By Man Shall His Blood Not Be Shed?

Anyone who sheds the blood of a human being, by a human being shall that one’s blood be shed; For in the image of God have human beings been made.
—Genesis 9:6

A development of doctrine should work like an insight, which is a flash that unifies the disparate, makes radiant the previously unintelligible, and floods the body with a pleasure unique to the mind’s eros.[1] With insight achieved, the tension of inquiry finds a release, and the innate drive to know leaps forward to its terminus in a rational judgment that concludes either yes, on the basis of sufficient evidence, this insight is indeed so, or no—back to the drawing board. What is true here on the level of the individual mind applies as well to the mind of the Church, to the body of Christ in its joyous and endless exegetical task. In that searching of the Scriptures which Christ enjoins (John 5:39), the Spirit’s own searching of the deep things of God (1 Cor. 2:10) becomes, mirabile dictu, accessible to the Church. And when Christ’s ecclesial body communes in the Lord’s scriptural flesh, the latter becomes the matrix for the mind’s unending play of inquiry and insight, as the questions provoked by history’s uninterrupted march return to the Church to its perpetual sources in order to discern the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16).

And so the game of interpretation begins! The polyphony of biblical voices in the canon harmonizes under the baton of an Athanasius’s powerful hand; the nuances of the Law shine forth under an eye as keen as the Damascene’s; a Newman surveys the history of interpretation and, like a native citizen of the place, reassures us that this difficult terrain can be a land of delights.

In sum: the insight is delivered; the Church, in time, accepts it; and dogma moves on together with the Church, ready for the next question the Spirit’s desire and the mission of the Church will conspire to incite. Whatever new understanding is gained in this process of doctrine unfolding will eventually penetrate so deeply into the texture of the Church’s mind that for its future members, it will appear remarkable that the Church could ever have thought differently or kept latent what is so blindingly obvious. For it is a mark of an insight that the distance separating before and after gapes like a canyon’s shocked grin.

Lest I be accused of painting too bloodless a picture of doctrinal development, let me acknowledge upfront that the story I narrated is an ideal. It is a sad and unforgettable truth that no doctrine comes on the scene without leaving division in its wake, both within the ranks of those who grudgingly submit to the proclamations of the hierarchy and without, as greater dogmatic clarity is often purchased at the price of Christian unity. “Scandal” is not too harsh a word for this seemingly endemic feature of Christian history, and the fact that the same impulse to communal dismemberment is easily identified in any human society is a small comfort, at least to the Christian who takes seriously St. Paul’s perplexity at the very possibility of rupture within Christ’s body (1 Cor. 1:10-17).

Not to mention the fact that Christian disunity over doctrine has proven, time and again, a scandal to the world as well. Russian philosopher Semyon Frank was surely right when he lamented:

And if we bear in mind the amount of cruelty, hatred and evil engendered by dogmatic dissensions, the bloodshed they have caused, the way they have made the church in its historical development stray from Christ’s main commandment of love—we shall find it easy to understand why people of independent religious spirit should be hostile to the “dogmas of religion” and see in them nothing but harmful errors and shameful superstitions.[2]

Still, if the Church is to be made up of real men and women, then these must bring with them their minds, and so the question of what precisely the Church believes and whether its doctrinal formulations are faithful to the testimony of the Church’s life, and especially to its scriptures, cannot be swept away as some external imposition on the Church’s more aboriginal and pristine life of mutual affect alone. If the Church is the recipient of a gift and the herald of a message, then its proclamation must have a definite shape, and it is the privilege of those in the Church to be carried along with the Spirit in thinking God’s thoughts here on earth. And if this is so, then it is an especially fortunate thing to live to see a doctrine’s further clarification and proclamation. Just such an event transpired, in fact, two years ago, on 11 May 2018, when Pope Francis approved a change in the Catechism’s teaching on capital punishment.[3]

 Pope Francis’s revisions took Pope John Paul II’s already rather reformist line and perfected its logic: “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” As with every authoritative proclamation of Church teaching, extensive debate concerning the legitimacy of this change has preceded and followed Francis’s declaration. Though the arguments run the gamut (philosophical, ethical, exegetical and theological), one at times senses that the debate is less about the death penalty than about the continuity of the magisterial tradition itself—a concern that surfaces in every moment of the Church’s doctrinal development, it is true, but one which makes itself more pronounced in our age of acute historical consciousness.[4]

Complicating matters further still is the fact that necessary exegetical disputes over the Christian legitimacy of the death penalty almost inevitably eventuate in juxtapositions of Old Testament and New Testament texts. This approach is suggested even by the Catechism’s own explicit explanation of its most recent change: “Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’” (italics mine).

