6 Apr 2016

Eye for an Eye, Moses vs. Jesus and Lex Talionis: Word of Vengeance or Word of Grace?

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Contemporary Ethics, Discipleship, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds

A pretty cool movie. But totally inaccurate vision of what the Bible means by “eye for an eye.” In fact, Norris’ course of action is forbidden by “eye for an eye.”

Recently I have had to return to Matthew 5.38-39 and its background in the Hebrew Bible. Several times in fact. So I have decided to write about.

If there ever was just one “notion” that Christians use to caricature the Hebrew Bible it is lex talionis.  It is a biased cultural staple deeply embedded in western Protestant and Evangelical Christianity.  And as much as I enjoy a Chuck Norris roundhouse kick, it is beyond certain that he and Christians have grossly abused God’s word at this point.

Moses will likely have a few words with a number of folks during eternity.  Jesus too will likely have a few words of  his own as his commentary on Moses in the Sermon on the Mount is routinely twisted.

So what does the text actually say? and why does the text say it? But why go check something out if you already believe you know what it means? Fortunately, Scripture is constantly exhorting us to “test the spirit” or “to see if it is so.”  This is a constant endeavor not a one time thing.

Context matters.

Yeshua said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say unto you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

I have found great irony when those who want to show the radical difference in the spirit of the Old Testament and the New Testament they cite this verse. It is even more ironic when the Christian is also wearing a t-shirt that says “A single B-2 will solve the middle east crises” (I saw one the other day).

A Jew Protests Christian Caricature 

There is little doubt that Jesus’s words are radical and challenging. They do not, however, do what is commonly assumed.  They do not replace a hateful OT spirit with a grace and love filled NT spirit. Indeed we often do not understand either Jesus’ point nor Moses’ point in their respective contexts. Seventeen Hundred years of anti-Judaic reading, often without any interest in what Moses’ actually said, is difficult to overcome.

Sometimes a Jewish scholar can help set us free (both Jesus and Moses are Jewish) from our blindness. The great Jewish biblical scholar Nahum Sarna in his book Exploring Exodus complains against Christians on Exodus 21.23-24 mightily saying,

Few other sections of the Bible have suffered as much distortion at the hands of Christians. The phrase ‘an eye for an eye’ at once evokes in the popular mind notions of primitive vengeance. Worse, it is then ignorantly portrayed as epitomizing the dominant principle of law in the Hebrew Bible, and this misrepresentation is exacerbated by projecting it into the realm of theology, with prejudicial effect” (pp. 182-83).

It does not take a lot of reading or listening to know that this “misrepresentation” into the “realm of theology” has had a “prejudicial effect.”

One of the great biblical scholars of the 20th century. His writings are rich.

One of the great biblical scholars of the 20th century. His writings are rich.

Lex talionis was GRACE to Women & Slaves

Moses, however, is not discussing personal vendettas in Exodus and the Hebrew Bible actually forbids these as we will see. In its literary context, Moses is giving guidance to judges, not individuals taking the law into their own hands.

Second in the immediate context he is discussing the protection of the most vulnerable people in any society, those of lower social standing from those with power.  In this context it is explicitly that of slaves and female salves in particular from unlimited power by men.

When men who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows then you {plural = community} shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

When a slave owner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye. If the owner knocks out a tooth of a male or female slave, then the slave shall be let go, a free person, to compensate for the tooth.  (Exodus 21.22-27)

These words are quite radical and make judgement both equal and importantly proportional to what the slave owner has inflicted upon the male or female slave. These words are directed to judges and the community on behalf of the slave. Had these words ruled in the slave states in the South there would have been far less abuse.  These words are a deterrent as we shall see.

If a slave owner injures a slave, the enslaver will be held accountable. This is radical. Brevard Childs, like Sarna, notes how in the ancient world this was a quantum leap forward by Moses. The slave was not mere property but a human being with rights and protection from God. Moses affirms the personhood of the abused slave. Childs writes,

The effect was to provide protection to members of inferior social standing and provide equality before the law from acts of physical violence. The wealthy could no longer escape punishment for their crime by simply paying a fine. Thus the principle of lex talionis marked an important advance in the history of law and was far from being a vestige from a primitive age … A clear example of the new Hebrew material on old material emerges in the law … If a master injures his slave, whether in a serious way with the loss of an eye, or with the insignificant loss of a tooth, the slave is to be freed. Obviously the law is seeking to prevent any kind of mistreatment towards slaves by lumping all injuries together without distinction … A slave is not freed because of property damage, but because he is an oppressed human being” (Book of Exodus, 472-73).

