Thursday, March 15, 2007

Ye have heard that it hath been said (Exod. 21:24-25, violence, Biblical language)

I'm going to put up a short post, just for the heck of it.
Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:24-25)
This is a short little phrase, and perhaps one of the most famous, most misunderstood, and most famously misunderstood of all Bible passages. The SAB makes no comment on the verse, but merely marks the verse with the icons for violence and injustice. I think the SAB has it all wrong. Note that in discussing this verse, I'm removing it from the context that it appears in here, which I discussed in my last post. After all, the phrase appears three different times in the Mosaic Law.

The funny thing about my view on this verse is that my opinion on it is based on insight given to me not by a pastor, but by my mother, who is not a Christian (at least in the more fundamentalist vein I put myself in; she's a Unitarian), but knows the Bible pretty well. She actually grew up in an era when the Bible was taught in public school, which I didn't realize was so recent.

Anyway, the thing is, many people look at this on the face of it and go in a direction that was probably not the intended one. As Mahatma Gandhi so famously said, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." You don't want people going around gouging out each others' eyes, do you? Would God want that? It seems to some that God here is telling people that if a person commits an act of violence, then they must be punished by being injured in the exact same manner. If that were true, it would be very violent, yes, but I don't think it would be unjust.

Is that the case, however? See, what would be truly unjust is to give someone a punishment that far outweighed their crime. What if you gouged out my eye, and I chopped your head off? What if you stole $20 from me, and I had your hand cut off? The fact is, in the ancient Middle East (and perhaps sometimes today) there were many cultures that were keen on retribution. People wanted revenge so badly, that if they were injured, either physically or even if they were shamed, they might kill the person who had done them damage. Remember Jacob's sons killing all the men in a city because they were concerned about their sister's virtue? What can you say reasonably to a culture such as this?

Well, you can set limits. I think it's not going to work to say, "No, you may never get revenge ever." That doesn't even work in today's culture, in my opinion. Instead, you explain the concept of setting fair limits on revenge. If someone harms you, the most you can do is cause them to be harmed in the same manner. If your eye is poked out, you can ask that the offfender's eye be poked out, not that he be disemboweled. If a man kills a member of your family, you have the right to have him put to death, not the right to kill him, his wife, and his kids, and then burn down his house and sow his fields with salt.

I really think this is a matter of taking the rather simple language of the Bible and pushing it to say what it does not. What it does say is "be fair", not "violence is the solution".