What normative weight, then, should be given to those Old Testament texts prescribing capital punishment (e.g., Gen 9:6; Lev 20:10)? Compared to Jesus’s unilateral dismissal of the death penalty when presented with a case for its fulfillment—I speak of the incident in John 8—Old Testament texts seem naturally to wane in their normative significance; indeed, it is likely that Pope Francis had exactly John 8 in mind when penning this amendation to the Catechism.

But these exegetical moves inevitably conjure up the ghost of Marcion, together with the Church’s history of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. If the death penalty truly is inadmissible because it contravenes the intrinsic dignity of the human person, then do the Jewish Scriptures take on, functionally and, despite formal protestations to the contrary, the status of second-class revelation for the Church?

This is one of the most pressing questions raised by the change to the Catechism. It is also a question which can only be answered by theologians showing the new teaching to be a genuine insight into the Scriptures—all of them, both New and Old. Of course, to show the inadmissibility of the death penalty, as the end-point of a trajectory already tending in this direction for some time, is a perfectly valid form of argumentation; it is one kind of intelligiblity we may grasp in the texts of biblical revelation. But the controversy over Pope Francis’s emendation of the Catechism suggests that an insight of this sort is not enough. Those who already communed in the spirit of St. John Paul II’s writings on the Gospel of Life and in Pope Benedict XVI’s encouragement for the death penalty’s full abolishment will naturally be satisfied with this argument and demand nothing more.

But even these Catholics may agree at least to this: further questions on the justification for this change remain, especially if we are interested not just in shoring up our own convictions but in convincing our brothers and sisters in Christ, that is, if we desire, like the Lord invites the Church, to “come and reason together” so that we may have the same mind that is in Christ Jesus: humility. For it is surely a tragedy to have a moment of doctrinal development, which ought to be an occasion of jubilation, become instead a temptation, an invitation to see the Catechism’s change as merely an instance of “indexing moral theology to public opinion.”  

That means that those who support this change and see in it a clearer revelation of the Gospel’s fundamental implications have work to do. Together with our fellow Catholics, we yearn to learn how the new doctrine synthesizes divergent scriptural texts, demonstrating that creativity characteristic of all insights in their drawing upwards into coherence what on a first, puzzled glance seemed random and inchoate. We wish to see this new development irradiating the sacred page, making obvious what was sensed only vaguely, if at all.


We shall start on this journey and our focus will be, appropriately enough, the book of beginnings, Genesis, where the Bible’s clearest warrant for capital punishment appears. Broadly speaking, my aim is to bring to the surface tensions inherent in the Genesis narrative concerning how God wishes to deal with the problem of bloodguilt—the primary purpose for which capital punishment was first imposed. More specifically, we will be looking at the Joseph story that concludes Genesis (chs. 37-50), for in this tale the question of how to deal with the stain of bloodguilt reaches its climactic resolution. Following in the tradition of early Christian figural readings of Scripture, I propose to read the story “in light of the Gospel,” as the Catechism does,[5] but this do not mean that I will simply note parallels between the life of Christ and the Joseph story.[6]

Rather, I take this established parallel as a starting point in order to discern in the Joseph story a solution to bloodguilt other than the answer of retributive justice first given in Genesis 9:5-6. The reading does not rely on the New Testament injunctions against violence in order to correct Genesis, and it does not consider Genesis 9:5-6 as some sort of unrefined revelation awaiting Christian sifting. Rather, my interpretation is grounded in the narrative logic of Genesis itself, for I read Genesis 9:5-6 as a significant moment in the book’s eventual overcoming of the demand for retributive justice in the face of murder.

But just because this interpretation of Genesis is logically independent of the New Testament does not mean that it is disconnected from the latter. Quite the opposite, in fact: in the light of Christ’s own forgiveness of those who put him to death, the subtle subversion of capital punishment in the Genesis narrative becomes especially manifest. Like any true insight, then, this new doctrine brings inquiry to its terminus in understanding and judgment—with our inquiry this time constituted by the question concerning the status of these Old Testament pro-capital punishment texts, a question explicitly provoked by the Church’s recent proclamation.

The typological relationship between Jesus and Joseph is particularly illuminating on this score, I will argue, by virtue of the fact that Genesis presents Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers as YHWH’s own forgiveness of their crime. In some mysterious sense, we might say that Joseph in this story is YHWH incarnate, and that the way he deals with the bloodguilt of his brothers against him indicates the alternative means God will use to satisfy the demands of justice: through the more sublime logic of purgative suffering and forgiveness.


