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An Eye for an Eye
 

For the Week of July 21, 2014
by Rubel Shelly

The world is watching with nail-biting apprehension as the latest blood feud between Israelis and Palestinians plays out. The present confrontation was triggered by the murder of three young Jewish kidnapping victims and what appears to be the revenge murder of a Palestinian teen.

Palestinian rockets have struck deeper into Israel than ever before. The response has been air strikes followed by a ground assault from Israeli forces. Each day seems to bring another level of escalation to the fighting. Both sides insist it is their legal right and moral obligation to require “an eye for an eye.”

One can make a good case that the biblical directive about eye-for-eye justice is among the most misunderstood – and misused – texts in Scripture.

The original statement comes from the Law of Moses: “Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered” (Leviticus 24:17-20 NRSV).

This piece of ancient legislation was not written as authorization for revenge. To the contrary, it was written to a fallen and brutish world for the sake of restraining and moderating its violence. The rule of the time – much like the spirit of the Hatfield-McCoy feud – was that every slight or injury had to be repaid “with interest.” Every blow was to be countered with one of even greater brutality.

In a word, the language so often quoted from the Old Testament calls for restraint. Justice is not to be denied, but it is unjust to inflict harm greater than the crime being punished. Furthermore, the same Old Testament literature set up a judicial system that would adjudicate crime and punishment – so that personal and family feuds would be submitted to the larger community for settlement.

Such a system of restrained and mediated justice was a major step forward in what would become our modern jurisprudence. It served to forbid killing in response to a broken jaw, to call for an end to ever-more-severe retaliation. When Jesus spoke to this eye-for-eye limitation, he pressed it to the ultimate point of such constraint – reconciliation (Matthew 5:38-42). He did not deny the right to justice, but he held out the nobler hope of generous goodwill.

Whether in Gaza, Israel, Afghanistan, Ukraine, or Washington, it is time for statesmen and patriots, Christians and all persons of goodwill to stop the idiotic escalation of demeaning rhetoric and homicidal violence.

Used as the justification for revenge, Ghandi was right to claim that an eye for an eye ends up making the whole world blind. Used as an appeal for restraint and resolution of conflict, Jesus’ desire could still become our reality.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).



 

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