This is a study on the law of retaliation, that is “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. The first point I want to make is whether this law is to be taken literally, or that it means that a just financial compensation should be paid by the offender.
Ex. 21: 12 – 14
Here we see a basic principle of righteous judgment. It makes a huge difference whether you kill someone by accident, unintentionally, or if you kill him with premeditation. That's murder. The result is the same – someone dies a violent death – but the punishment is very different. This distinction between manslaughter and murder is still made today in most if not all countries around the world. However, there are also huge differences between Yahweh's justice and man's justice. In Yahweh's system the one who causes a mortal accident had to flee to one of the six cities of refuge, and had to stay there probably for many years, until the high priest died. We can read about this in
Deut. 19: 1-10
Numbers 35: 26-28
So Yahweh doesn't take killing someone by accident lightly. They had to leave their house and city in order to move to one of the cities of refuge, and probably had to stay there for decades, without ever leaving the city. But Yahweh doesn't allow retaliation in this situation.
Now in our modern society, and especially in traffic, you can easily have accidents, for instance car accidents in which someone gets killed, and that there's really nothing you can do about it. Let's say you're driving 30 miles an hour in the center of a city, and suddenly there is a little child that runs across the street from behind a parked van. You see the child only one tenth of a second before it litterally runs under your car. Impossible to stop. The child dies. You are not responsible and deserve no punishment according to Yahweh's law. This is a case where the child unintentionally killed itself. The child caused the accident, not you.
But if you murdered someone, the punishment was the death penalty. Let's read that again in
So this is a first example of retaliation – life for life. Clearly this passage doesn't allow the interpretation that the death penalty can be replaced with imprisonment or a financial penalty. Of course the death penalty had to be pronounced by the judges. No one was allowed to avenge himself without the consent of the judges.
In verses 18 and 19 we see another example where Yahweh does not permit retaliation.
Ex. 21: 18-19.
First of all notice that verse 18 begins with the word IF. Now does this mean that it's all right with Yahweh that men contend and fight with each other? No! Yahweh is simply explaining what penalty men risk who decide to settle their disagreements by fighting. These verses talk about free men, not about slaves. No one gets killed in the fight, but one gets seriously wounded so that he 's confined to his bed. His injuries heal after a certain time. The one who wounded him has to compensate for the loss of his income during the time he was unable to work, and also for the expenses of his treatment until he is completely healed. So this could be quite expensive if the injuries take a long time to heal. So rather than approving of men fighting with each other, Yahweh is pointing out what the dangers are of such a fight and tries to dissuade them from fighting.
Ex. 21: 20-21
Now don't you think that's strange? If the servant dies immediately, the master must be punished. If he dies a day or two later, he shall not be punished, for he is his property. That doesn't make sense, does it? The slave is his property also when he dies immediately. So why the difference? Why no punishment when the slave dies 1 or 2 days later? The master is just as responsible for his death as when he would have died immediately.
The key is the Hebrew word AMAD that's translated “remains alive” in verse 21 (NKJV). The KJV reads “If he continue a day or 2, he shall not be punished.” Strong's concordance gives several meanings of this word (5975), including abide, appoint, arise, continue, raise up, stand up. So this word really has a vast range of meanings, and the translator has to decide which one best fits the intended meaning. This is how God's Word translates Ex. 21:21:
“But if the slave gets up in a day or 2, the owner must not be punished. The slave is his property.”
The Holman Christian Standard Bible translates this same verse as follows: “However, if the slave can stand up after a day or 2, the owner should not be punished because he is his owner's property.”
The New Century Version reads Ex. 21:21 like this: “But if the slave gets well after a day or 2, the owner will not be punished since the slave belongs to him.”
Today's New International Version reads Ex. 21: 20-21 as follows: “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or 2, since the slave is their property.”
Now these modern translations make sense. Why mustn't the owner be punished if the slave gets well after a day or 2? In verses 18 and 19 we just saw that the man who injured another man had to compensate the loss of his income and had to pay for the expenses for his medical treatment. Why doesn't Yahweh repeat the same instructions here? Well, simply because the situation is different. The one who is losing money as a consequence of the slave's inability to work is his master. So it wouldn't make sense that he would have to compensate for his own loss. And it's in his own interest to take good care of his injured slave, so that he can resume his work as soon as possible. Slaves had to contribute to the benefits of their boss, just as employees today – nothing new under the sun.
So if the baby is born prematurely, but survives and turns out to be healthy, a punishment is imposed by the husband as approved by the judges. Yahweh's word doesn't specify what kind of punishment this should be. Obviously retaliation is impossible in this case, even if the wife of the other man would be pregnant too. Yahweh doesn't want the children to be punished for something their father did. We see this principle in
Ez. 18: 4, 20
But let's go back to
Ex. 21: 23-25
Here it is! Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc... The law of retaliation.