The problem of bloodguilt in Genesis appears almost immediately after humanity’s expulsion from paradise. YHWH’s preference for Abel’s offering in Genesis 4 provokes Cain’s wrath against his brother, with the result that human blood is spilled. But the surprise for the reader of this story who knows the Law lies not so much in God’s preference for Abel’s sacrifice than in God’s remission of Cain’s bloodguilt, even after the latter vocalizes his defiant disdain of family with his infamous retort, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God allows Cain to live, and even threatens any who would kill him.

Cain’s descendant Lamech, father of Noah, carries forward this pattern of murder without retribution. The reminder in the genealogy of Genesis 5 that humanity was made in God’s image and likeness sits awkwardly alongside this descent into the depths of violence, yet its placement here foreshadows the fact that in Genesis 9 murder and the image of God will once again be thematically connected.

The issue of how to deal with murder arises again in the Flood story that occupies Genesis 6-9. After the Flood, God comes to acknowledge that his hopes that human beings could overcome sin, as he had expressed to Cain in Genesis 4:7, were naive; every inclination of their heart is now evil, so full of violence and murder is the earth, and thus God’s only option is total destruction. After the Flood, however, God changes his mind.

In one of the most striking about-faces of the entire Bible, God declares that his choice never to destroy the earth again is grounded in the fact that “the desires of their [humanity’s] heart are evil from their youth” (Gen 8:21)—the precise rationale given in Genesis 6:5 for why God chose to execute the Flood in the first place. God’s accommodation to the reality of pervasive, deeply-rooted human sin seems total; if there will be a further divine answer for the sin of murder, it will not be annihilation. Accordingly, God’s setting of a limit to sin becomes a reality immanent to the world and not transcendent, as human blood that is spilled will be avenged by humanity, not through God’s supernatural wrath (Gen 9:6).

If we seem to have strayed from our topic, Joseph, it was nonetheless necessary for our interpretation of the end of Genesis to establish these foundational points: the judgment of God and the problems of violence and bloodguilt, the most extreme manifestations of sin. The way God will solve these problems after the Flood is through human agency, as Genesis 9:6 intimates, and yet the rise of one human, Joseph in God’s image and likeness, will suggest that God has other and more surprising strategies for dealing with the same problems.

The tale of Joseph is a familiar one, and so I trust you know the outline at least; all we need is to fill in the most relevant details. In Joseph’s brothers, Cain lives again, and so Joseph, as the innocent victim, becomes responsible for the dealing with his brothers’ bloodguilt. And note this point too, one pivotal for interpreting what follows in the story: though Reuben Jacob’s first-born manages to steer the brothers away from a literal shedding of blood, Judah’s suggestion that the brothers sell Joseph into slavery is, according to Jewish Law, functionally equivalent to murder (Ex 21:16). And so Joseph, whose ultimate destiny the brothers could never know, is as good as dead to them.[7] Even the deception they enact against their father with Joseph’s coat proves they are dabbling in blood and thus liable for bloodguilt.

Of course, as Joseph discloses later in the story, what the brothers meant for evil, God meant for good, and through a series of social elevations and descents, Joseph is eventually catapulted to the heights of power and glory in Egypt. This sets the stage for the narrative to turn its climatic corner with the arrival in Egypt of Joseph’s brothers, hungry for grain and starving from the famine. Joseph obscures his true identity, and his deceptive acts of cold suspicion—jailing his brothers, accusing them of being spies—eventually provoke in the brothers the return of the repressed: immediately they associate their predicament with their original murderous intent towards their brother:

On the third day Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: if you are honest men, let one of your brothers remain confined where you are in custody, and let the rest go and carry grain for the famine of your households, and bring your youngest brother to me. So your words will be verified, and you shall not die.” And they did so. Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood” (Gen 42:18-22; cf. 44:16).

The same brother who attempted to dissuade the brothers from their original plan to leave Joseph to die of thirst and starvation in the pit now invokes upon them all the price of bloodguilt.[8] The “reckoning” demanded here is identical to what God will demand in the Noachic covenant (Gen 9:5), and given the fact that the verb root is found with this meaning only these two times in Genesis, it is likely that we are meant to interpret Reuben’s lament in light of God’s post-Flood accommodation to sin and his consequent delegation of justice to humans in matters of lethal violence. What is striking, however, is that Reuben’s successful aversion of the shedding of Joseph’s blood in Genesis 37 seems, to their mind, to still be counted to them as if they had killed their brother; as noted above, for all they know, he is likely dead.[9]

Yet their blood, literally understood, will not be required of them. Nonetheless, mercy and justice meet in the deceptions Joseph enacts against his brothers. If after the Flood God put into human hands the divine recompense expected for the shedding of blood, it will be at Joseph’s hands that the price is collected.

