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The law of retaliation can be found in Exodus 21:22-25 (ESV):

22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman's husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

On the one hand, Jesus seems to leave no room for doubt that he is utterly against it:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. [Matthew 5:38-42 ESV]

Yet, in the same chapter of Matthew, Jesus expresses his full support for the entire Mosaic Law in general and, by logical implication, the law of retaliation in particular:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. [Matthew 5:17-20 ESV]

So, is Jesus against or in favor of the law of retaliation? Should we trust Matthew 5:38-42 in leading us to conclude that Jesus is against it, or should we rather pay attention to Matthew 5:17-20 and see how Jesus fully supports it? How can we overcome this apparent contradiction?

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  • 2
    The answer is to be found in Rom 12:19 Mar 20 at 6:01
  • The difference is 'I' say unto 'you'. Only they (called 'you') are able to receive (from Him) such an exhortation. The rest will retaliate and the law supports it.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 20 at 8:45
  • I'm sorry to have to point out that my schooling taught me not "eye for eye, tooth for tooth” but rather "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” Could you first address that discrepancy in translation? Mar 20 at 23:25
  • @RobbieGoodwin - that's material for a separate question, feel free to ask it (if no one has asked it before). Mar 20 at 23:47
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator Sorry but that's not a separate question. It remains a vital part of your question. If you really see no difference between "eye for eye" and "an eye for an eye" then say so Mar 20 at 23:57
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"Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them." (Ex. 21:1, KJV)

The opening statement of the chapter sets the context within court proceedings, ie. judgment. So, the judgments that were listed for certain offenses were limits.

The laws regarding "retaliation" were not to condone violence, but to set a limit on restitution. They were not intended to be literally imposed as most today assume, but were the basis for current precedents that the punishment should not exceed the crime. Moreover, the judge set repayment for the victim in like form of the damages, or in monetary form if bodily injury ensued. They did not literally demand another's eye in repayment for an eye lost.

Gill's Exposition at Matt. 5:38:

"an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, Exodus 21:24. This is "lex talionis", the "law of retaliation"; which, whether it is to be understood literally, or not, is a matter of question. The Baithuseans, or Sadducees, among the Jews, took it in a literal sense, and so does Josephus, who says (b), he that shall blind, i.e. put out a man's eyes, shall suffer the like. But the Jewish doctors generally understood it of paying a price equivalent to the damage done, except in case of life. R. Sol. Jarchi (c) explains the law thus:

"He that puts out his neighbour's eye, must give him , "the price of his eye", according to the price of a servant sold in the market; and so the same of them all; for, not taking away of the member is strictly meant.'' Source: Biblehub

Ellicott's Commentary on Matt. 5:38:

"Here again the scribes first took their stand on the letter, regardless of the aim and purpose, of the Law, and then expanded it in a wrong direction. As originally given, it was a check on the “wild justice” of revenge. It said, where the equilibrium of right had been disturbed by outrage, that the work of the judge was not to do more than restore the equilibrium, unless, as in the case of theft, some further penalty was necessary for the prevention of crime. It was, in its essence, a limit in both directions. Not less than the “eye for an eye,” for that might lead to connivance in guilt; not more, for that would open a fresh score of wrong. The scribes in their popular casuistry made the rule one not of judicial action only, but of private retaliation; and it was thus made the sanction of the vindictive temper that forgives nothing." Source: Biblehub

Excerpt from Benson Commentary:

"Though this statute was only intended as a direction to judges, with regard to the penalties to be inflicted in case of violent and barbarous assaults; yet it was interpreted among the Jews as encouraging a rigorous and severe revenge of every injury a man might receive. ....Upon the whole of this passage, from Matthew 5:38, we may observe, that it seems to have been primarily intended to counteract and correct that abuse of the law of retaliation above mentioned, which was common among the Jews, who carried their resentments to the utmost lengths; and, by so doing, maintained infinite quarrels, to the great detriment of social life...." Source: Ibid

And, from Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Commentary:

"... This law of retribution—designed to take vengeance out of the hands of private persons, and commit it to the magistrate—was abused in the opposite way to the commandments of the Decalogue. While they were reduced to the level of civil enactments, this judicial regulation was held to be a warrant for taking redress into their own hands, contrary to the injunctions of the Old Testament itself (Pr 20:22; 24:29)." Source: Ibid

So, Jesus was correcting the extreme to which the Jews had used the law for personal retaliation and vengeance. The original intent was for judicial determinations as a limit to restitution in magisterial or judges sentencing.