Now I come from a background in the Worldwide Church of God, and we were told that this is not to be taken literally, but that this in fact means that a monetary compensation should be paid, that is the value of an eye for an eye, the value of a tooth for a tooth, and so on. In this regard they simply followed the jewish oral law, as explained in the Jewish Encyclopedia. But are they right? Let's turn to
This verse seems to say that the death penalty applies to any killing of a human being, whether it was intentional or not. But we know that Scripture cannot be broken, and that it's here a little, there a little (Is. 28:10). So Lev. 24:17 can't contradict Ex. 21: 12-14. So the killing referred to in Lev. 24:17 must be premeditated, that is murder. Let's continue reading verses 18 to 20.
Lev. 24: 18-20
Now again, the basic biblical principle of making a distinction between harm done with premeditation and unintentional injuries remains valid at all times. So verses 19 and 20 apply only to someone who intentionally disfigures someone else. They do not apply to accidents that cause permanent disfigurements. And these verses apply only to disfigurements, not to injuries that heal afterwards, as we saw earlier. So this is talking only about cruel people who intentionally mutilate someone – cutting of their hand or leg for instance. This kind of cruelty is fortunately not very common in prosperous nations, but this was common practice in recent civil wars in Africa involving child soldiers. And it may still be going on today.
Anyway, we were told by the WCG and its offshoots that the law of retaliation was never applied literally in the Bible. Again, is that true? No, it's false!
Judges 1: 4-7
So Adoni-Bezek had cut off the thumbs and big toes of 70 kings. Were these 70 accidents? No, of course not! Adoni-Bezek was apparently a cruel sadist who found pleasure in disfiguring others. Notice his reaction: as I have done, so Elohim has repaid me. This sounds to me as if he admits he deserved this treatment, and that he begins to realize how wrong his actions were. So the Jews simply applied Yahweh's instructions in Lev. 24: 19-20 correctly, as well as verse 22:
Adoni-Bezek was a stranger indeed, but the same law applied to him.
Now, was this a cruel punishment imposed by a harsh Elohim? Should we show more love and compassion for sadists than Yahweh? No, of course not! Let's suppose for a minute that those claiming that Lev. 24 and Ex. 21 are really talking about a financial compensation are right. Then I ask: how much should it cost to cut off someone's ear? 10.000, 100.000, 1.000.000 $? Should it simply be the value of an ear, or should it also depend on how rich the offender is? If a poor unemployed guy cuts off your ear, it would cost him only 1.000 $, which you would never get anyway, because he's so poor. But if Bill Gates cuts of your ear, should the compensation be 1 billion $? If the value of an ear is fixed at, say, 500.000 $ regardless of how rich the guilty person is, then a billionaire who happens to be a sadist could say: well, let's see, I make 1 million each day, and it's real fun to cut off people's ears, so I will cut off someone's ear every day, and then flush it down the toilet, so they can't reattach it in the hospital. So my fortune will still increase with 500.000 $ a day, and I will have lots of fun. Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Well, it is ridiculous, and it shows that a financial compensation doesn't work in this situation. Treating him the same way he treated others by cutting off his own ear is much more likely to make him think twice before disfiguring others.
Let's now turn to the third passage in the books of Moses that mentions the law of retaliation.
Deut. 19: 16-21
Again, this is to be taken literally. I feel that false witnesses get away with it far too easily in Belgium, and maybe it's the same here in the US. If this would still be applied in our justice system today, there would be far fewer false witnesses.
Let's now see what Yahshua had to say about the law of retaliation.
Matt. 5: 38-39
I don't know about you, but this is a passage that I struggled with for many years.
This seems to say that you should just allow people to take advantage of you, without any resistance. Is that what Yahshua means? Should we allow others to have their way and let them walk over us, or should we resist them? Should we turn the other cheek?
Yahshua was referring to certain passages in the OT mentioning “an eye for an eye”, but which ones? It must be those passages that involve resisting someone. So we can rule out Deut 19, that deals with false witnesses. So this leaves only
Ex. 21: 22-25 and Lev. 24: 19-20.
These are indeed the passages that He is referring to. Let's read Ex. 21: 22-25 again, because it's more detailed than Lev. 24.
Ex. 21: 22-25
The harm that is mentioned in verses 23 to 25 does not necessarily refer to the injuries of the prematurely born baby mentioned in verse 22, because prematurely born babies don't have teeth, do they? No, this is talking about injuries inflicted by one of the fighting men to the other man, or possibly to one of those who are watching this fight too closely.
Notice again that verse 22 begins with the little word IF – IF men fight. As I said before, this doesn't mean that it's fine with Yahweh that men fight. Rather He is warning them of the potentially disastrous consequences that can result once they engage in a fight. It could cost them their tooth, their eye, and even their life. So even in the OT Yahweh is trying to dissuade these unconverted people from starting a fight. In Matt. 5:38-39 the word “resist” refers to resistance involving the use of violence, since it is in the context of losing an eye or a tooth. Yahshua tells us not to fight, even when we are provoked by a humiliating slap in the face. So there is no contradiction with Ex. 21. Yahshua is simply instructing us how to avoid the dire consequences of a fight.