They will pay measure for measure for their crimes in a scheme contrived to bring their repressed guilt to consciousness and to create opportunities for repentance, healing, and change.[10] This transformation occurs through an escalating series of reversals of fortune for the brothers that mirror Joseph’s own descending and ascending. But simultaneous with the brothers’ purgation, the narrator begins a series of identifications between God and Joseph which increase in dramatic irony before reaching a final swell in the last chapter of the book.

The trials of the brothers begin with Joseph’s accusations against them that they are spies from Canaan. Their three-day prison stint is followed by a return home with sacks full of grain and money, the very money they meant to spend on their food. The terrified response of the brothers upon discovering the money further communicates Joseph’s exalted role: “At this their hearts failed them, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?” (Gen 42:28). The “lord of the land” requires that they produce their youngest brother, they tell their father, and Jacob eventually acquiesces.

The brothers fulfill Joseph’s request to return with Benjamin, and when they do, Joseph deceives them again, this time saying through his steward: “Peace to you, fear not. Your God and the God of your father has put treasure in your sacks for you. I received your money” (Gen. 43:23). More and more Joseph begins to stand in for God; what began with a cryptic, symmetrical elision between the two in Joseph’s first act of dream interpretation (“Isn’t it God to whom interpretations belong? Tell it, I pray you, to me) (Gen. 40:8, emphasis mine) grows more explicit as the tale progresses.[11]

The final descent for the brothers takes place when Joseph’s divination cup is surreptitiously placed in Benjamin’s bag. Once again a “beloved son” in Genesis must suffer,[12] and he is endangered in the same way Joseph previous was; now comes the test to see whether the brothers will turn on Rachel’s son once more. Joseph’s steward stops the brothers on their way out of the city and back to Canaan, and when he accuses them of theft he utters, on Joseph’s command, an ironic reversal of the story’s main theme: “Why have you repaid evil for good?” (Gen. 44:4).

Judah, as the ringleader of the group who gave the final suggestion to sell Joseph into slavery, fesses up before his incognito brother to the crime which put Joseph in this very position of judge over him. The confession, like Jacob’s to Esau, will repeatedly call Joseph by the divinely suggestive, “my lord.” “Judah replied: ‘What can we say to my lord? How can we plead or how try to prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt’” (Gen 44:16). Once again a character in the story speaks of Joseph as God on account of ignorance, but we the readers know better: it is not God directly who uncovers the guilt, but it is God acting through Joseph who is overseeing the process of dealing with the guilt of the brothers.[13]

In their final meeting with their disguised brother Joseph, Judah—the one who first led the brothers into sin—now leads them out of its due punishment when he offers himself as a substitute for the life of Benjamin. The curse of fratricide begun with Cain begins to be undone. Joseph breaks down, reveals his true identity, and falls on Benjamin’s neck, weeping. The love of the two sons of Rachel encompasses the entire clan; the song of sibling rivalry crescendos only to resolve. And although God has been largely invisible in this story, Joseph attributes everything—everything—to his hidden hand, including the brothers’ betrayal:

“Come closer to me,” Joseph told his brothers. When they had done so, he said: “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. But now do not be distressed, and do not be angry with yourselves for having sold me here. It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you. The famine has been in the land for two years now, and for five more years cultivation will yield no harvest. God, therefore, sent me on ahead of you to ensure for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So it was not really you but God who had me come here; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt (Gen. 45:4-8).[14]

The consistent repetition of “God” in this passage communicates the point. Whatever agency humans may possess, all is so sublated in God’s will that it appears as if the human actors have done nothing. And God’s will for Joseph and his brothers is clear: forgiveness, purgation, and reconciliation. In the very moment when Joseph could have fulfilled the Noachic command to requite the blood that his brothers intended to shed, Joseph chose a more excellent way.


A shadow darkens the pages of Genesis, however, as the ghost of a young Esau, another deceived and abused brother of Genesis, begins to haunt Joseph’s brothers following their father’s death. The echo of Esau’s curse against Jacob the trickster resounds in these final pages of the tale: “‘Let the time of mourning for my father come, so that I may kill my brother Jacob’” (Gen 27: 41). Perhaps Joseph intends to do the same to his kin. And so they will appeal to Joseph’s mercy, throwing themselves at his feet.

