November 26, 2010

Lex Talionis

We often look at the Old Testament's mandates of retribution as being mean-spirited or even barbaric but we are seeing it through modern eyes and contemporizing it. We are trying to move it into the context of the 21st century and this is not fair nor is in accurate to portray the decrees of the Old Testament this way. We do a tremendous disservice to God and to our ancient brethren.

Nowadays if someone buys too much alcohol at a bar and gets drunk then wraps their car around a tree they themselves have a lawsuit. They will more than likely be awarded a large sum of money too. Not because of a bartender's negligence but because of the drinkers stupidity and an unwillingness to take accountability for their own actions.

...anyway...on with my post.

Lex Talionis is the Bible's law of retaliation. If someone injures his neighbor the same shall be done to him. If someone takes his neigbor's animal's lives, one of their animals lives will be taken in return. Broken bone for broken bone, eye for and eye, tooth for a tooth. Whosoever injures will be injured equally in turn.

"When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman's husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. "When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth." ~Exodus 21:22-27

"Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. Leviticus 24:17-21

We view this as allowance of violence or reciprocal aggressions but what we really should be doing is also seeing them as "limits". What is really human nature in terms of violence or retaliation? It has never been to get even but usually to get "more" even or get the upper-hand. Please note that Leviticus says, "as he has done it shall be done to him". This is not sadism and a demand for vengeance but a command that retribution should not and will not exceed the damage inflicted. If theses types of violence are not limited we see what happens. Feuds erupt between families, clans/tribes between clans/tribes, nation against nation leading to civil war or just outright war between nation-states.

We must also keep in mind injuries like this today would be painful but more than likely, many would be repairable or treatable. Chances are, if someone lost a tooth or and eye back then they had no recourse for medical treatment. If they lost their sight, hand or arm they may have become incapacitated and invalid requiring them to become beggars or worse, dead.

These are also some of the reasons we read of the the cities of refuge in Deuteronomy 19 and the exacting lex talionis in the end of the chapter to assure that a continuing cycle of deception in false witness does not ensue also. It is very poignant and very precise (v.21), they must purge the evil from their presence and " Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." Why? Because by someone bearing false witness against someone else they are literally assassinating the character of an innocent person and this could more effectively destroying a person's life than cutting their arm off or blinding them. In Bible times a "murdered" character could very well have been the equivalent of a death sentence in terms of one's reputation. Even today we have laws against defaming someone or slandering them. If you destroy a person's reputation you can destroy their ability to make a living in many cases.

When we move on to the New Testament we see Jesus raise the bar to the umpteenth level and He leveled a higher morality on people that would come after Him calling themselves His disciples.

“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 anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." ~Matthew 5:38-39

Jesus Christ was asking them not to seek vengeance at all but rather to "take it on the chin" so to speak. He never said that the "eye for eye, and tooth for tooth" was bad, he only asked believers to step up their game and move to the next level. They needed to try and exceed what the Law required, not just meet the requirements of the Law. The trick is not to see how little you can do to be holy, it is to try and be as holy as you possibly can so there are no questions or doubts.

So the next time someone criticizes lex talionis ask them whether they would prefer a limited retribution or a $10 million lawsuit reward to someone with a serious drinking problem and no commonsense.

1 comment:

ArtWerx said...

good article, andy! it's about a Direction we're going! (:D

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