A Blind Standard
So the other day I saw a shirt that was really funny to me. It was actually being worn by a pastor. The shirt had a picture of Jesus on it, but He looked really tough. It read: “If I weren’t a Christian, I’d punch you right in the face,” and then at the bottom it said, “Turn the other cheek.” I didn’t know this pastor all that well or else I would have laughed out loud. I hope it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but I don’t think it was.
As funny as that shirt was, I think it captures an important tension that exists in the hearts and minds of many Jesus followers. Actually, whether someone is a follower of Jesus or not, they are going to have to wrestle with this tension. And the tension is wrapped around this question: what’s the best way to seek justice when we’ve been wronged? On the one hand, because our own judicial culture in this country is deeply rooted in the rule of law, part of us recognizes that a crime against us personally is best resolved by an impartial judge. Having the injured party determine the measure of the response is probably not going to go well. On the other hand, part of us wants to just deal with the matter ourselves. There are two ways to do this. First, have a loving heart-to-heart in which we resolve all our differences with the other person and come out with a new friend. Second, retaliate in a manner so overwhelming that when the dust has settled the person isn’t going to even think about hurting us again. This approach might be better called, Shock and Awe. If we’re honest, while that first approach sounds nice in theory and will probably lead to a better resolution in the long term, most of us would prefer to just go with the second.
Well, this tension has been around for a long time. Different cultures have tried to deal with it in different ways. Today, our understanding of justice has been deeply influenced by Jesus’ admonition to turn the other cheek. Because of this, many folks in our culture balk at the idea of the Bible calling for what seems to be a tit-for-tat retaliation. That sounds way too judgmental. It sounds way too harsh. It’s just another reason why you Christians need to wake up and keep up with the progression of culture. I mean, sure, people used to think like that, but we have evolved beyond such draconian times to a place where we understand that love is the more powerful force. Why would you want to worship a God who ever said something like “an eye for an eye” instead of just showing grace and love from the beginning? Sure Jesus was a great moral teacher who helped rescue us from those awful times, but we’ve moved beyond even Him now. Can’t you just wake up and stop being so judgmental? Indeed, can we?
This morning finds us in the third week of our series, He Said What? In this journey we have been examining some hard passages in the Old Testament which are often used as reasons why God and the Christian faith generally aren’t worth our time. So far we have looked at a wild story from the time of the judges and another story out of Leviticus where God seems to radically overreact to an apparently simple error in judgment. With the help of five principles of interpretation, we have found that such stories do not actually pose nearly the challenge they seem to at first read. Instead what we found here are affirmations of the awesome character of God and clear pointers to the necessity and importance of Christ.
Today we are not going to look at a story, but we are going to take some time to examine a portion of the Law of Moses which has led not a few to either conclude or have affirmed their already-made conclusion that the God of the Old Testament is overly concerned with judgment and wrath. All He wants to do is condemn everyone for not doing things like He wants. And, He’s not content to keep to Himself in this. He had to drag a whole nation of people (Israel) down with Him. And yet, if we apply our principles even here, we will discover that things are perhaps not as they appear.
Before we get there, though, let’s quickly run back through what our five principles are. The first principle is that we must read the text closely so that we don’t miss anything important. From there we need to make sure we understand as well as possible the culture and circumstances of both the author and the original audience so we don’t misunderstand the text because we’re using the wrong cultural lens. Third, we need to watch for places where a story presents bad behavior uncritically, but without condoning it. Fourth, we need to keep in mind the whole character of God as we read. And fifth, we need to use the words and actions of Jesus as our primary interpretive lens.
With that in place, let’s turn our attention to the hard place we’re going to examine this morning. This one is also found in the ancient Israelite worship record we looked at last week called Leviticus. If you have a Bible with you in some form, find your way to Leviticus 24:17 and we’ll take a look at this together. A version of what we’ll find here appears in a couple of other places in the Law, and it summarizes what has become known as the lex talionis, or the Law of the Tooth. Listen as I read: “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. You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.”
So what do we have here? Well, first let’s talk about some of the challenges presented to this text and then we’ll see what our principles can uncover. Let’s start with modern challenges and then we’ll work back from there. There is a very deep tradition of nonviolent resistance to oppression in our culture. This mostly owes its existence to civil rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr. Under his leadership what became the tradition of nonviolent resistance provided the moral, social, cultural, and religious engine that lead to the breaking of the grip of segregation in the South and many other places around the country. It pulled back the curtain on the evil of racism and brought some of the most virulent racists out into the open where the light of day led to a summary judgment by society as the vileness and irrationality of their worldview was laid on the table.
Prior to King’s leadership many persecuted blacks in this country responded to their mistreatment with either an almost passive acceptance (often represented by Booker T. Washington), or else a violent resistance (given intellectual respectability by W. E. B. DuBois). Neither of these approaches, however, brought any change to the status quo. There was a vast injustice that had the country in a stranglehold and nothing meaningful was being done about it. King, however, understood that in order to combat this injustice, the evil of segregation and the racism underpinning it had to be forcefully set before the national consciousness. Rejecting the two most common approaches of his day, King took a third way. The racism had to be resisted or it would never stop, but it could not be resisted violently or it would be given justification. The tit-for-tat, eye for an eye-type responses had to be rejected in favor of nonviolent resistance. This would serve to draw those holding the keys of injustice ever further out into the open where their evil could be exposed. And indeed, the images of Bull Connor turning dogs and fire hoses loose on peaceful marchers did just this.