So what does turning the other cheek mean? Let's see how Yahshua reacted when He was slapped in the face.
John 18: 22-23
1 Peter 2: 21-23
The situation in John 18 is different from Matt. 5: 38-39, because the one slapping Him on His face is an officer, not an ordinary citizen, and Yahshua was bound, as you can read in verses 12 and 24. But the principle of turning the other cheek is still applicable, and that's exactly what Yahshua did. He didn't try to hide is face in order to avoid further slaps, because He certainly looked at the officer while He spoke to him. He didn't threat the officer verbally, but He tried to make him reconsider what he just did by asking him questions, in order to help him to repent from his evil action.
Yahshua practiced His own teachings and we must follow His perfect example. When someone slaps us on the face, we can't retaliate, nor threaten him or her verbally. Instead we must ask him or her: “Why do you hit me? Fighting won't resolve anything. Let's try to solve this peacefully. Explain what you have against me.” This course of action is in line with
Matt. 5: 23-24.
So turning the other cheek means that you don't run away, nor that you hide your face behind your arms in order to avoid further slaps, but that you look at him or her and talk to him or her, seeking reconcialiation. This way you show that you have no fear, that you are not intimidated, that you are not angry and in total controle of your emotions and the situation.
One word of caution. Turning the other cheek applies only when someone hits you with the palm of his hand, not when he boxes your face with his fist! If that happens we must protect ourselves, for instance by running away as fast as we can.
Eph. 5: 29
John 10: 39
Yahshua had to run for His life on numerous occasions. He never used violence against His enemies and rebuked Peter when he cut off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest:
Matt. 26: 52
This is a prophecy. All those who take the sword will perish by the sword, maybe not in this life, but after they have been resurrected to physical life they will be killed by the sharp two-edged sword from Yahshua's mouth, unless they repent from taking the sword.
So tells us not to resist the evil person and to turn the other cheek. What if our attempts to solve disputes peacefully don't work and the other becomes violent? We already saw in Eph. 5: 29 that it is our duty to nourish and cherish our bodies. But should we simply allow people to walk over us, as long as they don't hurt us physically? No! Let's see in
2 Cor. 11: 20
Today's NIV translates this verse as follows:
“In fact, you even put up with any who enslave you or exploit you or take advantage of you or put themselves forward or slap you in the face.”
So Paul is criticizing the Corinthians for putting up with people slapping them in the face and other injustices passively. They took no action to stop it. Turning the other cheek is not passive but active. It's the first step of an attempt to reconcile with our neighbour. The next step is asking what exactly he has against us, and then we can either admit we were wrong and apologize, or we can explain our point of view, in order to solve the conflict. Turning the other cheek does not mean that you tolerate that a conflict or an injustice continues indefinitely, but rather it means taking the initiative to solve it in a peaceful manner.
Does the law of retaliation permit that we avenge ourselves? No, it doesn't.
Deut. 32: 35 TNIV It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.
Yahweh forbids us to avenge ourselves, because He knows that this would lead to mutual vengence from generation to generation.
Rom. 13: 1-4
So the government, the authority, the rulers are Elohim's ministers who execute His vengence. Notice that Paul said this while the Roman Empire ruled over much of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. They certainly didn't have higher moral standards or more respect for human rights than our Western governments and judges today. Yet Paul called those idolatrous authorities Elohim's ministers! How much more should we not respect and submit to our Governments? Paul even exhorts us to pray for all who are in authority.
1 Tim. 2: 1-2
Do we frequently criticize those in authority, and hardly ever pray for them? Do we really think we are worse of than the true believers living in the Roman Empire in the first century? When was the last time we gave thanks for our government?
Let's go to
Matt. 24: 43
So Yahshua is certainly not telling us here that we should simply allow people to steal from us. No, we must prevent the thief from stealing from us. Does this mean that Y ahshua permits that we shoot the thief before he even breaks in? No, as we just saw Yahweh doesn't allow us to avenge ourselves – and certainly not before the crime has even been committed. No, we should take the information about the exact time when the thief will break into our house to the police. Hopefully the information is precise and credible enough, so that the police will believe it and send officers to your house in advance to arrest the thief as he breaks into your house.
The law of retaliation is to be taken literally, but applies only to premeditated violent acts that cause either death or incurable injuries. We should not try to be more righteous or loving than Yahweh, by showing mercy to criminals committing such heinous crimes.
When someone slaps us in the face or humiliates us in any other way, we should not retaliate, but stay calm, control our emotions, look at the one who hit us and talk in a firm, yet unthreatening way to him or her, trying to solve the conflict in a peaceful way.