Lex Talionis

In Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:18-21, and Deuteronomy 19:21, the Israelites are given this principle called the lex talionis:

23 If there is further injury, then you will give a life for a life, 24 an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, 25 a burn for a burn, a bruise for a bruise, a wound for a wound. (Exodus 21:23-25 CEB)

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Retribution as Restraint

We usually shorten this idea to simply “an eye for an eye” but that is to capture the general principle: the penalty for a crime must match the harm done by the crime. Normally in the Ancient Near East, if I accidentally crushed your hand, you may kill my brother. In response I wouldn’t just kill you. I would also kill your brother. Maybe your children. Then a friend or relative of yours would feel obligated to kill me and at least as many but probably more of my family. Then one of my family members would escalate it even further, then one of yours, and so on getting bigger and bigger. In the extreme, feuds could last for centuries and involve thousands of deaths. Why would you escalate in this way? Simple anger of course, but also that it sends a message that you should not be crossed. In other words, in its context, this is actually a principle of restraint. By this principle, you could crush my hand, but then the matter was settled and you could do no more as penalty.

We should also note that this was the same principle no matter your social status. Other Ancient Near Eastern countries did have similar principles, but they varied based on a few levels of social status. If somebody from a higher status harmed somebody from a lower status, there was rarely any penalty, but penalties would be severe the other way around. The only variations in status for Israel were between slave and free, still more than we would accept today but a significant step forward at the time.

Our penal systems at least attempt to operate by this principle, although I am sure you could find many cases where the penalty still seems much more than the crime. You can also definitely find many cases where people are treated differently because of social status, or race, or gender. For one example, some of the statistics from the United States about the rate of arrest for black men found with drugs compared to white men who are almost always let go are astounding. For another, here in Canada there is currently some debate about whether to arrest a prostitute, the man (or woman) visiting the prostitute, both, or neither. Right now it is only the prostitute who is typically arrested because the police do not want to disturb the family life of a middle class man but who cares about the life of a prostitute?

Love of Enemies

Of course, as we discussed earlier talking about the heart of the Law, Jesus pushes us even further. At the time of this principle, it was a great restraint, allowing retribution in order to stop vengeance. But it was never the heart of God. Jesus tells us, and shows throughout his whole life, that we must do better than that:

38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. 40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. 42 Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42 CEB)

I’ll reach these teachings soon enough, but here’s the general idea that you might not pick up right away being unfamiliar with the context: resist evil, but do so in a way that does not commit evil yourself.

  • Everyone was assumed to be right-handed, so slapping somebody on their right cheek required a backhand slap. It was a slap like you’d give to a slave or otherwise somebody much lower in status than you. Turning the other cheek is not therefore about allowing them to slap you. It is forcing them to slap you with their forehand, establishing your equality that made such a slap inappropriate.
  • Men wore two items of clothing, translated here as shirt and coat. By giving up your second piece of clothing when somebody says they want one, you’re now naked. In that culture, it was not the person who was naked who was shamed, it was the person who forced them to become naked. Again, it is creatively calling attention to their injustice in a way that doesn’t harm them.
  • Romans soldiers could force citizens to carry their gear for up to one mile. Then they were obligated to let the citizen go home and they had to find another citizen. It was a very degrading practice as the soldiers could simply pull you away from your work or your family with no warning. Insisting on walking a second mile would get the soldier in trouble, though, since they were only allowed to force you to carry it one mile. It is again showing the injustice of that system in a way that doesn’t harm the soldier.

We often mistakenly assume that our only options are to fight fire with fire – or to take an eye for an eye – or to roll over and just accept evil. Jesus’ teaching here shows that God’s heart is for a third option where all of his children – those who are oppressing and those who are oppressed – are loved. The lex talionis gets us partway there by keeping our anger and attempts to assert ourselves as superior in check. Jesus’ ethic of love gets us even further and back to the heart of God.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.