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  • Would it be fair to say then that Jesus quoting 'eye for an eye' was quoting not so much the Law, but various religious figures in turn quoting the Law to justify personal retaliation? Mar 20 at 16:45
  • 1
    I think so, yes. He stated "you have heard it said, but..." So Jesus was correcting their misuse of the law.
    – Gina
    Mar 20 at 19:55
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"An eye for an eye" would seem in context to be a legal limitation for retaliations, rather than activerly calling for revenge, making Jesus' statement actually mean, 'The law says to only get even, don't go over and above in retaliation - but I say don't retaliate at all.' The teaching is not that we shouldn't retaliate at all, but that we shouldn't want to seek to (just as 'swear not at all' is about rethinking how trust and honesty work in your life and in society so that it should never come to 'I swear by God,' but rather your yea means yea, and your nay, nay - not a prohibition of swearing in and of itself, as the rest of the New Testament shows).

By Jesus fulfilling the law is meant both that He takes the substance or essence of the law, and brings it to its most perfect form, and that in giving His life as a ransom for sinners, He makes shortcomings possible without immediately having to be put to death, for example. This is why much of the Law of Christ, given on the 'mount,' as the New Moses, is actually just a maturized, more-fully-itself form of the Law given at Sinai.

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This question is based on the assumption that the Torah is a single monolithic block of law. That is obviously untrue. For example, there is:

  • The Moral law/code (Ex 20-23), largely, but certainly not exclusively based around the 10 commandments of which the book of Deuteronomy is an expansion
  • The Ceremonial law (Lev 1-9, 16, 21-27 , Num 3, 4, 8, 18, 25:10-13, Deut 33:8-11, Neh 13:29, Mal 2:4-8) that governed the operation of the tabernacle and duties of the priests that was designed to represent Jesus as our high priest Heb 4:14-16, 5:10, 7:23-28, 8:1, 2, 9:1-28, 10:1-18.
  • The Civil law that governed the operation of Israelite civil society (see 2 Sam 7, 23:5, 1 Kings 6:11, 12, 8:25, 1 Chron 17:11-14, 2 Chron 6:14-16, 7:17, 18, 13:5, Ps 89:4, 29, 34, 39, 132:11, 12, Jer 33:21, Eze 37:15-28). Since Israel was a theocracy, it was governed by God with the leader of Israel, whoever that was at any time, governing as a deputy of God. This civil code defined all kinds of things such as operation of courts, rules of evidence (eg, two witnesses, etc), penalties and punishments, etc.

NOTE - this has been recognized many times previously by people such as:

  • Thomas Aquinas discussed the tripartite law, moral, ceremonial, and judicial, in his “Summa Theologica”, section entitled "Treatise on the Law" and more specifically in questions 99-105.
  • Luther appears to believe in a bipartite Law, when in The Bondage of the Will, he referred to "the civil or moral law”. (Luther Bondage CXLVI)
  • Calvin, in book 2 of Institutes of the Christian Religion (2.7, 2.8.31), presented a bipartite view when he discussed the law, its moral and ceremonial aspects. However, later, in book 4 of the Institutes (4.20.14), when he discussed civil government, he presented a tripartite law when he stated: "the well-known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law.”
  • The Westminster Confession (1646) set out a tripartite law
  • The Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) almost copies the Westminster Confession in assuming a tripartite law (see Chapter 19).

Now, If Israel were still under the OT theocracy, the civil law would still apply, but only inside Israel. In Jesus' time, Israel was under Roman law and so Roman jurisprudence and penalties applied, NOT the Israelite civil law.

One can easily see the truth of this statement by the way Jesus illustrates the principle He states in Matt 5:38; and then illustrates the principle with the Jews' relationships with the Romans. Thus, Israelite (ie, Torah) civil law was NOT applicable.

However, the Moral law of the Torah still applied and according to Matt 5:17-19 is eternal.