Moses law, here in Exodus, has nothing whatsoever to do with personal vengeance. It has nothing to do with taking the law into one’s own hands John Wayne style. Rather it has everything to do with the abuse of slaves, especially female slaves. Moses says, “You will not abuse them in any fashion and if you do you will pay at the hands of the entire community. Can you imagine how different antebellum South would have been had this been practiced!?

Exodus 21, in fact, moves “justice” out of the realm of personal vendetta and places it in the greater community.  Exodus 21 is a word of Grace to those who routinely had been injured, maimed and even killed by the rich and powerful by making those usually able to merely buy their way out of justice equal to the slave they have abused.  The slave owner will be held to the equal standard of his treatment of the slave.  The crime the owner has perpetuated against the powerless of society, society will exact from him.

Not only did this law apply equally to the powerful but it Israel could not discriminate based on ethnicity.  “You shall have but one law for the alien and the citizen: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 24.19).  Everyone was equal. This is indeed a word of grace, a word of equality, a word that is surprisingly egalitarian.

Crimes were judged and punished in the community gates.

Crimes were judged and punished by the elders in the community gates.

A Place for Vengeance?

The Hebrew Bible is grossly misrepresented by the caricature of “eye for an eye.” Jesus has not attacked Moses.  Rather his own words are rooted in Moses and the rest of the Hebrew Bible (many do not know that principally because Moses is not read in every church like he was in James and Paul’s day, Acts 15.21) . Here are some texts in the biblical tradition in Jesus’ day that he, the Jews and early followers of the Way knew:

Vengeance is mine, and recompense” (Deut 32.35)

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Lev 19.18, cf. v.33)

Do not say, ‘I will repay evil,’
wait for the LORD,
and he will help you
” (Proverbs 20.22)

Do not say, ‘I will do to others as they have done to me;
I will pay them back for what they have done
‘” (Proverbs 24.29)

If your enemies are hungry,
give them bread to eat;
and if they are thirsty,
give them water to drink;
for you will heap coals of fire on their heads,
and the LORD will reward you”
(Proverbs 25.21-22)

Anger and wrath, these also are abominations,
yet a sinner holds on to them.
The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance,
for he keeps a strict account of their sins.
Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done,
and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.
Does anyone harbor anger against another,
and expect healing from the Lord.
If a mere mortal harbors wrath,
who will make an atoning sacrifice for his
” (Sirach 28.1-5)

Offering the Cheek

Moses and Jesus are on the same page on the issue of personal vendettas and vengeance. There is no place for hate, grudges, vendettas among God’s People. Ever!

Instead of anger or wrath even toward our enemy we are to be the instrument of God’s blessing to them. This is not new with Jesus. Jesus is filling out (= the meaning of fulfill)  the Torah. Moses was in heaven listening to Jesus preach Matthew 5 and was in the Amen corner!

Jesus is talking to people that took something regarding protection of women and slaves and judgement by the entire community and claimed it as their own. Jesus said NO! As Childs notes “it is a basic misunderstanding of these verses {Mt 5.38f} to see here evidence that Jesus merely sought to abrogate a particularly cruel law for a more humane, liberal approach. As if he offered a higher spiritualized ethic to replace Israel’s primitive morality!” (Book of Exodus, p. 490).

We need to pay attention to context. But because people are not aware of Jesus’s own context they never go through the trouble of looking at Moses.  Both Moses and Jesus are against personal revenge!

Even Jesus’s statement “but I say unto you … turn the other cheek” is something that Yeshua found in his reading, praying and feeding on the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible speaks of undeserved and deserved suffering and mentions offering one’s cheek to the smiter in both cases. Jesus read Isaiah 50.4-9 (a Suffering Servant Song). In Mt 5.39, the Lord uses the actual words from this text. In verse we read,

“I gave my back to those who struck me,
AND MY CHEEKS to those who pulled my beard;
I did not hide my face from insult and spitting”

In the book of Lamentations (one of the five most ignored books in the Bible) we encounter a long poem from “the Wounded Healer” (as Leslie Allen calls him in his excellent A Liturgy of Grief: A Pastoral Commentary on Lamentations). It begins with a testimony of suffering (3.1-24). He then offers an exhortation (3.25-39). For my purposes we want to note the words in 3.25-30. In the context of Lamentations there is no doubt that the suffering is understood as punishment by the prophetic author(s). The Hebrew syntax is dense and requires slowing down and paying attention. Our words are preceded by the comforting, and famous, declaration that God’s HESED is new every morning (3.22-24)

Yahweh is good to the one who waits patiently for him,
to the person who resorts to him.
It is good to be both hopeful and quiet, anticipating Yahweh’s help.
It is good for a man to carry the yoke even when young,
to sit alone in quietness because Yahweh has place it on him,
to bite the dust – perhaps patient waiting will turn into reality –
TO OFFER HIS CHEEK TO THE STRIKER and get a lot of insults.

