Does the Old Testament demand literal retaliation for a wrong? Should an eye or a tooth be gouged or knocked out—physically? What about the teaching of Jesus? Does he raise our vision to a higher calling? How do we forgive a tort or a physical injury? How do we get compensated for damages?
We begin with the Torah or the first five books of the Bible, specifically the legal rulings, and then we analyze two verses in the Gospel of Matthew.
Ex. 21:23-25 says straightforwardly:
23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (cf. Lev. 24:17-22 and Deut. 19:21)
The question is: should this punishment be applied literally or not? The preponderance of the evidence suggests a non-literal application. This is seen in four factors.
First, the historical context of the ancient Near East must be considered. The law of retaliation in the Code of Hammurabi, named after an emperor of Babylon (ruled 1792-1750), enlarged the scope of criminal law to include even the rich who had to suffer legally for their abuse of the lower classes or others of the same class. An eye for an eye stops the cycle of revenge that ruled in the ancient Near East. Judg. 1:6-7 speaks of a petty king getting the same punishment that he imposed on other small kings he conquered. This implies that the law was actually enforced. However, he was not a Hebrew and was at war. Also, this passage lies outside of the Torah, a legal context.
However, caution in applying different ancient law codes is order. “It remains unclear . . . whether talion [law of retaliation] was ever intended to be used in practice anyway” in Hammurabi’s Babylon (Selman, p. 506). Monetary compensation was more frequent, especially when an upper class man (e.g. a freeman) attacked a lower class man (e.g. a slave). Also, in other talion laws of surrounding cultures, a monetary fine is the only penalty (Selman, ibid). It seems likely, then, that the law of retaliation in the Torah was not carried out literally, but it reflects an underlying principle of equal damages, a strong word picture that communicates that the compensation must be proportionate to the injury. This is significant because on at least three occasions people were stoned for violating other laws (Lev. 24:10-16; Num. 25:1-16; Deut. 15:32-36). This silence on retaliation specifically being carried out may also argue for a non-literal meaning of the words. It is clear from an overall reading of the Bible that forgiveness was always an option (Lev. 19:18 and Matt. 5:42-45).
Second, besides the larger historical context of the ancient Near East, passages in the Torah itself suggest an indemnity, not corporeal punishments. Hints are seen in Ex. 21:18-19, 32; Num. 35:32; Deut. 22:19, 29. This is especially clear in the third version of the law of retaliation found in Deuteronomy 19:21. In this context, the case involves a man who was falsifying his testimony. Since the lying witness did not literally injure the eye of the accused, his punishment should not be taken literally, either (Jackson, pp. 273-304; M. J. Selman, 2003). Thus, the severe physical punishment in the Torah should possibly be interpreted in light of the softer options, also found in the Torah, like an indemnity.
Third, it is highly likely that the punishment of an eye for an eye in ancient Hebrew society is “a stereotyped formula that only states that the punishment must match the crime, but not exceed the damage done . . . ‘An eye for an eye’ might now read: ‘a bumper for a bumper, a fender for a fender’”. . . The punishment “was not an authorization for individuals to tell their opponents to hold still while they tried to even the score and punch out an equal number of their teeth.” This physical punishment was not even literally carried out in the context of a competent judge, and especially not in a private dispute, where tempers may flare and so make the retaliation exceed the damages (see Genesis 4:23-24; Kaiser, p. 104). This is again seen in Deut. 19:21, the third version of lex talionis. The false witness did not literally maim the accused, but v. 21 mentions eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, or hand for hand. This means that the clause had become automatic and formulaic, without actually imposing the penalty.
Fourth, the vast majority of Rabbis throughout the formation of Talmudic literature argued for a non-literal interpretation of Ex. 21:23-24. The assailant could instead pay compensatory damages. For example, Rashi (so named after the initials of his name and title, Rabbi Shelomo Yizhaki, d. 1145), summarizes earlier traditions: “If one blinded the eye of his fellow-man, he has to pay him the value of his eye,” which is calculated on the wounded man’s being hypothetically sold as a slave before his injury. “In the same way all other cases [of the law of retaliation] are to be dealt with, but it does not mean the actual cutting off of the offender’s limb—just as our Rabbis have explained” in . . . B Kamma 83b, which is a tractate and chapter in the Talmud (Pentateuch with Rashi’s Commentary, p. 113). Thus, a vast array of Rabbis interprets the verse non-literally, based, incidentally, on Biblical passages (see the second factor, above).
So in light of these four factors, the evidence suggests that the three passages laying out the law of retaliation were not literally carried out; rather, the words (e.g. eye for eye and tooth for tooth) stand for equality in punishment and damages.
