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We often hear "turn the other cheek". However, recently I've heard that being slapped in the context of Matt. 5:39-42 is referring to a court setting, not general violence. I'm no advocate of violence, but do believe children should defend themselves when being bullied at school.
Thoughts, clarification on this scripture in particular and non-violence / self defense as a whole (as addressed in scripture).

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  • See all the hundreds of questions on the same chapter; these are hyperbolic teachings; hate your parents, gouge your eyes and cut off hands, hate your enemies, etc. It has nothing to do with court tradition; You cannot take these figurative teachings like that they teach pacifism. Be wise in acting acc to situations; be like snakes. Buy guns and sword if necessary.
    – Michael16
    Jul 25 at 11:58
  • Some might assess this questions as off-topic Questions including a biblical text but that are not seeking an answer about ① the history of that biblical text itself or ② the meaning of that biblical text either in context or through a process of arriving at a particular interpretation of it are off-topic. The question is attempting to narrow down the context and is suggesting an interpretation rather than inviting un-biased, heremeneutical examination.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 25 at 13:24
  • I'm asking if there is any historicity of face slapping in the Hebraic judicial system.. just as sandal exchange, etc. in negotiations
    – Annette
    Jul 25 at 13:27
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Matthew 5:39

But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

This needs to be understood in a balanced way and not simplemindedly and absolutely.

OP: I'm asking if there is any historicity of face slapping in the Hebraic judicial system

There was an incident in John 18:

19 Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching.

20“I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus replied. “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. 21Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.”

22When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby slapped him in the face. “Is this the way you answer the high priest?” he demanded.

At this point, did Jesus slavishly turn the other cheek according to some strange Hebraic judicial court of conduct?

No, he confronted the wrongdoer!

23“If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?”

James also bears out this teaching of resistance and not non-resistance in his epistle 4:7

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

Let's see the context, Matthew 5:

38“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

If one slavishly follows this teaching to the letter, he would immediately run out of clothes and money and all beaten up. What's Jesus' point then?

44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

Love. That's the point. However, you are going to respond. Respond in love. Let your actions be guided by love. Let God be responsible for any kind of revenge.

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    I don't think this answers the question. You're saying that this shouldn't be taken literally, but you haven't explained what it actually means. Question's title is "Please help me to understand Matt. 5:39" and while your answer rules out the "court tradition only" interpretation, it doesn't actually help to understand this verse.
    – gronostaj
    Jul 25 at 21:20
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    Thanks for the comment. Can you be more specific?
    – Tony Chan
    Jul 25 at 21:56
  • If Matt. 5:39 doesn't mean that you should literally turn the other cheek, when what does it mean?
    – gronostaj
    Jul 26 at 6:45
  • I added. Ask me again more specifically if you have a follow-up. Thanks.
    – Tony Chan
    Jul 26 at 13:28
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Somewhat, yes. Remember that Jesus was speaking to the disciples and the other Jews on the hillside. It is necessary to understand the mindset of the Jews of that day, and of many nations still today of holding grudges, seeking personal revenge, and never letting a slight go unanswered. Sort of like the American Hatfield and McCoy feuds. No one remembers what started it all, but by golly no one was going to forget who the enemy was.

Jesus was reminding them of the spirit of the law that was in magisterial or judicial hands originally for setting punishment for transgressions against another. See my answer concerning the laws set out in Ex. chap 21 for restitution here: StackExch.

An eye for an eye, or two camels to replace a stolen camel were limits on restitution. It was understood that an eye for an eye was to be a monetary compensation, not literally injuring the person who caused the damage as that would not be any form of compensation to the victim.

But, the Jews were taking the matters out of the hands of the magistrates / judges and misusing them for personal vindications. So, beginning in Matt. 5:22 Jesus introduces matters that would be subject to the judgments of the council, or a panel of 23 magistrates.

