Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Matthew 20:29-34; Romans 2:17-29; Psalm 55; Leviticus 23-25
Within the disturbing incident of blasphemy being punished by stoning, the lex talionis (an eye for an eye) is introduced (Leviticus 24:17). This formula occurs a few times in the Bible. Exodus 21:23-25 gives the longest list, Deuteronomy 19:20-21 is very succinct, and the Leviticus passage is the only one to provide some explanatory notes. Later Jesus overturn the idiom, calling on people to turn the other cheek, not extract pound for pound (Matthew 5:38-42).
Debate about the formula centres on whether it was to be taken literally or figuratively. The consensus throughout history has been that it was not intended to be taken literally. Instead, the underlying motivation behind the formula was to prevent unjustly severe punishments. Rather than leading to retaliatory maiming, the formula was to limit the punishment to a level appropriate to the offense. If someone caused the death of a neighbour’s chicken, he should replace the chicken, not provide an ox (Leviticus 24:18). This sense is carried through in the literal meaning of ‘life for life.’ The Hebrew word translated ‘for’ literally means ‘in the place of’ and carries with it the idea of substitution. In another situation, a is warned that if he allows a prisoner to escape, the punishment will be ‘your life for his life’ (1 Kings 20:39-43). The same Hebrew terms translated ‘life for life’ are used, but immediately it is stated that he can pay a fine in silver instead.
Such an application of the lex talionis is more in keeping with the realities of community life in ancient Israel. If someone caused another man’s leg to be broken, or eye to be lost, breaking his leg or gouging out his eye would help no one. The village would now have two disabled men, rather than one, with two families suffering and possibly building up resentment. Instead, requiring the assailant or negligent person to substitute the equivalent service restores the loss and penalises the wrong-doer.
Immediately before and after the lex talionis in Exodus 21:23-25, a similar approach is given. If a man injures another man in a quarrel, he is not dragged out and injured in the same way; rather, the aggressor must pay for the treatment and compensate the injured man for his lost time (Exodus 21:18-19). Likewise, if a slave owner hits a slave who loses his or her eye or tooth, the same injury is not inflicted on the master. Instead, the slave is compensated for the injury by being set free (Exodus 21:26-27). The immediate context of the lex talionis shows that it was not applied literally.
The one exception was where the death sentence was a literal life for life. Yet even here, the guilty person’s life could be substituted in many circumstances. If a bull killed a man, and the owner knew it was dangerous and negligently failed to restrain it, he could be sentenced to death and yet substitute his life for payment of a fine (Exodus 21:30). The only case where the death penalty could not be commuted was for a premeditated murderer (Numbers 35:31).
The formula was thus a way to prevent excessive penalties for wrong-doing. It was provided in contexts where a variety of injuries were possible, as in the case of unknown varieties of injuries to a pregnant woman and her unborn (Exodus 21:23-25). In this way, Jesus’ criticism of its use is in completely in line with its original intent (Matthew 5:38-42) and should not be viewed as opposing the punishment of wrong-doing (Matthew 5:22). Sometimes the lex talionis can be used to justify individual retribution: he hit me, so I hit him back. Jesus is calling on his disciples to love even their enemies. Personal revenge can easily lead to the punishment being worse than the crime, exactly what the lex talionis was developed to prevent.