One of the statements that King made in explaining why this approach was necessary specifically referenced this passage in Leviticus. He said, “That old law about ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everybody blind. The time is always right to do the right thing.” This idea, however, did not originate with King. He was actually quoting another moral reformer whose impact helped to bring down an entire empire on the other side of the world. Mahatma Gandhi put it like this: “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
As morally brilliant as these two men were in their areas of focus, they were merely drawing on another moral reformer who predated them by almost 2,000 years. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, apparently referencing the same idea said this: “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.”
What King and Gandhi were doing for sure and what many people assume Jesus was doing as well, was setting His ethic of love and grace over against the supposed Old Testament ethic of judgment and retaliation. In the process, a whole culture was given license to make some assumptions about this notion of taking an eye for an eye. The first is this assumption we’ve mentioned that the Old Testament is all about judgment and wrath. The second assumption is that the New Testament jettisoned all that in favor of love and grace. A third and related assumption is that the Old Testament is somehow morally inferior to the New Testament. A fourth assumption is that the Law of the Tooth was focused on resolving personal conflicts. Put all of this together and the idea gradually crystalizes that we can’t really trust the teachings of the Old Testament, the Law in particular. I mean, sure there is some good stuff there—do not murder, do not steal—but on the whole, it can pretty much just be ignored. From here, it’s not a very far leap to thinking we can’t really trust any of what we find in the Scriptures. It would be a better idea to go out on our own and to trust more in the moral judgments of our culture, particularly where they pertain to justice.
But is this really the case? Can we have so little confidence in the moral and ethical guidelines of the Old Testament? Are our moral judgments better than what we find there? That seems to be a tall set of assumptions to validate. For one, Jesus accepted the moral authority of the Old Testament and even if He offered what He declared to be better interpretations than the standard takes of His day He made very clear that all of the moral teachings of the Old Testament are still in force for His followers. If Jesus took something as a legitimate source of authority it seems rather bold to assume we can think otherwise. Indeed, when we put our principles into play, we discover that not only is the Law of the Tooth not morally defunct, but in fact it is a standard still badly in need of being put into play more widely today.
Let’s get started by taking a closer look at the text both here and in its other two locations just to make sure we don’t miss anything. The Law of the Tooth appears here in Leviticus in the context of an apparently unrelated case that is a hard passage all by itself. What it appears to do, though, is to function as a reminder of the standard of justice already laid out in the Law. And, based on the literary structure of the text here there are two aspects that are being emphasized. First, vv. 17-21 form a kind of literary arrow pointing at the first half of v. 20. The idea here is that when a person commits a crime, the extent of their punishment is to be determined by the extent of the crime. Regardless of the emotions of a given case, a particular offender is not to receive punishment out of proportion to the crime he committed. Second, the last verse of a passage is always important because people tend to remember the last thing said to them. The idea contained in v. 22 is that this standard of restrained justice is to apply to all people regardless of their station. What we get from this is that justice for the people of Israel was to be governed by a sense of restraint (mercy) and of equality in its application (blind). Well, that seems a little different from the judgment-focused interpretations we often hear.
There’s more. When this law appears in both Exodus and Deuteronomy it is in the context of sections on case law. What’s case law? Case law is used by judges to determine the right way to decide a case in which one person brings a complaint against another. In other words, this law was not intended to be a statement on how to resolve interpersonal disputes, but rather a set of guidelines for judges to use in determining the appropriate punishment for a crime.
Why does this matter? Well, think about this with me for a minute through the lens of our second principle. Remember the tension we talked about a few minutes ago? When we have been wronged we are torn between the knowledge that some issues are best resolved by someone else, guided by an impartial and fair set of standards, and the desire to just handle it ourselves which usually means overreacting in a manner that isn’t just, but is emotionally satisfying. But, the only reason we feel that tension is because we live in a culture that has been so profoundly shaped by the rule of law which itself is a product of the Christian worldview. Back when this was written, though, there was no such thing as the rule of law. There was instead, the rule of might, which goes like this: the mightiest make the rules. What they said went. Period. What more, these kinds of rulers tended to be capricious meaning you really couldn’t count on justice being served in any given case. As a result, most people trended toward more of a Wild West sort of justice like that expressed by Adam and Eve’s great-great-great-great-grandson, Lamech in Genesis 4:23-24: “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” Now, I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as the kind of “law” that will leave everyone not just blind, but dead. Compared to Lamech’s Law of retribution, the Law of the Tooth was a giant leap forward in the understanding and application of justice.
