Thursday: Lex Talionis

(Matt. 5:38-48)

It appears that the common theme here (Matt. 5:38-48) is revenge. This first theme concerns the many commandments in the Mosaic law that are built on the principle of repaying a crime with an equal punishment, an idea called lex talionis, a Latin term meaning law of retaliation.

Image © Jeff Preston from

Image © Jeff Preston from

As we see in a number of passages (Exod. 21:22-25, Lev. 24:17-21, Deut. 19:21), the law called for the offender to suffer the same experience as the victim. If the victim lost an eye, arm, foot, or life, the offender must also. This law of retaliation was common among a number of ancient civilizations. Why not, since it seems to reveal a simple principle of justice?

It’s important to realize that this principle is there to limit retaliation, that is, to keep people from extracting more from a wrong done to them than they are rightfully entitled to extract. Thus, in many ways, this law was to ensure that justice was not perverted.

Therefore, in Matthew 5:38-42 Jesus was not necessarily attacking the legitimacy of a law that demanded a person to be punished for a crime. Instead, Jesus focused on the Christians’ response to people who try to take advantage of them. Rather than seeking opportunities for revenge, Christians should retaliate with kindness, something that we can do only through the grace of God working within us. In this appeal, Jesus has taken us to a deeper level in our understanding of what it means to be a follower of the Lord.

The final antithesis addresses the attitude that promotes love for friends and hatred for enemies. The command to love your neighbor is found in Leviticus 19:18. There is no explicit text that calls for hatred of enemies, even despite Deuteronomy 23:3-6.

In the context of Jesus’ world, the Jews were under foreign occupation by the Roman oppressive power and were second-class citizens in their own land. Given their oppression, they probably felt justified in hating their enemy, who at times severely oppressed them. Jesus was showing them a better way to live, even under less than ideal circumstances.

Read Matthew 5:44-45. What is Jesus saying to us here? More important, in what way can you apply this teaching in your own life with someone who has done you wrong?



Thursday: Lex Talionis — 5 Comments

  1. Did the Law that Christ gave actually command Israel to retaliate and seek revenge, if someone poked you in the eye were you supposed to retaliate and poke them back in the eye? If so why is it written in Leviticus 19:18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

    If we closely examine Exodus 21:22-25 we see that it is written. “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely[a] but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand.”

    In the first case a husband demands payment before the court and the court decides what the amount that is allowed for compensation. The setting of this passage is within a court. The Oral law (Talmud, Bava Kamma 83b–84a) explains that “eye for an eye” should not be taken as commanding revenge but understood and read as compensate eye for an eye that is decided by the court.

    The Bible seems to support that understanding it is written in Exodus 21:26-27 “An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.” Note the passage says compensate, not poke out his eye or knock out his tooth.

    In a related case the Oral law spoke of a penniless man who steals of loaf a bread to feed his starving family and the owner of the bread who could afford the loss demanded compensation. Yet the court instructed him to “turn the other cheek” that is to forgive the debt. It appears that court may have understood the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

    I believe this is what Jesus taught on how to fulfill that command, it appears this concept may have always been part of the Law and the meaning of the Written Law that Christ himself gave to the Children of Israel.

  2. is there any contradiction between Lev. 24:17 and matt. 5:38-42? can you please explain it ?? is it a contradiction ? if not how will you connect it and make it as a one statement

    • Dianna I think “contradiction” is probably the wrong term to use in this case. Lev 24:17 is in the middle and part of what the lesson author calls Lex Talionis. I don’t think we fully appreciate the social condition God had to deal with and the effects of Sin that engulfed those people. This whole controversy is a learning experience where God is reaching down and slowly bringing man up from a disastrous situation and because of that He has had to implement laws in the past that seem strange to us in comparison to our view of Jesus. I think here we need to keep the concept of progressive revelation in mind.

    • Diana

      Let us ask how is Jesus the answer to this?

      I agree with Tyler it is hard for us to understand the social condition and I will add the Hebrew language of this passage and the section that it belongs to which is so easy to misunderstand. But rather than go into the long details of language and law I will ask:

      How can anyone possibly pay for the life of another human being? How could King David ever pay for the life he took when he desired another man’s wife? The answer is there is no payment, no animal sacrifice that could atone for such an action. The law says he must pay with his life.

      Who has given His life for us, when the law said we must die?

  3. If it we were supposed to take “eye for eye” literally the sages of Israel pointed out then the Hebrew text would read “ayin l’ ayin” but is does not. It reads “ayin tachat ayin.” Now the word “ayin” means eye and the word” tachat” in the Bible is usually translated as under, beneath, or instead the meaning that fits here best is instead.

    Regarding compensation “tachat” in Hebrew makes very good sense . But there is more to it. Who is our instead? Who has paid our all our debts instead of us having to pay them? If we have been forgiven our debts should we not also forgive others who wrong us, should we not turn the other cheek?


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