Many years ago I visited the office of a prominent umbrella church group and saw on one of the walls that now-famous quotation from Mahatma Gandhi “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the world blind and toothless.”
My private response was a double embarrassment for Gandhi and that church organization. Though he was a trained lawyer, Gandhi can be pardoned based on his ignorance of the legal principle in that terribly misunderstood text from the Old Testament (Ex. 21:23-25; Lev. 24:19-21, etc.) That church organization however was blameworthy in being uncritical in brandishing Gandhi’s quotation, thereby betraying its own ignorance of the meaning of the biblical text!
Despite its being misnamed the lex talionis (law of revenge) the text, far from advocating personal revenge, was part of ancient Israel’s civil code, and was a legal principle (to be administered by Moses and other magistrates) comparable to the modern law maxim of commensurate desserts or “the punishment must match [or not exceed] the gravamen of the offence.”
Thus, if I crash into the back of your Lada and tear off its back bumper don’t try getting from me in civil court, a Benz bumper! Commensurate desserts would defeat your claim and a court would award you, at best, a Lada bumper.
It’s interesting, if embarrassing for those who dismiss principles in the Bible on the basis that the Bible is too old a book to guide modern humans (thereby committing the informal logical fallacy called argumentum ab innis) to discover that a legal principle found in the 1500 BCE Old Testament and as well in the 1800 BCE Code of Hammurabi has a descendant in 21st century law.
The age of a document does not necessarily militate against the value of the said document. After all university students of philosophy, the classics and ancient history, etc., traffic in valuable material that are thousands of years old.
In the 1st century of this era, Jesus in Matthew 5:38-39 chides the personal revenge gloss of some Pharisees on the ‘eye for an eye’ maxim and counsels against retaliation with words that even some conservative Christians find too passive to be taken literally, that is, turning the other cheek to one who ‘shot you a box’ on your right cheek. To do this, if the hitter is right-handed, must have been a back of the hand ‘bitch box’ (as we would say in Jamaican) and not a [simple] palm-slap on the cheek!
I say yet again, church folk and others need to learn how to interpret ancient texts responsibly and as well how to reason critically.
Rev. Clinton Chisholm is a retired Jamaica Baptist Union Pastor and former lecturer in biblical languages and the author of the recently published A Controversial Clergyman, designed to foster critical thinking everywhere.