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  • So when Jesus said "do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets", are you saying that he actually meant to say do not think that I have come to abolish the moral Law or the Prophets? He forgot to include the adjective moral? Mar 20 at 14:50
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator By my understanding, Jesus did abolish (at least) some of the ceremonial law—e.g. food-cleanliness restrictions. So, I think it would be safe to say that there is some implicit qualifier to His statement (and, judging from the NT as a whole, “moral” is probably a good one IMO). Mar 20 at 19:32
  • 1
    @SpiritRealmInvestigator - The words Jesus chose were precise. There are two elements to His statement - He did not abolish anything, However, Jesus did fulfil the moral law as High priest and Jesus did fulfill the Civil law by being the King of the Kingdom of God. This leaves the moral law that still applies.
    – Dottard
    Mar 20 at 21:23
  • @Dottard - what is the difference between fulfilling and abolishing? hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/56930/… Mar 20 at 21:25
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The laws in Exodus (21:23) appear to form part of the the judicial system of those times. They defined the penalties for and deterred violations of the law, much like the penal codes do today. It is important to differentiate these laws from the underlying law or commandment that they were meant to enforce, which is, the commandment not to harm one’s neighbor.

In no way is Jesus saying that the underlying commandment should be abolished. On the contrary, he came to fulfill and perfect it. The problem with any system of punishment and retribution is that it can violate the very law that it was meant to administer and enforce, and often perpetuates the cycle of hurt and harm.

Ending this cycle requires a radically different system of justice. Jesus says “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (Mt 5:39-40). In other words, rather than responding harm with harm, harm should be countered by goodness.

Jesus is not necessarily saying that there should be no consequences for violations of the law. Rather, any consequence should be guided by the same principle as the law itself, which is the commandment to love one’s neighbor. God, as the ideal parent, provides the best model for a more just justice system:

  • For whom the Lord loves He reproves, Even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights. (Prov 3:12)
  • For whom the lord loves he disciplines, and he punishes every son whom he accepts. (Heb 12:6)

The challenge of any justice system is to correct, discipline, and punish, while maintaining the goal of helping rather than harming the individual who violated the law.

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τέλος γὰρ νόμου Χριστὸς εἰς δικαιοσύνην παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι (Rom. 10:4, NA28)

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Rom. 10:4, ESV)

Jesus fulfilled the Law by being the τέλος of the Law. That is fulfilling, by not just keeping the law, but by completing the Law: complete restitution, paid in full.

He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2, ESV)

When Jesus said:

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. [Matthew 5:20 ESV]

He meant, even if your righteousness is the best of the best human being (excluding Christ), it is not enough without Christ's sacrifice.

The forgiveness of Christ's sacrifice cancels the law of retaliation:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt 6:14–15, ESV)

See Tetelestai - What did Jesus really say in John 19:30 assuming he spoke Aramaic or Hebrew?

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For. But he added an idem for clarification. As Rashness is a blasphemy*. The idem was for clarification. He is for the law*. He isn't for fools. So he added guidance.

But if you think destruction of property is similar to assault. You are beyond foolish. For God owns everything and we merely possess it.

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Jesus is in full support of all the old laws as mentioned in Matthew 5:17-20 and many other places - Paul changed the laws.

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” [1 Samuel 15:2-3]

However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. [Deuteronomy 20:16-17]

In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. [Hebrews 9:22]

“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34)

Luke 12:51-52 - 51. Suppose ye that I have come to give peace on earth? I tell you, nay, but rather division. 52. For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided: three against two, and two against three. 53. The father shall be divided against the son and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter and the daughter against the mother; the mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

Luke 19: 26-27 - 26.`For I say unto you, that unto every one that hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away from him. 27. But those mine enemies, who would not that I should reign over them, bring them hither and slay them before me.'”

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Just take an analogy: a silk-worm is taught to wrap its saliva, that turns into a thread, around itself so as to be able to cozily lie in it and grow wings inside; the very moment its wings are grown and matured, the silk thread in which the worm is wrapped has its function fulfilled and can be discarded, for the worm is a butterfly already. Thus, the silk-wrapping had as a part of its function to become null, so that, unless it is null at this moment, its usage is already redundant and beyond its lawful limits. Similarly, Law entails its own lawful annulment (Galatians 2:19). Therefore, "fulfillment of Law" by Jesus is nothing else than its lawful annulment, for now His followers are already butterflies, that is to say, invested with the grace and authority to become God's children (John 1:12).

Thus, the law of the retaliation was before the humanity had "wings" of grace given by Jesus, but when those "wings" of grace are given to humanity and power of sin and death annihilated (Romans 5:16-17), the law of retaliation was changed to the law of mercy and forgiveness, according to the very law of Moses that entailed its own annulment at the arrival of grace, which arrival was proleptically a part and a parcel of this very law.

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