copyright © 2009 Betsy L. Angert. BeThink.org
On this, the anniversary of Martin Luther King Junior’s birth, January 15, war is in the wind. In cyberspace communities, and on the streets of Israel, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, even on the supposedly serene avenues in America, people are engaged in brutal battles. Be the clashes verbal or written, the combat is cruel. The punishment is not proportional. This truth is not unusual. Sadly, it is the convention, steeped in tradition. There is abundant conflict in every corner of the globe, contrary to the Civil Rights Leader, and nonviolent activist would want. Certainly, these crusades are not as G-d would grant just.
The command, “an eye for an eye” is used to justify vengeance. Retaliation is said to be the way of the Almighty, Allah, and the son, Jesus. Yet, theologians would admonish such interpretations of sacred text.
History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.
In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
~ Martin Luther King Junior
Martin Luther King Junior offers his veracity, which may speak to those who have faith in any of the teachings of holy passages. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are not silent on the subject of peace. Please peruse, ponder, and perhaps, walk in peace . . .
Parashat Mishpatim [God’s Judgment and Human Judges]
written by Rabbi David Hoffman, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS
God’s liberation of the Israelites had further implications. It served as the formative paradigm for the construction of an equitable vision of society.
One command in this week’s parashah stands out for me. It expresses the larger social vision that, I believe, all the commandments of the Torah must serve: “Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger since you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).
With this command God tells the Israelites, “You too know what it is like to be powerless – a stranger, at the mercy of the powerful, and this experience must cultivate within you a special sensitivity.” The “mishpatim,” the laws of our tradition, are there to create people and communities that are deeply sensitive to the experience of those without power and the disenfranchised.
This vision is manifested in a unique way in our parashah, without parallel in any Ancient Near Eastern law codes.
The law of Lex Talionis is presented in chapter twenty-one. Biblical law stipulates that if a person inflicts physical damage on another human being, the victim is entitled to restitution. Based on the language and context of this law, Biblical scholars believe that the principle – “An eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth” – (Talion) – mandated monetary compensation for bodily injury and did not call for literal physical retribution in retaliation for the physical injury suffered.
As Professors Moshe Greenberg, Tikvah Frymer-Kensky, and Nahum Sarna have all observed, the Torah’s articulation of Talion sought to limit retaliation to the exact measure of the injury and to reject the larger Near Eastern practice of vicarious punishment against family members. They also present extended arguments against a literal understanding of Talion and instead argue for an understanding of Talion as monetary reparation.
Most importantly for our discussion, Tikvah Frymer-Kensky, in her study on this law in the context of Ancient Near Eastern literature, observes that while the laws of Hammurabi distinguish between the social classes for the application of the law of Talion, the Pentateuch does not. Frymer-Kensky elaborates: “The laws of Hammurabi distinguish between the social classes of awilum and muskenum: physical attacks against the awilum are treated as crimes, while attacks against the muskenum (whose exact status is still unclear) are still treated as torts (lesser offenses).
While in the Bible, where there is no class distinction among free men, all physical assaults are treated as crimes.” (See Tikvah Frymer-Kensky, “Tit for Tat: The Principle of Equal Retribution in Near Eastern and Biblical Law,” BA 43: 230-234, p. 233.) In biblical law, slaves, not only free Israelites, are entitled to monetary compensation for bodily damage inflicted by their masters. (See Exodus 21:26-27.) Sarna claims that this law is “without parallel in other ancient Near Eastern legislation” in its commitment to equal justice for all citizens. (See Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, p. 127.)
The general principle of the equality of all in the eyes of the court, stranger and citizen alike, is made explicit in the iteration of the law of Talion in Leviticus 24:17-22:
The Preference of Peace, Wherever Possible and its Encouragement
A Muslim only fights when forced to, and after exhausting all peaceful means of reconciliation. If any opportunity of peace arises, then Islam makes it compulsory for the Muslims to take it. A Muslim is also required to extinguish the flame of war whenever and wherever he can. The Qur’an says:
‘But if they incline to peace, you also incline to it, and (put your) trust in Allah. Verily, He is the All-Hearer, the All-Knower.’
