One who strikes a man and he dies, he shall be put to death! (Ex 21:12)
And if there be any injury, then you shall give a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a hurt for a hurt! (Ex 21:24)
The lex talionis—the law of equal retaliation—was a common principle or policy of retribution shared by many cultures in antiquity. The Israelites were no exception to this and biblical scribes placed this “philosophy of justice” on the lips of Yahweh, as in the above example. Laws of equal retribution were used to curb escalating violence. It is a public decree that any villian will receive his just deserts: a life for a life, eye for an eye, etc.
It would be ridiculous to think that cultures living millennia later, in different geopolitical and religious worlds, would still employ this system of equal retaliation. Add to this the eschatological worldview, which impregnated 1st century Judaism and under which Christianity was born, and it’s not to difficult to understand the utter contradictory positions between the Hebrew Bible’s lex talionis and the Gospel’s “offer the other cheek” policy.
This is not just a reinterpretation of the laws of the Hebrew Bible, which indeed was the modus operandi of the early church, but a completely different ethical system which itself rested on a specific 1st century Judaic worldview—God was coming to judge the unjust and vindicate the just.
When I teach the gospel of Matthew, and especially the sermon on the mount, I often have my students try to imagine a worldview wherein these ethics are applicable. In what reality would you obey or follow these (Matt 5:39-41):
- Whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other to offer him too.
- If anyone wishes to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.
- Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.
The response I usually get is none. But that’s not the case at all. The whole ethical system envisioned in the sermon on the mount and many other Jewish texts from the 2nd–1st century BC was predicated on an eschatological worldview. In other words, many of these authors, and the communities for which they wrote, wholeheartedly believed that Yahweh would inaugurate a reign on earth that adhered to the ideas of divine/cosmic justice—this in the face of the then ruling unjust political empires, be that Seleucid, Roman, or other.
Eschatological or apocalyptic literature responded to the perceived and/or real injustices of the world by proposing a divine just world very much alive and working beneath the visible world of injustices. This is in fact the author of Revelation’s argument—that contrary to real injustices and persecutions that his community faced, there was underneath all of this a divine just cosmos, and that was going to be revealed at any minute. Imagine that you solely believed this—that God was going to enter history tomorrow, next week, or next month and eternally punish those who act unjustly, and vindicate and eternally reward those who are just and have been treated unjustly. This is the whole worldview upon which the ethics of the sermon of the mount was constructed. This, and only this, is the historico-religious context upon which Matthew’s ethics can be adhered to. If I knew God was going to vindicate the just and punish the unjust tomorrow or next week, and inaugurate a reign on earth that replicated divine justice, then yes I too might be inclined to let the unjust fellow continue treating me unjustly, or go the extra mile when none was required, etc.
This eschatology—the belief that the end (Greek: eschaton) of human reigns and empires were upon us—was the cultural and religious context that gave birth to these ethics. Indeed it gave birth to Christianity. But this worldview is no longer present, nor would I say the religion and religious cultural that adhered to it and believed in it. What parades as Christianity today is mere hypocrisy and rhetoric. How can it be anything else? We live in a completely different worldview, adhere to a completely different ethical system, and believe in utterly different values and pursue different goals. Christianity was a historical phenomenon. It came and it went. What remains is a new religion with new beliefs and a new god, which has nonetheless authorized itself by claiming that it is the religion presented in these ancient texts. But I can assure you—nay, the texts themselves can—that this is not the case. To be continued….