The notion of refraining from retaliation and even to the point of offering one’s cheek to an attacker is an notion already embedded in the Hebrew Bible. It is a notion taken up by Jesus but it did not begin with him. Loving our neighbor, even our enemy, requires far more than merely not hitting back. It means to actively bless in the Hebrew Scriptures and even offering a cheek in two important texts.  As I have written in a previous blog the Hebrew Bible calls us to Have the Heart of the Stranger: The Old Testament and Loving our Neighbor.

“Coming within understanding Distance”

Hearing the Bible, any of it, is no easier in our day than it was in Jesus’ day. We all have that inclination to take passages out of context because it serves some individualistic and even sectarian purpose in our life. We must be on guard and not afraid to “check” our assumptions and do a little digging.  Such an exercise is eminently biblical.

Rather than vengeance, God’s people in Moses day, Isaiah’s day, in Sirach’s day, and in Jesus’ day are to bless those who are our enemy. Vengeance has never belonged to the individual.  When we do the simple Berean act of “seeing if it is so” we learn:

  1. Moses is speaking specifically to a situation involving the protection of women and slaves
  2. Moses insists that the powerful be held accountable to what they have done to the poor and powerless
  3. Moses prevents revenge even on the part of the slave by making judgement and punishment a communal exercise. The Law forbids the kind of “honor” killings that are so prevalent even today in some cultures.
  4. Moses reflect justice and mercy.  If the “owner” so much as damages even a tooth then the slave is set free to “compensate” for the tooth. If slavery in the United State abided by this law slavery would have ceased to exist long before the Civil War.
  5. Moses gives a word of grace to the ones most frequently abused by the system.

Jesus is filling out what the Torah said itself. Jesus is not “correcting” Moses much less contradicting him. Jesus’s entire philosophy of care for the least of these comes from Moses and the Hebrew Bible.

Punishment in Exodus is not vengeance but communal protection of ‘the least of these’ from the machinations of the powerful elite. This is Good News for slaves.  This is liberation for women. This is equality for the poor who cannot bribe the system.

The most radical way of not being an enemy to your enemy is found in Isaiah 50 and Lamentations 3.  Yahweh is “good” to give one’s cheek to the smiter … that is as counterculture as you can get beloved. (I recommend the short discussion in John Goldingay’s Old Testament Theology, Vol 3: Israel’s Life, pp. 594-597).

May we all be better students of God’s Word. The Word that Paul says was from God’s own breath and good for doctrinal instruction and training the People of God in the way of righteousness (2 Tim 3.15-16). We certainly see that in both Moses and Jesus. Perhaps Jesus is more “like unto Moses“(Acts 3.22) than we ever dreamed.


8 Responses to “Eye for an Eye, Moses vs. Jesus and Lex Talionis: Word of Vengeance or Word of Grace?”

  1. Rex Says:

    Yes, Yes I am so aware of the passages sited. But for everyone of them I can site another where violence against the enemies of God is condoned and celebrated. The pharises that Jesus critized were not mischaracterising the Torah. You taking statements that apply to personal vendebta or individual violence and implying that they given to be universal standards for the people of God just as applied by Jesus. Of course they are those who don’t think Jesus was applying them universally either. Case in point the complaining rabbi sited. He is to be excused because mainstream Christianity doesn’t believe that either. I believe Jesus was taking the best from Jewish scripture and applying it ways that lead him to be a pacifist in all situations, individual and corporate. It’s my opinion that there is comparable celibrations of OT vengance in the NT.

    • Bobby Valentine Says:

      Rex delighted to have you back again. Well folks have debated the “pacificism” of Jesus endlessly. That will not be settled here today. I do not think your understanding of the Hebrew Bible nor the NT is quite correct though.

      If the NT is to be believed then the same Spirit speaking in Jesus is the same Spirit that is found in the Hebrew Bible. Just as my previous post on non-other than Hebrews itself demonstrates.

