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An Eye for an Eye: the Rules for Revenge…

February 9, 2012

In considering Sermon on the Mount, one is constantly confronted with statements that seem all to common though frequently misread.  It is amazing when you listen to popular culture, to hear the tell-tale signs of Biblical influence.  How often have we heard the statement “an eye for an eye” in regards to revenge or retribution.  Absent its Biblical context these phrases have very divergent meanings.  And absent the Sermon on the Mount and Christ’s revelation regarding God’s Law, we are prone to misuse and mistake God’s Law for our license to sin.  In Matthew 38-42 Jesus defines the scope of Christian ethics in relation to other people.  He begins by challenging the assumptions of His listeners and confounding their tendencies.  Here we will ask and attempt to answer two questions; What was the original intent of the OT law regarding “an eye for an eye”? and Did Jesus contradict this law?

What was the original O.T. Intent in the law of an eye for an eye?

An eye for an eye – This is an exact quotation found in three OT passages (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21) and reflects the principle of lex talionis a Latin phrase from, (lex = law and talionis = retaliation = literally the “law of retaliation”)  Mankind is prone to an excess of sin in every area of life, and in seeking justice there is no exception.  This principle serves to “rein in reckless blood vengeance,”[1] such as we find in Genesis 4:23-24, where Lamech boasts that he will return abundant vengeance on those who have done him wrong. If Cain is avenged 7 times, then Lamech 70 times.”  To prevent such excess this principle was instituted, to insure that the punishment would fit the crime.  This principle was meant to inform the law courts on the appropriate level of punishment needed for offense and to provide an end to unlimited blood-feuds between wronged parties. However, by the time of Jesus, this was being misused as a license to pursue vengeance.

The Old Testament “did not allow an individual to take the law into his own hands and apply it personally. Yet that is exactly what rabbinic tradition had done. Each man was permitted, in effect, to become his own judge, jury, and executioner. God’s law was turned to individual license (permit to act, freedom to take a specific course of action), and civil justice was perverted to personal vengeance. Instead of properly acknowledging the law of an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth as a limit on punishment, they conveniently used it as a mandate for vengeance-as it has often been wrongly viewed throughout history. What God gave as a restriction on civil courts, Jewish tradition had turned into personal license for revenge. In still another way, the self-centered and self-asserted “righteousness” of the scribes and Pharisees had made a shambles of God’s holy law.”[2]

We see this same perversion being addressed occurring earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, concerning divorce. (5:31-32 and Matt 19:8)  Where additions were made to God’s law not to alter His law, but because of the hardness of the human heart.  “God gives by concession a legal regulation as a dam against the river of violence which flows from man’s evil heart.”  Jesus here is addressing and focusing on the heart of His disciples, not the law of God.

Does Jesus contradict The OT Law?

No. Jesus did not come to end the law but to fulfill it.  To redeem the law, which did not exist to provide a license to sin through legalism, but to guard the hearts of Israel, expose sin, and provide for sins redemption through sacrifice.  “Jesus opposed the rabbinic interpretation of the Law, rather than the Law itself.”[3] In the Old Testament the principle of lex talionis  (the law of retaliation, “eye for an eye.”) was meant to be used and applied in the judiciary process, “this is not the sphere of application in Matthew.  Jesus does not overthrow the principle of equivalent compensation on an institutional level that question is just not addressed but declares it illegitimate for His followers to apply it to their private disputes.”[4]


[1] Dockery, David. Seeking the Kingdom: the Sermon on the mount for Today. Wheaton: Shaw Pub. 1992. 61

[2] MacArthur, John.  Matthew 1-7 Macarthur New Testament Commentary. Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Quarles, Charles. The Sermon on the Mount. Nashville: B&H pub. 2011. 146.

[4] Allison, Dale. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel of the According to St. Matthew, Vol 1. T&T clark Pub. 2000.  542.

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