(Surat-al-Anfal (8), ayah 61)
Jesus and the Law of Retaliation (Lex Talionis)
By James Davis, Associate Professor, Capital Bible Seminary
To bring the issue a little closer to home, one night my family and I were sitting at the dinner table. My daughter Keilah asked a thought-provoking question. She said, “If my brother hits me, is it okay if I hit him back?” Of course, our answer was that she come to appropriate authorities on the matter – Mom or Dad.
Too much of the world’s ethic is to: 1) strike back; 2) get even; 3) do unto others like they do to you. Many times the justification for retaliation is that ancient law, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”188 I have to admit that this retaliatory ethic to right an injustice is appealing to part of me, especially initially when I feel I have been wronged.
But Jesus says “No” to using “an eye for an eye” as justification for personal revenge. Instead, He says “turn the other cheek,” “go the extra mile,” “turn over two garments if sued for one,” and “give to the one who asks from you.” Jesus’ teaching is not merely legal and technical, but extends deeply and profoundly into the practical situations of conflict, oppression, and the needs of everyday life.
Matthew 5:38-42 reads:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. 41 And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.”
These verses have been described by many in the following ways:
1. The hard sayings of Jesus
2. The most difficult verses in the Bible
3. Hyperbole and impossible
4. Commands for another world
Jesus’ teaching here is confronting the popular misuse and abuse of the Old Testament law, known as the law of retaliation, in Latin, “the Lex Talionis.” The law of “life shall be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” etc. . . .
III. The Law of Eye for Eye in the Old Testament.
So let’s start with looking at this law in the Old Testament.
Imagine yourself for a moment in an ancient situation where you and your family lived in a place with no police force, no courts, no local, state, or federal government – no king or other authority ruling over you or the people around you. Then one day as you are going about your business, you are shocked with the news that one of your neighbors had intentionally and maliciously hit your daughter so hard that four of her teeth are permanently knocked out. What would you do? There is no authority to report it to – to seek justice.
What if the situation was worse, and your child was intentionally killed? You would probably want to take the matter into your own hands and seek retribution, maybe even to the point of blood revenge. Perhaps you would try to impose the same type of injury on the attacker that he imposed. Maybe you would even want to punish him in greater degree than his offense. After you take revenge, the attacker’s family may feel that they have been mistreated and may want to respond, setting up a cycle of retaliation and revenge between you and them – the Hatfields and the McCoys so to speak.
Genesis 34 records an actual incident like this between Jacob’s family and the family of Shechem. After Jacob’s daughter Dinah is physically abused, Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, seek revenge by first deceiving Shechem’s family into getting men circumcised, and then they take the retaliatory action of killing all the males. Of course, it is clear from later in Genesis 49:5-7 that God did not approve of this action.
So the institution of the lex talionis into the Mosaic law for the nation of Israel and the ruling authorities was, I believe, a real advancement for the cause of justice designed to prevent personal actions of retaliation and revenge. The injured person or relative of the injured person could go to the governing judicial authority in Israel to seek justice. But what should the appropriate punishment be in the case of murder or maiming? This is where the law comes into play: “a life for a life,” “an eye for an eye,” “a tooth for a tooth.” The punishment must fit the crime – no more than the crime but also no less.
It was strict but fair. It was also designed to prevent and deter such crimes. It was there to remove punitive actions for crimes from the hands of the victim and his family and put them into the hands of the governing judicial system. It was designed as a principle of proportional justice. It was also designed to appropriately punish the offender.
This is the irony and abuse of how people misunderstand this law. It is misunderstood now the same way it was misunderstood at the time of Jesus. A law that was designed to prevent actions of personal retaliatory revenge is used to justify it!
The misunderstanding of the law would say if someone slaps you on the cheek, slap him back (after all “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”). If someone sues you, sue him back. If you are forced to go a mile by a Roman soldier, resist and fight back. Jesus is trying to confront that type of teaching and mindset.
Let me be clear that God wants us to take actions of personal revenge out of our hands. We can turn them over to the governmental authorities if appropriate, and even if that doesn’t work, we need to turn them over to God Himself.
May G-d grant us peace and prosperity for all. May man remember retaliation and revenge, are not as he, she, or those who trust only in themselves, would choose. The Lord Almighty, Allah bestowed upon his offspring free will. He created us in his image. The divine, be he or she an entity or merely an enigma, endorses peace. May mankind also embrace tranquility.