      That there are difficult texts in the Hebrew Bible no one questions but there are also difficult texts in the NT.

      I do not know exactly what you mean by “comparable celebrations of OT vengeance” in the NT. I would argue the Hebrew Bible no where celebrates “vengeance” and that you have failed to deal with context. With that said the NT certainly knows “celebration” over the destruction of evil that is every bit comparable as the Hebrew Bible. After the utter destruction of “Babylon” the saints are exhorted to

      Rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints and apostles and prophets! For God has given judgment for you against her … After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven saying, ‘Hallelujah!” (Revelation 18.20; 19.1)

      We find the apostle of grace and love calling down imprecations exactly as in the Psalms …

      I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord. Our Lord come!” (1 Corinthians 16.21)

      What I find Rex, is that critics usually selectively read the Hebrew Bible and then selectively read the New Testament as well. The Book of Joshua was never regarded as normative either in the Hebrew Bible nor in Jewish tradition since. But Joshua is not a celebration of “vengeance.”


  2. Rex Says:

    I meant, there is no comparable celibrations of OT vengance in the NT.

  3. Michael Gilroy Says:

    If only to point out that the justice was for the CHILD. What about the corpotate application of thr same law in Leviticus 24:19-20 and Deuteronomy 19:18-20..which seems to.comport witj corporate judicial rather than PERSONAL application.Which in effect brings Matt..5 into clearer focus..especially when hermenuetically examining striking someone’s cheek?

  4. Dwight Says:

    I don’t know of any case where Jesus delineated from the Law of Moses or went against it, but rather sought to clarify and correct how people had changed it to mean something else. He was a Hebrew among Hebrews and a legalist in not going against the law.
    We fail to think like a Hebrew when we look at Jesus and read His words and this removes valuable context.
    The “eye for an eye” didn’t have to do with vengeance, at least not originally, but for recompense due to judgment by those judging, as you noted.
    I also believe this statement was meant to deter harming another and was not taken as law to enact verbatim every time. Much like the law on stoning your rebellious son or daughter, it was made to squelch rebellion, but hardly ever dished out.
    According to Wiki (I know)…”In the Code of Hammurabi and Hebrew Law, the “eye for eye” was to restrict compensation to the value of the loss. Thus, it might be better read ‘only one eye for one eye’.’
    So in one way it deters lack of action and deters an over action. So no three thousand head of sheep for emotional stress. The damage had to be real and the recompense had to be equal to the damage in judgment.
    We kind of leave the individuals out of the Law, but it was made for the people and thus people didn’t have to extract the owed if they chose not to. Just like you were not required to divorce your wife for fornication, but could by right. The people had the right to show mercy and grace and love and were encouraged to, which was the greater part of the Law.

  5. Tim Brinley Says:

    Likely, Jesus words in Matthew 5 and those later in Matthew 19 deal with the same reality. The Law of Moses itself was not able to motivate the heart to righteousness. It was a minimum standard to be applied in regard to the unrighteous. How should a judge rule in regard to disputes and complaints of damages. Paul himself states clearly that the was good if it was used lawfully, not as a standard to be imitated, as much as boundary not be crossed. David praises the law effusively, in the same way that you praise guard rails near a gaping crevasse or seat belts in an accident. But David looks beyond the law to the glory of the lawgiver, and is called even higher. What Paul states to Timothy addresses fully the apparent dilemma when he says:

    “3 As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer 4 or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith.

    Here is the goal:

    5 The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.

    6 Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. 7 They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.

    8 We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. 9 We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine 11 that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.”

    An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was way better than what the people of that day had been practicing. Much like Hammurabi’s code, the Law of Moses was regulating excess in penalty or in vengeance, as is seen in the spirit of Cities of Refuge.

    Jesus in Matthew 19 recognizes the hardness of man’s hearts, as the primary limiting factor, even to Moses calling the people to the higher standard God really wanted in the family relationship. For this reason Jesus answers like this when his disciples questioned him:

    4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’[a] 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’[b]? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

    7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

    8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives

    because your hearts were hard.

    But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

    So Jesus was looking beyond the Law of Moses in his instruction, to a new race, who would be born of water and the spirit, who would not be satisfied with just keeping the law, but would make it their goal in everything to find out what is truly pleasing to the Lord.

  6. Dr. Al Huba Says:

    I enjoy your blogs as I am a Messianic believer and find your research to be refreshing- keep up the good work and may Abba be glorified.

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