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An Eye for an Eye

But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. Exodus 21.23-25.

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Is there any Old Testament text more quoted than this … and almost always wrongly! For almost always, when it is quoted, it is used to defend someone who has taken the law into their own hands and used violence to take revenge for some personal injury done. In its context here, however, this was a law for the people of Israel as a nation to be applied by the judiciary. The law is repeated in Deuteronomy 19 and there it is clear that all who are believed to be guilty of crime are to be tried “in the presence of the LORD before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time” (Deuteronomy 19.17). This text offers no support whatsoever to someone advocating or seeking to justify an act of personal rough justice.

Furthermore, although it is easy to read this law as prescriptive — you must exact revenge — it is actually restrictive. In a world of unceasing inter-tribal warfare and blood-feuds, this lex talionis (as it is now known) shone as a bright light. To the descendants of the sons of Jacob who had seen it as a proper response to the defilement of their sister, Dinah, for them to kill every male in the offender’s city, then to plunder the city and take captive the woman and children (Genesis 34), this law said “No more!” Violence must not be allowed to escalate. Reprisals must be carried out by due process of law and must match the injury in both kind and in degree.

By Jesus’ day, however, this law had seemingly become the licence for rough justice that people often hold it up to be today. Then, as now, it was used to justify side-stepping the judicial process and “getting your own back” on someone who had injured you. But Jesus would have none of it. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5.38-39).

All retaliation is a “resistance” of the evil done to us. (There is no “person” in the Greek text of Matthew 5.39, by the way — it is simply “Do not resist evil”, so we may read it as an evil act, or an evil person, or even the Evil One who is behind all injury and violence.). And Jesus explains what he means by the example of the struck cheek. If someone were to fetch me a blow across my right cheek, the lex talionis would permit me to strike him across the right cheek too — but nothing more. Jesus says, however, that for kingdom people even that is too much. There must be no retaliation at all. Indeed, the offender must be given the opportunity to offend even more! “Present him with your left cheek too.” In short, for the law of “eye for an eye”, Jesus has given us the upside-down principle of “cheek for a cheek”.

So how does this relate to me this morning? At first, I didn’t think it did. But then, as I began to think it through and write this post, I found the Lord gently reminding me that I have for some weeks now been nursing a particular hurt that someone had done to me and that (though I hadn’t been admitting this to myself) I have been waiting for the chance to hurt them back … just a little! Eye for an eye! Now, however, I see that I am actually called to “go back for more” — to make myself vulnerable, to allow the person to hurt me again, should they wish to do so. Not eye for eye … cheek for cheek!

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