Home > interpretation, judgment, justice > >Reconciling the talion

>Reconciling the talion

>We read in the Law of Moses about punishment for crime which causes permanent injury. The law states that the same injury the offender has caused should be meted out to him.

“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. (Exodus 21:22-25)

“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. (Leviticus 24:17-20)

Further, even if a person intends to cause injury by false accusation they are to punished in the way they intended to harm.

If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (Deuteronomy 19:16-21)

How is this reconciled with Jesus’ teaching? Jesus’ views on the inerrancy of Scripture are clear. In commenting on the law he preludes his statements with:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew5:17-20)

Then he discusses anger/ murder, lust/ adultery, divorce, making oaths, talion, and loving your enemy.

The introduction to each topic is:

  • “You have heard that it was said to those of old,…”
    • for anger and taking oaths
  • “You have heard that it was said,…”
    • for lust, talion, and love
  • “It was also said,…”
    • for divorce, though this is relating to the discussion on adultery.

In mentioning “those of old” Jesus is obviously referring to the Hebrews receiving the Mosaic Law. Although Jesus doesn’t say “to those of old” for 3 of them (lust, talion, love), the context suggests he is still referring to the Law. As mentioned the divorce commentary is tied into the lust/ adultery commentary so is not a separate discussion. The Old Testament references are:

  • Murder
    • Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17
  • Adultery
    • Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18
  • Divorce
    • Deuteronomy 24:1
  • Making oaths
    • Numbers 30:2
  • Talion
    • passages mentioned above
  • Loving your neighbour
    • Leviticus 19:18

The Old Testament does not have a direct parallel command to hate one’s enemies. It may have been (incorrectly) surmised from the Leviticus passage, though there are commands for Israel to fight her enemies. If the idea of hating one’s enemies had been incorrectly surmised by many Jews then Jesus is correcting this wrong belief.

However the talion is clearly taught in the Law yet 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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39)

How do we reconcile these passages? Jesus’ says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets” which precludes a resolution that denies the truthfulness of Scripture.

There are at least 3 solutions to this issue, though all may come into play.

The first is that the laws were a limit on punishment. While it may have been appropriate to invoke a judgment that matched the crime, it also limited judgment. It disallows punishments that were excessive, and likely common at the time in other cultures. It rejects the possibility of a sentence of hand amputation for stealing. A man cannot be executed for breaking another’s arm. It forced justice to be just.

Second, it may be that this law is for the government and people were applying it personally. What God allows the state to do may frequently be very different to the responsibility of individuals—this concept needs expanding at another time. So the talion may have been a commandment to judges that they may judge justly and men were (wrongly) applying the principle individually. This allows a judge to sentence in this way but prevents individuals from vigilante justice. Jesus was, in effect, saying not to seek one’s own justice. If Jesus is saying this here, this message is very consistent with Old Testament teaching: seek justice for others and let God fight for you. We see examples of this in the life of David where he refused to take what would become his but waited for God to give it to him.

A third possibility is that Jesus was calling for a higher way. It is not that justice is wrong, God is very just; rather that mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2). Jesus is saying that forgiveness is greater than vengeance. And this is the message of the gospel: that we owe God a debt we cannot pay but he forgives us if we come to him and ask him to. If we don’t, judgment is all that remains possible. We are not to respond like God in the area of judgment as we are still in the era where God is seeking men. We are part of that activity of God and therefore must act in love. If men reject it, punishment will come, but we are to leave that part to God.

So 2 seemingly disparate passages are in fact complementary. We can reject difficult passages as being too hard, we can reject God claiming his Word errs, or we can seek to understand what initially appears contradictory and come to a greater understanding of the ways of God.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Romans 11)

While I have attempted to reconcile the issue, I have not really explained what turning the other cheek means; that may prove more difficult.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: