#143. If someone strikes you do you seek retribution per the law OR offer the other cheek as well? (Ex 21:12-24 vs Matt 5:39)

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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….

3 thoughts on “#143. If someone strikes you do you seek retribution per the law OR offer the other cheek as well? (Ex 21:12-24 vs Matt 5:39)

  1. Thank you Apollos! Best commentary I’ve come across so far. I’ve read several posts in which the alleged contradictions could easily be argued/corrected, but I don’t see the point. Any reader who stumbles upon this site & is willing to throw out their entire faith in God based on a blog where a “Dr.” repeatedly misuses “to” and “too,” and consistently writes the term “legitimate” in sentences when it should be “legitimize,” was never truly reading the Bible, a student of history, or concerned with developing a relationship with our Heavenly Father in the first place. I’ve seen Holocaust-denying websites that have a better grasp of the English language. I think his theory that Jesus’ selfless sacrifice on the cross, and every miracle and fulfilled prophecy from creation to today is nothing more than a psychosomatic manifestation of a territorial fight between the 9th-8th BC North & South Jews is totes adorbs. I haven’t come across any posts yet where the “Dr.” likens the Revelation Song to “When You’re a Jet!” or how the actual parting of the Red Sea was simply a Hebrew phrase the Elohists’ author intended to mean “Underground Railroad,” but I’m sure they’re coming.

  2. I think Jesus’s words in this pericope have been grossly misunderstood throughout the centuries. Jesus is here talking about a situation where someone who has allegedly committed a tort or crime (assault and battery in our legal system) is standing as the defendant before the court and the court has found him liable or guilty. In this case, the aggrieved party was allowed to strike him on the cheek — presumably the same cheek on which the defendant had smitten him. Jesus is here employing hyperbole to indicate that one who seeks to enter the kingdom of heaven will go beyond what is legally required. His injunction not to “resist evil” must be understood in light of its Semitic background. The Hebrew / Aramaic noun “ra’ah” could mean a great many things other than moral evil, and often did (the Semitic trilateral root system being what it it was); in this case, I think it makes sense to understand the Semitic language behind the Greek “poneros” to mean something along the line of “misfortune,” rather than referring to an evil person.

    In similar fashion, Jesus commands someone who would seek to enter the kingdom of heaven to offer not only his outer garment, but his inner one as well. As I’m sure you well know, the Torah allowed a creditor to take a debtor’s outer garment in pledge as collateral for a debt, with the proviso that he must return it to the debtor by nightfall, as the debtor probably needed it to sleep in during the cold nights that can occur in low-humidity environments. If the defaulted, the creditor could seize the garment permanently — hence the incentive not to default! But allowing the inner garment to be taken as well would have left the debtor naked (or nearly so). Jesus relies upon the absurdity of the conclusion to drive home his point.

    His third example — that of going an extra thousand paces beyond what a Roman soldier could require of a member of a subject people — illustrates much the same point, although there is of course no Old Testament setting in view here.

    I’m not advocating biblical inerrancy, but I do think we can assume some level of internal consistency at points. It’s interesting that Luke has Jesus telling the disciples after the Last Supper, “If you don’t have a sword, go out and buy one.” I don’t think Jesus really taught pacifism or nonresistance.

  3. still, I wonder what the world would be like if Xtians throughout the history of the church, had followed to the letter, the ethics outlined in the Sermon on the Mount. If the greed for more power and wealth hadn’t taken hold. If people really did give away all but one coat or really did not retaliate when bad was done to them.

    As for going the extra mile, I know a LOT of people who do just that, in their daily doings with others. Helping beyond what is asked is almost the norm in my life…although i must say I have never, nor have I ever met anyone who has been coerced by an enemy to help out. I hope I would be able to not only do what is asked/forced, but also help beyond the asked for. But I don’t know, having never been forced into helping an enemy.

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