On first glance it would seem that this phrase is simply talking about getting revenge. A principal for a time long ago, something belonging to a primitive and barbaric age without any relevance to today. But if you study this phrase further you will actually see a demonstration of God’s justice and the care for His people in a time when conflict could very quickly escalate and get out of hand.
There are actually 3 places in the Old Testament where this phrase is found. They are in Deuteronomy 19:20-21, Leviticus 24:19-20 and Exodus 21:23-25.
These passages are all taken from the ‘Torah’ or God’s law which He gave to Moses, so that His people could be set apart from the nations around them. God wanted His people to live in a way that demonstrated His justice and His care for a people made in His image.
The first thing to note is the laws that covered these kinds of rules were given specifically for civil law courts and they were never intended as a rule for personal retaliation. In Exodus, the judges, in consultation with the victim, decided the penalty. The point of these laws was to eliminate personal revenge, which was often chaotic, arbitrary and completely out of proportion to the offense. This specific principle has come to be known by the Latin phrase, lex talionis, or “law of retaliation.” The English word, “retaliate,” originates from the root word for “talionis.” Unfortunately, the modern way we use this word is a bit stronger than the meaning here. It is not just about getting someone back for the wrong done to you. It can mean to pay back in kind, which includes doing good deeds. You could sum up this command by saying “The punishment must fit the crime” It’s not all about vengeance but a stipulation that Justice must be served.
As I mentioned earlier, God views very seriously the destruction of people made in His image, whether that is through maiming or death itself. These laws were designed to show the seriousness of an offence and to bring a just punishment. God knew that injury could happen accidentally and that is why these cases were to be tried in a civil court and not just enacted personally, where the temptation to over react would have been great if it involved friends or loved ones. We see God’s wisdom in this matter through the instigation of the ‘cities of refuge’
then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment. (Numbers 35:11-12)
In this passage, Jesus is challenging the religious authorities who once again had twisted God’s original meaning. As I said before, this law meant that cases were not to be judged on a personal basis but through the civil courts so that the judgements were above board and fair. The Pharisees had turned this into rules allowing for personal vendettas, which was never the intention. Many of the Jews in Jesus’ time regarded personal revenge for being wronged as a right and even a duty based on a misreading of the lex talionis. What was supposed to bring law and order instead encouraged vigilantism, violence and disorder. Instead of a civilised and just court decision; lawlessness, fear and mob rule abounded. The religious leaders didn’t preach the true intent of the law, but rather encouraged the natural sinful desire to take vengeance into one’s own hands. There was also an element of Racism to the Pharisee’s and scribes rules, because they made different rules for Jews and foreigners. If a Jew killed another Jew then it meant the death penalty. If a Jew killed a foreigner it was not. Basically, because they had re-defined the word for ‘neighbour’ to suit their purposes.
Lastly they had applied this rule for misdemeanours that weren’t even crimes, doing what seemed to come naturally to them of taking God’s law and making it into something man-made and perverted.
As we have seen in all the examples so far, Jesus requires a radical upgrade to what the Pharisee’s were demanding. Next week we will see what His answer is and how He expects us to react when somebody wrongs us.