Exodus 21:23-25. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
Here God introduces the principle of Lex talionis – “the law of the tooth” or “the law of retaliation” or “eye for eye.”
God’s covenant with Israel is forming a new nation. A nation of holiness, worship, love, and also justice. Eye for eye can sound like it’s just a form of revenge. Getting even. But it’s actually the opposite. When a nation enforces Lex talionis it is meant to bring justice to the table and remove the desire in the victim’s heart for revenge. Without this law revenge would lead to “head for eye” or “arm for tooth.” But with Lex talionis everyone knows the punishment will be fair.
Lex talionis is applied all throughout the Book of the Law. From the death penalty for murder to paying back your neighbor when you steal, the punishment must fit the crime. No extreme punishments were allowed (for example – a thief could not be executed. That would be too extreme). And no light punishments were allowed (for example – if you killed your neighbor’s ox you owed him 5 oxen. One would be too light of a sentence. You owe for the oxen and the oxen’s potential offspring).
Lex talionis also wasn’t applied literally. The Hebrew rulers did not go around plucking out eyes and knocking out teeth. It’s a figure of speech that means the punishment must be equitable (for example – a slave that was wrongly beaten was set free. He didn’t get to beat his master).
Lex Talionis is rooted in the imago Dei. Image of God. Life is precious. Every life. So eye for eye applies to everyone. Rich and poor. Male and female. Slave and master. And because it’s rooted in the imago Dei it is also rooted in the Great Commandment – Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Ultimately we should not harm our neighbors not just because we fear Lex talionis, but because we love God and we love each other.
Eye for an eye as revenge – not exactly what God had in mind.
Lex talionis is a good law. God wrote it. It’s just. It’s fair. It’s righteous.
But it’s the law. And what does the law do? It increases our sin. It never has had the power to make us see our errors and choose to be righteous. Only mercy can do that. Not law. King David deserved Lex talionis. He got mercy. His heart was changed.
By the time we get to Jesus Lex talionis wasn’t used for justice. It was used for cruelty. For revenge. It was their “God-given” right to return harm for harm. To fight back. To strike the one who struck your cheek. To insult the one who insulted you. Eye for eye!
And so Jesus stood up on a mountain (just like Moses) and said these words:
Matthew 5:38-39. 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 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.
Jesus replaces Lex talionis in our personal lives with turn the other cheek. He adds mercy to justice.
Turn the other cheek can sound like injustice, but it’s not because it’s the OTHER cheek. If someone slaps you on the right cheek offer them the left cheek. Not the right cheek again. That would be injustice. That would be allowing the person to continue to abuse you and insult you. In offering the OTHER cheek you are offering them a chance to change their ways. When two people met in Jesus’ culture you could either kiss their cheek as a greeting of honor. Or you could slap their cheek as an obvious greeting of dishonor. Jesus is saying that when someone dishonors you with the cheek slap, resist the impulse of “eye for eye.” Offer them a chance to kiss you instead. Not a chance to slap you again, but a chance to make it right with a kiss. Turn the other cheek is both justice and mercy.
Listen, there is still room for Lex talionis within the rule of law (which is where it was always supposed to be). But there is no room for it in the heart of the Christian. Yes, government is God’s instrument of wrath to punish evil doers with equity and justice (Rom. 13). But as one who is united to Christ we are called to live not from the law but from mercy. From grace. From justice? Yes. But restorative justice. Justice that seeks to restore relationships and bring reconciliation between enemies.
But isn’t Jesus’ teaching just a new law that we still can’t obey. Won’t turn the other cheek just stir up sin in my heart like Lex talionis did (or does)?
It might, but it doesn’t have to. When we remember who we are in Christ, and that we have received the “turned cheek” of God, and when we remember that Jesus gave his eye for our eye, his tooth for our tooth, his life for our life, we can begin to live in way of the Spirit of Christ and find freedom from the need for revenge. We can trust the wrath of God’s justice that comes through government, or natural consequences, or on God’s judgment day yet to come.
“To live is Christ” frees us from the need for Lex talionis. In Christ I see how my personal eye for eye justice would just destroy not only my enemy but me as well. And Christ in me allows me to see that I no longer need my enemy to be destroyed for their sins against me. I can desire justice and reconciliation at the same time by turning my cheek. I can turn my cheek in love because God turned his cheek in love and allowed his son to be stricken for us.