Excerpt from Adam Clarke's commentary at Matt. 5:22:

?"What our Lord seems here to prohibit, is not merely that miserable facility which some have of being angry at every trifle, continually taking offence against their best friends; but that anger which leads a man to commit outrages against another, thereby subjecting himself to that punishment which was to be inflicted on those who break the peace. ....shall be liable to the judgment. That is, to have the matter brought before a senate, composed of twenty-three magistrates, whose business it was to judge in cases of murder and other capital crimes. It punished criminals by strangling or beheading; but Dr. Lightfoot supposes the judgment of God to be intended. " Source: AdamClarke

Smiting was understood as a blow from a rod or stick that was used as a punishment. It also became used for the double slap from left to right of a hand against the cheek or jaw. So, turning the cheek was the reflex action on the return slap. This was still a judicial issue.

Excerpt from Expositor's Greek Testament:

"Tholuck, Bleek, and Meyer suggest that the right cheek is only named first according to common custom, not supposed to be struck first. Achelis conceives the right cheek to be struck first with the back of the hand, then the left with a return stroke with the palm, harder than the first, and expressing in a higher measure intention to insult.—ῥαπίζω in class. Greek = to beat with rods; later, and in N. T., to smite with the palm of the hand; vide Lobeck, Phryn., p. 175." Source: Biblehub

Excerpt from Gill's Commentary at Matt. 5:39:

"But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil,.... This is not to be understood of any sort of evil, not of the evil of sin, of bad actions, and false doctrines, which are to be opposed; nor of the evil one, Satan, who is to be resisted; but of an evil man, an injurious one, who has done us an injury. We must not render evil for evil, or repay him in the same way; see James 5:6. Not but that a man may lawfully defend himself, and endeavour to secure himself from injuries; and may appear to the civil magistrate for redress of grievances; but he is not to make use of private revenge." Source: Biblehub

Excerpt from MT Meyer's commentary:

"κριθῆναι] to go to law. Vulgate well renders: in judicio contendere. Comp. on 1 Corinthians 6:1; Romans 3:4; and see Wetstein, Nägelsbach on the Iliad, p. 305, ed. 3. It refers to legal controversy, not to the extra-judicial beginnings of contention (de Wette; also Beza, Grotius, Kuinoel, and others), by which the distinction between the two cases, Matthew 5:39-40, is quite overlooked." Source: Ibid.

Essentially, the Jews were taking matters into their own hands and using the law for personal vengeance to the extreme literal measure. Jesus' message does not prohibit seeking redress for injury from the court / council, but does speak out against continual strife and anger with your brethren (vs. 22). Let the small stuff go. God will take care of the evil ones.

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Jesus' response when being struck while testifying to the high priest brings into question that Matt. 5:39 applies to court cases. It relates more to retaliation. The Law of Moses limited it. Jesus eliminated it.

The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. 20 Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said.” 22 When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” 24 Annas then sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. (John 18:19–24, ESV)

See How to reconcile cheek slaps in Matthew 5:39 and John 18:23?

Matt. 5:39 fits in the context of how the Lord's prayer (Matt. 6:9–15, ESV) points back to the previous discourse.

 Pray then like this: [6:5-9]

              “Our Father in heaven, 
              hallowed be your name. 
        10       Your kingdom come, 
              your will be done, 
  on earth as it is in heaven. 
        11       Give us this day our daily bread, [6:1-4]
        12       and forgive us our debts, 
  as we also have forgiven our debtors.            [5:38-48]
        13       And lead us not into temptation,  [5:21-37]
  but deliver us from evil. 

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

The idea of do not retaliate and love you enemy is to forgive. From the standpoint of the court, we can still protect society/people and seek to rehabilitate the criminal. We can look at bullying similarly.

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  • Glad to see your answer now attached to the pertinent question! When things like that start happening to me, I either go lie down in a quiet and darkened room, or go for a wee walk if the weather is nice!
    – Anne
    Jul 28 at 14:00
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Please help me to understand Matt. 5:39. I have heard that this is referring to court tradition, not general violence

Court case.