The New Testament
Jesus did not interpret the law of retaliation in Ex. 21:23-25 literally. He did not endorse carrying out the punishment of a physical eye for a physical eye. He corrects the literal interpretation.
Matt. 5:38-39 says:
38 You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” 39 But I tell you, “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right check, turn to him the other also.” (cf. Luke 6:29)
Jesus raises the stakes in personal injuries. He follows a command found in the Holiness Code, in which many verses have a universal application. Leviticus 19:18 says, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” This is the general principle behind Matthew 5:38-39. This background verse in Leviticus is supported by Matt. 5:42-45, which says to love one’s enemies and to pray for them (cf. Luke 6:32). It is better to let go of the offense.
So to avoid misinterpretations or over-interpretations of the words of Jesus in Matt. 5:38-39, we should consider these five interpretive guidelines.
First, as usual with Biblical passages, they must be taken in historical context. Jesus lived in first-century Israel, and at that time the law of retaliation appears in a legal context, in a courtroom, not in a private dispute that was settled in private vendettas. The Mishnah, an early source of commentary on the Torah, was finalized in its written form at the end of the second century or beginning of the third century AD, but the oral traditions were transmitted long before that. Though caution should be observed in applying the Mishnah to the New Testament due to the chronological gap, the Rabbinic rulings may hint at the ethos of the first century, that is, before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, especially when relative unanimity among the Rabbis prevails. Jesus could not fail to know this ethos. The following passage from the Mishnah, seen in the context of bodily injuries, says that all disputes of this kind must be heard in a court: “Assessment [of injury] in money or money’s worth must be made before a court of law” . . . (Baba Kamma 1.3). At this time in Judaism, bodily injuries could be compensated with money. Also, Matt. 5:40 confirms a legal context: “if someone wants to sue you.” Finally, Matt. 5:25 exhorts Jesus’ disciples to be reconciled with an adversary who is taking them to court, again a legal context.
So Jesus’ interpretation of the law of retaliation must be seen in a legal context. Accordingly, he proclaims in the two verses that it is better not to drag a neighbor, even an evil one, into court in a lawsuit. It is better to let the demand for retaliation go.
Second, the word “strike” can mean to hit with the palm of the hand, the assailant doing this deliberately, not in a brawl (Bruce, p. 112). Also, if a hand strikes the right cheek, and the assailant is right-handed, then this means that it is the back of the hand that makes contact, further indicating formality and deepening the insult (Carson, p. 156; Mishnah Baba Kamma 8:6). In addition, the Greek word for “strike” is found in Matt. 26:67, Mark 14:65, John 18:22 and 19:3, all of which speak of a legal context, after the trial of Jesus. This indicates formality and a ritual. Be that as it may, the offended party who follows Jesus should not retaliate when formally opposed or insulted. It is better to let the demand for retaliation go.
Third, the two verses should not be over-interpreted in ignoring the helpless. It is one thing to let go of an offense if it happens personally to you individually, but it is quite another to walk away if the insult happens to someone else. In that case no one who can offer help should ignore the plight of the weak and persecuted. In this context, one should resist an “evil person” or “evil,” depending on the translation of the word in v. 39.
Fourth, the command not to “resist” evil should not be over-interpreted, either. It must be seen in the larger legal context in which the slapped follower of Jesus could demand redress of grievances in a court of law. Paul tells the Christians in Rome that God himself has established law enforcement and the authorities (read: the courts) to bring about justice for those who do right as opposed to those who do wrong (Rom. 13:1-5). Thus, Christians do not necessarily oppose justice in such a civil court, if that is the only way to go. But 1 Cor. 6:1-8 counsels Christians to let the church authorities judge lawsuits between brothers in Christ. In either setting, no one should condemn courts for settling disputes.
Moreover, still under the fourth point in our analysis, the Greek word translated here as “resist” has other nuanced meanings, as well. Matt. 5:25-26 says to settle a dispute peacefully on the way to court, when an opponent has something against the follower of Jesus. But in Matt. 5:38-39, the follower has a grievance against a neighbor. Either way, Jesus is merely saying that it is better either to pursue peace (vv. 25-26) or to let the offense go (vv. 38-39), rather than drag the offender into court to demand an eye for an eye, and never in a literal way, and rather than let the opponent drag the Christian into court. Therefore, the key word “resist” in v. 39 must be interpreted as “standing against” or “withstanding” or “opposing” a human enemy or “bad person” with the aim of retaliation in a court of law. Instead of the disciples of Christ taking an adversarial position, Jesus counsels them to see the evil person as a future friend and brother outside of a court of law, while they love their enemy and pray for him (vv. 43-48). This is sound advice to his followers who are called to minister life in Christ, rather than demand their rights.
