Eyes, Teeth, and Lives
Q: Exodus 21:24 says “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” What Scripture tells us that God wishes He would not have said this?
A: Actually, no verse shows God having a change of heart or offering an apology. However, in the Law’s completion in Christ, we Christians are given a more merciful path to follow.
Before talking about that, though, we first need to understand this section of the Bible in its context. We look at it in AD 2008 and think, “That’s horrible!” However, Israel’s former oppressors and their future neighbors almost without fail punished much more harshly. If any of them happened to know the language and heard or read this section, he’d probably have thought, “These Hebrews are a bunch of sissies with a cream-puff god.”
God actually set these regulations to protect people from excessive punishment, private revenge, and false testimony. In Deuteronomy, He that it took “the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses” and that “a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness (17:6).” A little bit later, the Lord expanded this protection: “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. (19:15)”
Quite often in the ancient world, if you accidentally (or purposefully) took out someone’s eye, he would be allowed to kill you, take your possessions, and sell your family into slavery. Even in the more “civilized” parts of the Middle East, where governments claimed the right of justice and retribution, the judgment was much harsher than was the original offense. So among the many regulations and commands in Exodus-Deuteronomy, God took several opportunities to restrict payback to a commensurate level. To use Sir William Schwenk Gilbert’s famous expression from The Mikado, the Lord commanded His people to “let the punishment fit the crime.”
Besides rules limiting punishment, He also forbade individuals from taking the law into their own hands (Deuteronomy 32:35) This command Paul (Romans 12:19) and the writer of Hebrews (10:30) reiterated. And though the extended family — clan or tribe — formed much of Hebrew government, not just any kinsman was supposed to “even the score.” While we don’t have many details, it seems that the“avenger of blood” was a somewhat official office within each larger family unit. They could pursue and kill intentional murderers but those committing accidental homicides could flee to one of the “six cities of refuge” to await trial or to stay in exile “until the death of the high priest” (see Numbers 35:9-34).
Again, we read that a murder conviction needed the testimony of “witnesses,” not just “one witness. (Numbers 35:30)” Yet since God holds human life so sacred, one intentionally ending another’s life could have “no ransom” because he was “guilty of death” and had to be “put to death. (v. 31)” Even one guilty of manslaughter could not buy his way back to his own people. Since this return would “pollute the land” because of the victim’s blood, the killer could only be brought back in order to die, for “no atonement” save “the blood of the one who shed it (v.33)” was allowed.
This system was in place and (sometimes) enforced throughout Israel’s history, from the time of the Judges through the Roman conquest. However, laws were sometimes ignored or intentionally disregarded. We see particularly in Jesus’ trial. The Sanhedrin was “seeking testimony against him ... but they found none. (Mark 14:55)” Even among their hand-picked witnesses, “their testimony did not agree. (v. 56)” They finally used Jesus’ flat statement that He was the Christ to convict Him of blasphemy — even though He obviously (from our perspective as believers) was telling the truth.
Divine Law, more recent Jewish laws, and Roman law were all violated, including these: Night arrests and trials weren’t allowed; Sabbath or Sabbath eve trials were illegal; the Council only was to judge — not instigate — any charges; the charges changed from blasphemy in the Jewish court to civil insurrection before Pilate; no two witnesses ever agreed; and the Sanhedrin had no authority to pronounce a death sentence.
As I said earlier, there was no “repentance” on God’s part for ever decreeing these regulations for His covenant people. However, in fulfilling all written about Himself “in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms, (Luke 24:44)” Jesus also had the authority to redirect the thinking of those who continued to believe in the God of Israel through their faith in the Son. The world’s authorities can still make, judge, and enforce laws (see Romans 13:1-7)” However, the Church and individual believers are completely removed from the sphere of judgment and compensation.
Regardless of the provocation, Christ calls His followers to act as He did when hatefully and unlawfully persecuted and prosecuted: “‘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.’ (Matthew 5:38-39)”
The civil authorities may still require eyes, teeth, or even lives, for “the governing authorities ... have been instituted by God. (Romans 13:1)” Therefore, lawbreakers should be afraid of their rulers, for the legal authority, “the servant of God,” doesn’t “bear the sword in vain. (v. 4)” The Christian who holds civil office may, according to the laws of his land, judge, sentence, or carry out punishments. However, the Church and her members are called to forgive, even to the point of doing “good to those who hate” us.
Even if the authorities justly condemn and properly execute the most heinous murder, if the murderer repents and throws himself on God’s mercy in Christ Jesus, our Lord forgives him and God’s people welcome the penitent into our midst.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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Newspaper column #538