilled on the ground?) the consequences were severe: The underpinnings of society were taken away. Civil and religious institutions were demolished, The people were driven from their homes, uprooted from their communities, and alienated from their language and traditions. This was the price for a society’s addiction to violence unless that society was willing and able to change.

“This Generation”

When Jesus quoted what Lady Wisdom had spoken to the last pre-exilic generation and reapplied her message to his generation, Jesus indicated that his generation had not learned from Israel’s history. His people had not changed, and as a result they would face the consequences together. The same argument can be made concerning our generation. We who live in the United States have not learned from our history either.

Our history has been one of violence, of stealing the land of one people and kidnapping and enslaving another people so that a few white folk might prosper. The killing of George Floyd—and of so many other unarmed black men, women, and children—proves that we have not made a radical break with our past. As a people we have not repented. We have not collectively mourned the wrongs we have committed. We have not attempted to make restitution to those we have harmed. Rather, we have blamed those we have abused and we have deafened our ears to the sound of their complaints and blinded our eyes to the sight of their blood on our hands. But like the generation before the destruction of the Temple, our time may be running out. Our addiction to violence, fueled by racial hatred, has unleashed demonic forces that plague our society and sickened our environment, turning Mother Nature against us. Our addiction to violence has created a poisoned atmosphere in which some people believe they are justified in squeezing the life out of other people because of the color of their skin.

Those who have risen up in protest against George Floyd’s murder have graciously given us a precious gift. They have given us an opportunity to repent, a chance to change our ways. We have been given a choice, whether to listen to those who insist that black lives matter or whether to listen to those who maintain that there are only a few “bad apples.”[20] It is for us to decide whether we will take the side of the murderers or take up the cause of the martyrs. Will we deny that we are our brothers’ keepers or will we confess that the slave is our brother? How we decide will be up to us. But one thing is sure: if we do not listen to the demand “No justice, no peace,” then God will certainly listen to the outcry and see the vision of the innocent blood we have spilled and demand that blood back from this generation.

“Cain and Abel,” by Dan Cloutier on his album Bottles and Seeds.

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[1] See Ezek. 16:49; m. Avot 5:10. See also Joseph Frankovic, “Emulating the Ways of Sodom,” on

[2] On the souls of the righteous who are kept beneath God’s throne, see b. Shab. 152b and Avot de-Rabbi Natan A §12 (ed. Schechter, 50).

I would like to thank John Coombs of the Early Bird Bible Study at the Thomaston Baptist Church for first suggesting to me that there might be a link between Jesus’ Abel-Zechariah saying and the souls of the martyrs beneath the altar.

[3] I believe Jesus was literate. There is good evidence to suggest that there was a relatively high level of literacy among first-century Jews in the land of Israel. Moreover, the sophistication of Jesus’ teaching suggests that he had a relatively high level of education. The story of Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth in Luke 4 provides direct testimony to Jesus’ literacy. On Jesus’ education, see David Flusser, Jesus (3d ed.; Jerusalem: Magnes, 2001), 29-33; idem, “Hillel and Jesus: Two Ways of Self-Awareness,” in Hillel and Jesus: Comparative Studies of Two Major Religious Leaders (ed. James H. Charlesworth and Loren L. Johns; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 71-107, esp. 93-94.

[4] Elsewhere in his Gospel the author of Matthew identified Daniel as a prophet (Matt. 24:15; cf. Mark 13:14), although Daniel is never called a prophet in Scripture.

[5] For a fuller discussion regarding the reconstruction of Jesus’ Abel-Zechariah saying, see David N. Bivin and Joshua N. Tilton, “Innocent Blood,” a segment of the Life of Yeshua commentary on the Jerusalem Perspective website.

[6] A disagreement between the Lukan and Matthean versions of Jesus’ Abel-Zechariah saying that we cannot discuss in detail here is the reference in Matthew to the crucifixion and flogging in synagogues of some of those who are sent. For reasons Bivin and I discuss in “Innocent Blood,” we believe these details are Matthean additions meant to reflect the perceived experiences of the early Church.

[7] Many scholars have assumed that the mistake was not Matthew’s but Jesus’ and that it was the author of Luke who corrected the mistake by dropping “son of Berechiah.” It is unlikely, however, that the author of Luke would have been able to recognize the mistake if it had occurred in his source. The author of Luke was a Greek speaker whose access to the Scriptures was mediated through the Septuagint. The translators of the Septuagint gave Zechariah the priest’s name as Azariah. Therefore it is unlikley that the author of Luke would have realized that the Zechariah of whom Jesus spoke was the Azariah of 1 Chronicles 24.

[8] Such confusion is known to have taken place also in rabbinic sources. See Sheldon H. Blank, “The Death of Zechariah in Rabbinic Literature,” Hebrew Union College Annual 12/13 (1937-1938): 327-346.

[9] See Isaac Kalimi, “The Story About the Murder of the Prophet Zechariah and its Relation to Chronicles,” Revue Biblique 116.2 (2009): 246-261.

