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Tuesday, 3 March 2009

An Eye for an Eye and Turning the Other Cheek

In The Autonomy of Ethics David Brink complains that “tradition and scripture may speak but in conflicting ways”;[1] in a endnote he cites a single example,
Inconsistency is at stake, for example, when we juxtapose the Old Testament doctrine of an “eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:23, 24; Leviticus 24:19, 20; and Deuteronomy 19:21) and the New Testament doctrine of “turning the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-42; Luke 6:27-31).[2]
Brink contends that the “doctrine of an ‘eye for an eye’” (commonly called the lex talionis) and the New Testament teaching of “turning the other cheek” are contradictory. I will argue that this claim is mistaken; first I will respectively outline what the “doctrine of an ‘eye for an eye’” and the teaching of “turning the other cheek” are then I will ask whether Christ’s expounding of the latter is inconsistent with the former.

What is the Lex Tallonis?
Brink refers to Exodus 21:23-25.
If there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
This passage is repeated in several other passages.[3] The Phrase expresses a legal formula which is expounded in proverbial form. The principle is that whatever punishment is imposed (in the immediate case the punishment is a fine) must be proportionate to the harm inflicted on the victim.

Sarna notes, “[r]abbinic tradition understood the biblical formulation to mean monetary payment and not physical retaliation”[4] and he defends this interpretation. Drazin notes that the Halacah in b. B.K 84a and Sanhedrin 79a and Mek each understand the phrase to refer to a principle of commensurate compensation.[5] Plaut states that “few passages in the Torah have been so thoroughly misunderstood” and suggests the text is best understood as requiring “the value of an eye for the loss of an eye”, “the value of a limb for its loss and so on”.

I have defended this way of interpreting talionic formulae in the Torah in a previous post, here I will add that the context makes this evident. Verses 26-27 apply the principle expounded in v 23-25 to an assault upon an ebed (ebed is often incorrectly translated with the English word slave, it actually refers to a form of indentured servitude).
If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth.
An ebed is a person working off a debt. The requirement to release his servant forces the assailant to write off the debt his/her victim owes him/her. The context clearly understands the lex talionis as the payment of commensurate monetary compensation.

What is Turning the Other Cheek?
Christ expounds the “teaching of turning the other cheek” as follows, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Contrary to common misconceptions, this is not referring to a serious assault. David Daube notes that in the rabbinic law of the period, a slap on the cheek was viewed as a paradigm case of an insult where there was no actual harm or damage to the victim. Moreover, the rabbinic exegesis of the period ruled that one could sue a person who insulted him or her in this fashion for damages proportionate to the shame or damage done to their pride. Something that appears borne out by Christ’s observations a few verses earlier where he states that a person who insults his brother (a fellow Jew) “is answerable to the Sanhedrin.”

Turning the other cheek, then, means refusing to demand compensation for mere insults that do not do any serious damage. Christ is not talking about serious assaults here, as Daube notes, if he did “would the case of a slap in the face not have been an excessively weak illustration of his new position? [Would it not have been necessary] to give a far more serious example”?[6]

It is also clear that “turning the other cheek” is not incompatible with standing up for oneself. In John 18:23-24 when Jesus himself is struck in the face he does not lash back and demand compensation but he does rebuke the person in question. “If I said something wrong, … testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?”

Juxtaposing the Two Teachings
Brink suggests that “when one juxtaposes the Old Testament doctrine of an ‘eye for an eye’” and “the New Testament doctrine of ‘turning the other cheek’” there is an inconsistency. Ironically Christ himself juxtaposes both doctrines in Matt 5:38-39, a passage Brink himself cites; Christ states,
You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you do not retaliate against an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Brink apparently believes that Christ is here citing the Old Testament teaching and then in uttering “but I say to you” contradicting it with his own teaching.

The problem is that this goes against the context and genre of the text. At the beginning of the sermon, in which the above juxtaposition occurs, Christ tells his readers not to interpret his comments as a rejection of Old Testament commands, he states emphatically
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them[7] … Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven”[8]
The contrast Christ draws in v 20 is not between the torah and his own teaching but between faithful obedience and the obedience of the scribes and Pharisees. This suggests that Christ is contradicting, not the torah per se, but a particular interpretation.

Daube provides confirmation of this. Daube notes the contrast in this pericope between “you have heard it said” and “I say to you”. This, Daube points out, was a common way of setting out rabbinic teaching. The rabbi would contrast an excessively formalistic interpretation of the torah that people had “heard” with a fuller correct one that the rabbi himself expounded. This observation fits precisely other parts of the Sermon on the Mount where the same formula is used.

In v 20 Christ contrasts “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder’” with his own teaching (“but I say to you”) to avoid unjustified angry feuds and insults. In v27 he contrasts “You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery’” with his own teaching to not look at another person’s spouse lustfully. In both cases it is evident that Christ is not rejecting the Old Testament teaching; he is clearly not saying that it is permissible to murder or commit adultery; rather he is rejecting an excessively formalistic interpretation of these commandments.

When these factors are taken into account it is clear, I think, that Christ is not offering a teaching antithetical to the Old Testament. The original law in the Old Testament permitted a victim of assault to gain compensation from his assailant. The lex talionis existed to limit the damages that could be taken to only that which was proportional to the harm done and no more. Some rabbinic teaching of Christ’s time applied this very strictly so that even a person who had suffered an insult, but no actual tangible damage, could sue his insulter. Christ’s response was to reject this as petty and prideful and as such, a wrong application of this law; in cases of insults it was better to simply let it go rather than seeking exact recompense. Nothing in the passage whatsoever suggests that victims of serious harm are not entitled to proportionate compensation from their assailants.

When one examines the teachings of the Old and New Testaments carefully, taking into account such things as literary and historical context of the relevant passages, it is far from obvious that the Old Testament doctrine of an ‘eye for an eye’ and the New Testament doctrine of ‘turning the other cheek’ are inconsistent. Here, as elsewhere, Brink’s objection to theological ethics is based on a superficial exegesis of the traditions he is objecting to.

[1] David O Brink “The Autonomy of Ethics” The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed Michael Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 159.
[2] Ibid, 164.
[3] Exodus 21:23, 24; Leviticus 24:19, 20; and Deuteronomy 19:21 as cited by Brink.
[4] Nahum Sarna J P S Commentary: Exodus (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1991) 126.
[5] Israel Drazin, Targum Onkelos to Exodus (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1990) 215.
[6] David Daube The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (London: Athlone Press, 1956) 256.
[7] Matt 5:17.
[8] Matt 5:19.

1 comment:

  1. There are several resolutions to this. I have listed 3 here.

    The context in Matthew is about retaliation so I struggle with the idea of it being about just an insult, though I am aware that slapping the cheek is a form of insult.

    I guess I see this as similar to David's actions. While David spoke up about how he was being mistreated—like Jesus did when he was struck—David did not seek to correct the wrong done to him. That is, we seek justice for others and let God seek justice for us.

    By appealing to the talion individuals were asserting their right to rectify the wrong done to them themselves. God's way is to allow him to mete out justice (often thru human intermediaries). Jesus command would be consistent with that concept: fight for others and I'll fight for you.

    The talion does not address this principle; it addresses what justice is, not who should seek it or give it.


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