Eye for an Eye

April 13, 2021

By Barry Fike

Eye for an eye...tooth for a tooth-  (Matthew  5:39) In the law this was the beginning of mercy.  The original aim was the limitation of vengeance.  In the earliest days the blood feud was characteristic of society.  If a man in one tribe injured a man in another tribe then all the members of the tribe, of the man injured, would take vengeance upon all the men of the other tribe.  The vengeance desired, many times, would be death.  This law now limited such vengeance.  It says that only the one who committed the injury should be punished.  His punishment could be no more than the equivalent of the injury he afflicted and the damage that he did. 

          This law was never given to governments to answer questions concerning the government and their persecution of criminals, capital punishment or soldiers bearing arms to protect their country.  It is not a set of regulations, or laws, for conduct.  It was not a law which gave the private individual the right to extract vengeance.   This was a principle which laid down how a judge, in the law court, must assess punishment and penalty (Deut. 19:18).   It was not done in the spirit of animosity, or with the motive for revenge, when the official of the court carried out the procedures of the law.  This did not give the individual person the right to indulge in the vengeance of an eye for an eye but was always intended as a guide for a judge in the assessment of the penalty which any violent or unjust deed must receive.  The injured party was not required to prosecute, but was at liberty, if he saw proper, to show mercy by declining to do so (Lev. 19:18). 

          When Jesus talks about someone coming up and hitting you on the cheek and you’re turning him the other, or if someone wants your coat you give him your shirt too, or if someone wants you to go with him one mile you go with him too what is he referring to?  The ideas are even more complicated when one considers that Jesus is a Jew and is well acquainted with the Jewish law that says if one comes to kill you, you anticipate it and kill them first.  Since that is completely opposite to this theory of pacifism that is developed from the fourth century and onward. How do we interpret such laws?

          First of all, Jesus didn’t teach pacifism.  A pacifist doesn’t get a whip and run people out of the temple (Matt. 21:12, 13).   He then says that you are to love your enemies and do good to them that hate you.  That’s pretty tough when your enemy is beating you for you to love them unless you’re a complete pacifist.  This is only confusing to those who don’t know Jewish law.

          In the first century when Jesus said to love your enemy (v. 44) the word here is ekthros.  Contrary to popular belief this is not “koine” Greek.  This Greek word goes all the way back to the classical period when these Jewish scholars took certain Greek words to convey Hebrew ideas.  When you go to a New Testament Greek dictionary and look up “ekthros” you’re going to see the concept of somebody that hates you.  But if you go to Liddell and Scott Classical Greek Dictionary[1] you’re going to see that one of the meanings for “ekthros” is a thealos that has been alienated.  That means a brother that has been alienated from you.  If we knew anything about Mishnah we would have already known that.  In order Nezekien and in Tractate Sanhedrin it says, “There are two individuals that are disqualified from serving in a court of law.  One of them is a man’s best friend and another is his enemy.”  By best friend is meant his bridegroom and by enemy is meant any brother that hasn’t spoken to him for three days in enmity.  An enemy is a brother who has been estranged from him that hasn’t spoken to him, because of enmity, for three days or more

     So in essence Jesus is saying that if a brother, who has been estranged from you comes up and slaps you on one cheek you are to turn to him and other and say, “Go ahead and hit me on the cheek if it’s going to help us being reconciled.   If you’re going to feel better about it and if you’re going to have a great relationship with the Lord and it will affect reconciliation between us and God then hit me on this other cheek too.”   But if somebody comes up to you that isn’t a brother and his particular issue with you is going to threaten your well being you’re completely justified in defending yourself because this scripture does not address that situation.  Jesus is talking about the relationship of brother to brother.  What’s my responsibility to my brother?  To care as much for him as I do for myself.  I am to do unto others as I want them to do unto me.  


              [1] Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott.  A Greek-English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985. 748.