Many years ago, I visited the office of a prominent umbrella church group and saw on one of the walls that now-famous popular quotation from Mahatma Gandhi: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the world blind and toothless.”
Gandhi (though a lawyer), 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.)
Despite the principle 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). This principle is 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, do not 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.
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 passivistic to be taken literally, that is, turning the other cheek to one who slaps you on your right cheek. To do this, if the hitter is right-handed, must have been a very hard back-hand hit 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.
My new course Bible Made Simple teaches truth seekers how to make sense of difficult passages of scripture. Click to enroll now!
Want to deepen and accelerate your understanding of the New Testament in its original language? Click here to learn when you can join the next cohort for New Testament Greek classes.