[10] Some scholars have suggested that the reason Abel and Zechariah are brought together is that Abel’s and Zechariah’s murders are the first and last murders that appear in the Jewish Bible. This suggestion is based on the fact that according to the order of the Jewish canon the Books of Chronicles appear last. But while it is true that this is the order of the Jewish Bible today this was not yet the case in the time of Jesus. Indeed, it is anachronistic to speak of a Jewish Bible in the first century, for in those days Scripture was written not in a single codex like modern Bibles, but on individual scrolls. Some scrolls did contain groupings of books that had attained a fixed order, like the Torah scrolls that contained the five books of Moses, or the writings of the twelve minor prophets. But no single scroll existed that contained the entirety of Scripture. Two causes prevented such a comprehensive scroll from being produced. First, the longer the scroll the more unwieldy it became. If made too long, a scroll became practically useless. Scrolls the length of the Torah approached a scroll’s practical limits. Hence no single scroll could contain the entirety of Scripture. Second, the concept of the entirety of Scripture had not yet coalesced. For first century Jews Scripture was not experienced as a single entity, but as a library. That library was not entirely uniform. Some Scripture libraries might have included scrolls that others lacked, and those scrolls lacked a fixed order. Being cylindrical and collected in a heap they shifted position when one scroll was taken out and consulted. The set order of the scriptural books did not come about until Scripture began to be recorded in codices (modern ‘books’) instead of on scrolls. See H. G. L. Peels, “The Blood »from Abel to Zechariah« (Matthew 23,35; Luke 11,50f.) and the Canon of the Old Testament,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 113.4 (2001): 583-601.

[11] According to Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov (late first-early second cent. C.E.) the altar upon which Adam sacrificed, the altar upon which Noah sacrificed, and the altar in Jerusalem were one and the same (Gen. Rab. 34:9 [ed. Theodor-Albeck, 1:317]). See also Ginzberg, 1:151. Presumably Cain and Able sacrificed at Adam’s altar.

[12] Christian tradition, too, places the first human family in the vicinity of Jerusalem. According to this tradition the site of Jesus’ crucifixion was also the site of Adam’s burial. Golgotha, the place of the skull, received its name because this was the place Adam’s skull was ensconced. The earthquake at Jesus’ crucifixion opened a fissure in the rock, which allowed some of Jesus’ blood to trickle down to Adam’s entombed skull. The site of Jesus’ crucifixion, Adam’s tomb, and the fissure that connects them can be seen in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to this day. On this tradition, see Zev Vilnay, Legends of Jerusalem (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1973), 112-113.

[13] Similarly the NLT reads: “May the Lord see what they are doing and avenge my death!”; and the NEB reads, “May the LORD see this and exact the penalty.” Closer to the Hebrew text, but without capturing the nuance is the KJV’s: “The LORD look upon it, and require it”; and the NRSV’s: “May the LORD see and avenge!”

[14] The rabbinic Sages stated it this way:

מקדש ראשון מפני מה חרב ג′ דברים שהיו בו ע″ז וגלוי עריות ושפיכות דמים

The First Temple—on what account was it destroyed? Because of three things that were against it: idolatry, sexual perversion, and the spilling of blood. (b. Yom. 9b)

[15] On the ancient Jewish concept of the pollution of the land through moral impurity, see Jonathan Klawans, “Idolatry, Incest, and Impurity: Moral Defilement in Ancient Judaism,” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period 29.4 (1998): 391-415.

[16] On the rising tide of a militant form of Jewish nationalism in the first century as witnessed in the works of Josephus and the New Testament, see Peter J. Tomson, “Romans 9-11 and Political Events in Rome and Judaea with Some Thoughts on Historical Criticism and Theological Exegesis,” Zeitschrift für Dialektische Theologie 33.1 (2017): 48-73; idem, “Sources on the Politics of Judaea in the 50s CE: A Response to Martin Goodman,” Journal of Jewish Studies 68.2 (2017): 234-259.

[17] On the Temple as a focal point of Jewish aspirations for political independence, see Daniel R. Schwartz, “Introduction: On the Jewish Background of Christianity” in his Studies in the Jewish Background of Christianity (Tübingen: Mohr [Siebeck], 1992), 1-26, esp. 9-10 where he explained, “The central problem of the Second Temple period was the contradiction between the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, which seemed to be the palace of a sovereign in the capital of his state, and the fact of foreign sovereignty (italics original). Ibid., “Temple and Desert: On Religion and State in Second Temple Period Judaea,” 29-43.

[18] On the relationship between demon possession and colonization, see my discussion in “‘Build That Wall!’: The Morals of Wall Building in the Light of Jesus’ Gospel,” under the subheading “How Was the Kingdom of Heaven Proclaimed?” and the literature cited there.

[19] The consequences of Zechariah’s murder can also be viewed in terms of ritual purity. A human corpse is the most highly contaminating source of ritual impurity there is. People who came into contact with a corpse were to stay far away from the Temple, but Zechariah’s murderers had caused a corpse itself to be present within the very courtyard of the Temple. The ritual defilement of the Temple was a serious matter. Impurity repels holiness. If the Temple becomes impure it cannot house the divine presence. And if the divine presence withdraws from the Temple, Israel becomes easy prey to its enemies. Though foreign to modern secular worldviews and often ridiculed by uncomprehending Christians, the ancient Jewish system of ritual purity taught deeply moral and spiritual lessons. In the present case it taught that the violence a society commits disrupts that society’s relationship with God, thereby destroying the underpinnings of its existence and threatening it with annihilation. For an introduction to the ancient Jewish concept of ritual purity, see Joshua N. Tilton, “A Goy’s Guide to Ritual Purity” on the Jerusalem Perspective website.

[20] I do not mean to suggest that every police officer or every enforcer of the status quo acts in bad faith or with racist intent. What I do mean is that it is necessary to recognize that the status quo is corrupt and our system of policing is sick. That is why it produces so many “bad apples.” We need a system in which black lives matter as much as all the other lives in our society.

1 thought on “The Demands of This Generation”

  1. You have made it so clear! To our peril we have let the voices become drowned out in the endless chatter of our lives but God has not! He will do what He needs to do and our responsibility is to repent of our unbelief. We have heard them, then tuned out the voices crying and chosen to ignore or not believe them. Thank you for revealing scripture and helping us find a way forward. Pearl

    Sent from my iPhone



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