Although Jesus' words refer to a court case (Matthew 5: 40), Luke's parallel account of Jesus’ words allows for application even outside court proceedings: Like travelers being accosted by robbers on the highways which was common in those days. Luke 6:29. Rather than fighting against such confiscation of perhaps expensive clothing, Jesus’ disciples would do better to go beyond what was demanded and give up “even the undergarment.” This might save their lives when confronted by dangerous criminals.

Luke 6:29 29 Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your [a]cloak, do not withhold your tunic from him either.

Jesus offers the following advice.

Matthew 5:39 NASB

39 But I say to you, do not show opposition against an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other toward him also.

That does not mean that a person cannot defend himself or his family if attacked. Jesus mentions a slap, which is not given to hurt severely or to kill another; rather, it is an insult. He is saying that if someone tries to provoke a fight or an argument, either by giving an openhanded slap or by using insulting words, do not retaliate.

Keep always in mind that your life is more important than your possessions. When it comes to robbery, robbers want money and material things, if you do not resist this will reduce the likelihood of injury. Do not look at them and they may think that you can identify later, turn to the wall and close your eyes, this may prevent them for attacking, or beating you.

My child is being bullied at school , what can I do about it?

Patiently listen to your child. Try to determine (1) what is happening and (2) why he is being targeted. Do not draw conclusions before you have all the facts. Ask yourself, ‘Could there be another side to the story?’ To get the full context, you might need to talk to your child’s teacher or the other child’s parents.

Bible advice.

Proverbs 18:13 NET

13 The one who gives an answer before he listens[b]— that is his folly and his shame

If your child is being bullied, help him realize that how he responds can make things better or worse. For example, the Bible says: “A mild answer turns away rage, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1) Indeed, retaliation can backfire, causing the bullying to intensify rather than diminish.

Bible advice.

1 Peter 3:9 NASB

9 Not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you would inherit a blessing.

Explain to your child that refusing to retaliate does not make him a weakling. On the contrary, it gives him power because he refuses to be controlled by another person. In a sense, he is beating the bully without becoming one.

Cyperbullied Getting involved in a “flame war”​—an angry online exchange​—only gives the bully permission to continue, and it could leave your child open to the charge of being a bully himself! Because of that, sometimes the best response is no response​—a tactic that is more likely to disarm the bully and put your child in control. Bible advice.

Proverbs 26:20

20 For lack of wood the fire goes out, where there is no gossiper, quarreling quiets down.

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The phrase “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” appears a number of times in the OT text in the context of the Israelite system of justice.

Now if someone takes any human life, he must be put to death. 18 But the one who takes the life of an animal shall make restitution, life for life. 19 If someone injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so shall it be done to him: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a person, so shall it be inflicted on him. – Lev 24:17-20

As primitive as it may sound, the phrase “eye for eye” represents the principle behind all judicial systems, which is to prescribe the appropriate level of punishment and restitution for each injury or transgression. The purpose of these systems is to act as a deterrent, to give an example that “the rest of the people will hear and be afraid” (Deut 19:20).

So you shall eliminate the evil from among you. 20 And the rest of the people will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you. 21 So you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, and foot for foot. – Deut 19:19-21

In quoting the phrase “eye for eye,” Jesus is questioning the principle of justice as a vehicle for shaping human behavior or as a prescription for peace. In its stead he proposes another principle, that of meekness and mercy.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, do not show opposition against an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other toward him also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak also. 41 Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. – Mt 5:38-42

In answer to the OP’s question, just as "eye for eye" should not be taken at face value, neither should the idea of turning the other cheek. In other words, Jesus is not making a blanket statement against the use of force in self-defense. The meaning goes much deeper, and the implications are much more profound. His words target the very root of human conflict and strife and ultimately call for a radical change of heart.

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