Joseph responds twice with the words that are almost the exclusive prerogative of God in the book of Genesis: “Fear not” (Gen 50:19, 21). Whereas the last time Joseph told his brothers not to fear (Gen 43:23) it was in the process of deception, here there are no more pretenses, no more guilt to expiate. All we have is the reassuring love of one man to his broken and frightened brothers: “Do not fear. Am I in the place of God?”

Even as Joseph divests himself from the place of God—not regarding equality with God and his judgment as something to be grasped—he speaks comfort divine. “Retribution, punishment, the agony of guilt, these are not the end for Joseph’s God.”[15] Beyond his work in saving Egypt and the broader world from death in famine, it is here, in forgiving his brothers, that Joseph truly lives up to his new name, Zaphenath-paneah: “God speaks and lives/makes live.”[16]


This is how the Joseph story answers the question of bloodguilt that the book of Genesis has been raising throughout the course of its narrative. God may have instituted the death penalty as a legitimate response to murder, but he has asked from humanity, and received, a more merciful way. So he enfolded everyone in disobedience, including the beloved sons, so that he might have mercy on all.

With these thoughts in mind, we may return with fresh eyes to the Catechism’s updated teaching on the death penalty. In one of its most suggestive lines, it reads: “Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.” Note the concordance with the message of the Joseph story: Joseph’s creative means of provoking in his brothers a moral transformation allowed them, functionally guilty of murder as they were, to find redemption in the form of expiation and restoration to their commnity.

I do not mention this to offer a facile felix culpa theology of grievous sin; the point instead is to encourage Christians to understand that the same Gospel—present in Jesus’s forgiveness of his own murderers (Luke 23:34) and enacted by followers, both in the Scriptures (Acts 7:6) and throughout Christian history up to this day—can also be found in the Old Testament. The “light of the Gospel” shines there too, as the Christian Church has affirmed since its earliest beginnings.

A reading like the one offered here does not, of course, obviate other Old Testament texts which clearly prescribe the death penalty. It is not an exegetical magic trick that pulls out new doctrinal rabbits from old and familiar hats. What it does do, one hopes, is resolve some of the tension of inquiry initiated by the Church’s doctrinal development on the question of capital punishment.

If this essay has contributed to that effort of demonstrating the synthesis of biblical texts possible through the Church’s new insight; if it has shown more clearly the coherence of this new moral admonition in the light of Scripture; and if it has even provoked some delight and appreciation of the genius of the Spirit who gave us these texts to nurture our moral imaginations—that, for this theologian, would be privilege enough.

[1] See chapter one of Bernard Lonergan, Insight.

[2] God With Us: Three Meditations (London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1946), 87.

[3] See the CDF letter to the bishops which explicitly names the change to the catechism as a development of doctrine. The same letter identifies Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae as the catalyst for greater “refinement” of the Church’s teaching on this matter.

[4] For example, in Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2017), 11.

[5] My debt to Gary A. Anderson’s work on this score is immense. See his: Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Baker), 2017.

[6] Ably documented by Gary Anderson in the article “Joseph and the Passion of Our Lord” in eds. Ellen F. Davis and Richard Hays The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

[7] Robert Alter, (The Art of Biblical Narrative [New York: Basic Books, 2011], 207-208) concludes that whatever splicing of sources can be detected in ch. 37 concerning Joseph’s fate, the editor’s purpose was to “intimate some moral equivalence between kidnapping and murder.” Cf. Ackerman, “Joseph,” 99.

[8] Stone, “Joseph,” 68.

[9] Alter, Art, 205.

[10] A masterful description of how Joseph will repay his brothers measure for measure while also bringing their repressed guilt to consciousness can be found in Ackerman, Joseph,” 87-98.

[11] Cf. Brodie (Genesis, 370) “As in the case of Pharaoh, there is even a touch of God about him. He had said interpretations belong to God (40:8), yet he himself had given interpretations (40:9-19).”

[12] Jon Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven: Yale, 1993).

[13] This word for guilt (עָוֹן) turns up only four times in Genesis, and each time it relates to crimes considered capital: Cain’s iniquity (Gen. 4:13); the iniquity of the Amorites who will be expelled from the land four-hundred years or so later after the promise to Abraham (Gen. 15:16); the iniquity of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:15); and here, where selling someone into slavery is functionally equivalent to murder.

[14] Brodie (Genesis, 392) reads this passage too as a theophany.

[15] Humphreys, Character, 222.

[16] Brodie, Genesis, 376.

Feature Image: Diego Velazquez, Joseph's Cloak, 1630; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Roberto J. De La Noval

Roberto J. De La Noval is a University of Notre Dame PhD in theology who translates Russian theological texts. He is also a freelance commentator on theology, philosophy, and pop culture whose online writings can be found here.

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