Tuesday, August 23, 2011

An Eye for an Eye (Exodus 21:24)

In which book do these words first appear: eye for eye, tooth for tooth? Exodus (Exodus 21:24)

The phrase “eye for eye” appears in three of the five books of the Law, first in Exodus (Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:19-20; Deuteronomy 19:21). The expression is connected to personal injury law and entitles an injured party to compensation. The principle of an eye for an eye is often referred to by the Latin phrase lex talionis, the law of talion. Talion indicates a punishment identical to the offense. An eye for an eye insures that a punishment fits a crime.

An eye for an eye did not necessitate retaliation but instead capped the reprisal. This reciprocal justice was intended to minimize retribution. Human nature often seeks to “win” instead of breaking even. In the acclaimed 1987 movie The Untouchables, Jim Malone (Sean Connery [b. 1930]) advises Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner [b. 1955]), “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He [Al Capone] sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.” An eye for an eye was designed to limit such escalating revenge.

Judaism has historically interpreted the eye for eye passages as allowing for injured parties to seek proportional compensation, usually monetary. This is seen in the Talmud (Bava Kamma, 83b-84a). It is far easier to determine fair monetary compensation than to mirror exact physical injury. The literal reading has also been refuted using the argument that blind or eyeless offenders would be exempt from the law.

There are many parts of the world where lex taliones is still practiced. Is any U.S. law based upon this principle? Why were eyes and teeth selected as the representative body parts? There have been many detractors of an eye for an eye as it seems to suggest that two wrongs equal a right. Jesus could be numbered among those critics. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also (Matthew 5:38-39 NASB).” The revolutionary nature of this teaching is lost today.

In the centuries since Jesus instructed his followers to turn the other cheek, many have attempted to live his words literally. Billy Bray (1794-1868) was a drunkard and coal miner who became a Christian at the age of 29. After his conversion, he transformed into a charismatic evangelist and folk hero in his native Cornwall.

D. Martyn-Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) describes an incident where Bray turned the other cheek:

Billy Bray, who before his conversion was a pugilist, and a very good one. Billy Bray was converted; but one day, down in the mine, another man who used to live in mortal dread and terror of Billy Bray before Bray’s conversion, knowing he was converted, thought he had at last found his opportunity. Without any provocation at all he struck Billy Bray, who could very easily have revenged himself upon him and laid him down unconscious on the round. But instead of doing that Billy Bray looked at him and said, ‘May God forgive you, even as I forgive you’, and no more. The result was that that man endured for several days an agony of mind and spirit which led directly to his conversion. (Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 248.)
Is there a time when seeking an eye for an eye is preferable to turning the other cheek? Which do your practice, taking an eye for an eye or turning the other cheek? Which is more natural?

“An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” - attributed to Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948)

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