But there’s another important observation that needs to be made here in light of the second principle. Many people seem to come at this passage with the idea in mind that Christians think it should be taken literally. And yet, there is no evidence that it was ever taken as such nor that it was so intended. Anybody who thinks or assumes otherwise is taking the lazy way out of understanding what’s going on here. Even a fleeting moment of thought puts the lie to this idea. First, crimes involving the gouging out of an eye or the taking of a limb probably didn’t happen with any greater frequency then than they do now. If we are supposed to take this literally then it would seem to refer to an awfully obscure set of crimes and why make such a big deal out of a standard that rarely applies? Furthermore, we don’t have any evidence that the people of Israel ever understood or practiced this command literally. There are no accounts of retaliatory dismemberment in the Bible or any other ancient Jewish writings that I know of. So why then would we make such a big deal out of a law that was never followed anyway? Perhaps the reason is that it wasn’t intended to be understood like that at all. Instead, the law here was setting forth an important principle of godly justice that we’ve already mentioned: the extent of a punishment should be determined by the extent of the crime.
Keep in mind too here something we talked about last week. Cultures this far back in human history, when God was still introducing Himself and His standards of living to the world, were not shaped by the Gospel of Christ as ours is today. Things that seem perfectly normal to us because of the impact Jesus has had on our culture were totally foreign and even ludicrous ideas to folks then. Now, some folks might point to the fact that laws similar to this were on the books in other ancient cultures, but this only makes my point. Nations tend not to pass laws no one believes are at least somewhat necessary. The very fact that versions of this law appeared in other places suggests that people didn’t naturally think like this. No, people tended to think in the same terms as Lamech: If you hurt me, I’m going to kill you. If you kill my brother, I’m going to kill your whole clan. Now, yes, this unofficial law tended to keep crime down at least a little bit, but when crimes did happen they were generally disasters. The whole place was like a giant powder keg waiting to explode. By placing judicial limits on punishments for various crimes (a move that assumes the existence of some kind of judiciary to which people could turn rather than resolving disputes themselves which itself was previously laid out in the Law of Moses), the likelihood that people were going to see fair justice applied when they were the victim of a crime went way, way up.
All of this falls perfectly in line with the character of God. Remember? God is just. He’s not merely a force for justice. Real justice is defined by Him. When we act in a manner that is consistent with the lifestyle His character calls for we will be doing justice; our actions will be just. All of God’s commands come out of His character of justice. If God calls us to something, following it will lead to a flourishing of justice. And with this lens in place we can all of a sudden see the ways that the Law of the Tooth was designed for this end. The lex talionis was designed to make the punishment fit the crime. Taking the whole Law into view, it was not allowing people who were injured by another to repay them with the same injury, but rather, it was calling for the offender to have similar (probably economic in nature) limitations placed on him with reparations going to the victim. It was also calling people to not take matters into their own hands which rarely leads to positive outcomes. The goal here was to see wrongs righted in a manner that was equitable and equally applied to all persons at a civic level, not a personal one.
This, then, pointed forward to the very kingdom of God that Jesus announced and inaugurated in His earthly ministry. It was seeking to institute in a small way the dramatic bringing to justice that will one day come when Jesus sits as judge over all the earth. In order for this to work in the meantime, though, it would require that people treat each other with love and grace, allowing the necessary retaliatory measures after a crime has been committed to be leveled by the proper authorities. Thus, when Jesus declared His reinterpretation of this law, He was not reinventing the law or somehow repealing it, but casting down a common misperception among the people that it applied to interpersonal conflicts rather than being primarily civic in nature. When Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye,’” the people had indeed heard that. They had heard the folk interpretations of the law which took ideas like the Law of the Tooth and twisted them from their original intent such that they basically justified the method of conflict resolution people wanted to take anyway. After all, that’s only fair, right? If you hit me, I should be able to hit you back. Well, Gandhi and King were right. That kind of a standard does leave everybody blind. Jesus was absolutely right to call for a standard of interpersonal behavior rooted in love and grace rather than tit-for-tat retribution. But, from the application of our other principles it is clear that what He was referring to was not the Law of the Tooth as it actually appears, but a culturally-rooted misinterpretation of it not so different from the way many segregation advocates in the pre-civil rights days twisted a concept that was flawed from the start in order to justify separate states of affair which were decidedly not equal. In other words, Jesus was talking about interpersonal relationships in the Sermon on the Mount while the Law of the Tooth was originally focused on public interactions and a judicial system rooted in godly justice.
So then, let’s bring all this down to a concept you can take home with you. Far from being a law that legalized a kind of personal retribution which, while perhaps a move forward from the general barbarism of the day, was morally inferior to the love and grace ethic of Jesus, the Law of the Tooth was a morally-brilliant, culturally-expressed leap forward toward godly justice which contains within it some crucial seeds of our modern, rule-of-law-based judicial system. Or perhaps to make that a bit more memorable, the Law of the Tooth set justice on the loose. The Law of the Tooth set justice on the loose. It aimed the people of Israel, and still aims people today who take the time to really understand it, toward a revolution in justice wherein wrongs will be righted in a manner that honors both the God who is just and the people who are created in His image. This, far from being evidence of an unloving or unjust Old Testament God, suggests that we serve a God who has since some of His earliest interactions with people been moving us inexorably toward a time when justice will flow like waters, when wrongs will be made right, and all people will be treated just as they should be. That’s the kind of God worth serving and His word proves it.