Fifth, the two verses must be interpreted in their literary context, or the verses surrounding the two target verses. One commentator paraphrases Christ’s central idea according to the entire context of 5:38-39 in this way: “Though the judge must give redress when demanded, you are not bound to ask it, and if you take My advice you will not” (Bruce, p. 112). In other words, Christ does not deny that anyone has the legal freedom to sue for an offense, because he understood and respected the Torah, which allows for it, but he shows us a higher way: forgiveness and reconciliation. His disciples should not seek for revenge and retaliation, but obey Lev. 19:18 and Matt. 5:42-45 which exhort us to follow a better path.
However, despite these five interpretations, prominent commentator D. A. Carson says that “turning the other cheek” appears in an eschatological setting, that is, as Jesus is ushering a new era of God’s dealing with humanity compared to the way of God in the Old Testament. In the following excerpt eschatology means “study of the last things or end times” and OT stands for Old Testament. Carson writes:
The OT prophets foretold a time when there would be a change of heart among God’s people living under a new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34; 32:37-41; Ezek. 36:26). Not only would the sins of the people be forgiven (Jer. 31:34; Ezek. 36:25), but obedience to God would spring from the heart (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:27) as the eschatological age dawned. Thus Jesus’ instruction on these matters is grounded in eschatology. In Jesus and his kingdom, fulfillment (even partial) of the OT promises, the eschatological age that the Law and Prophets had prophesied ([Matt.] 11:13) arrives; and the prophecies that curbed evil while pointing forward to the eschaton [last times] are now superseded by the new age and the new hearts it brings. (pp. 155-56)
What Carson says here is that the command to turn the other cheek, if taken literally and plainly, can be fulfilled only through the power of the Spirit (though the Third Person of the Trinity is missing from Carson’s words, but not from the Old Testament references). Christ sends the Spirit to believers living in the New Age. The command may be difficult, but the new community can do it through Christ. In light of the entire context of Jesus’ ministry and the Sermon on the Mount, where Matt. 5:38-39 is found, Carson’s interpretation is highly plausible; in fact, it may be the best one.
However, though much good has been done when strong believers have taken the pacifist pathway, we should not wax too eloquent about new life in an eschatological age that is here partially but also in the future. Matt. 5:38-39 is open to different interpretations, so Christians can take the path of literally turning the other cheek in a pacifist spirit; or they can see the verses as opposing the spirit of revenge in society and encouraging the avoidance of lawsuits. Therefore, no one should become dogmatic about these two verses, when both interpretations are warranted.
Another related lesson learned from the entire context says that, true, Jesus is speaking to his disciples who are about to live under the new era of salvation and the Spirit, on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Therefore, it is unwise to apply “turning the other cheek” to the government, the military, and the police force. As organizations, they do not live under the same demands as eschatological, Spirit-filled believers do, though there may be some believers working in them. Yet if the citizens of any country are attacked either by an outside foe or a homegrown criminal, the appropriate authorities should take immediate action and not anguish over letting the second cheek get slapped.
Christians interpret the Old Testament through the vision of Jesus. In Matthew 5:38-39, he corrects the literal interpretation of the law of retaliation. In this he follows the majority of Rabbis who did not interpret this law literally. He raises the literal command and legal option up to pursing peace and forgiveness, following Lev. 19:18. No one who follows him should seek revenge, and no one who offends should have his eye gouged out or his tooth knocked out. It is better to win the offensive neighbor with the peace and love of God. It is the kindness of God, expressed, for example, by his followers during insults, that wins people to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
This ethic is for believers living in the age of the Spirit, submitting to him.
On the other side, it may be possible for Christians to follow a non-literal interpretation; this says that the slap is a formal insult, and believers should steer clear of revenge in society. Possibly they may take the matters to court, if it is absolutely necessary, and ideally to a court of arbitration overseen by qualified Christians (cf. 1 Cor. 6:1-8). But court lawsuits should be avoided, according to the two verses.
Bruce, A. B. The Expositor’s Greek Testament. Vol. 1. Eerdman’s.
Carson, D. A. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew. Vol. 8. Zondervan, 1984.
Jackson, Bernard S. “The Problem of Exodus XXI 22-5 (Ius Talionis),” Vetus Testamentum 23 (1973) 273-304.
Kaiser, Walter. Toward Old Testament Ethics. Zondervan, 1983
Rashi. Pentateuch with Rashi’s Commentary. Trans. and annotated by M. Rosenbaum and A. M. Silbermann. Jerusalem: Silbermann Family, 1972, (1930) vol. 2.
Selman, M. J. “Law.” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, Intervarsity Press, 2003.