Lex Talionis

Lex Talionis September 18, 2022

“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” – Hammurabi’s Code.

A frequent criticism of the Bible is the presence and even the condoning of violence. While this critique fails to appreciate the need to distinguish between what is in the Bible and what the Bible teaches, it is impossible to deny that the ancient world was a violent place. One of the concepts underlying the violence of the ancient world was the principle of lex talionis. 

In this paper, I will endeavor to discuss this ancient law of retribution and how biblical history involves God’s efforts at ameliorating man’s violent tendencies, ultimately culminating with Christ and the message of the Gospel.

An Eye For An Eye

Some three hundred years before the book of Genesis was compiled, the Code of Hammurabi codified the laws of ancient Babylon. The code provided for – among other things – a kind of retributory justice. The principle underlying retributory justice is called lex talionis or “the law of retaliation.” For example, a portion of Hammurabi’s code reads, “If a man has caused a man of rank to lose an eye, one of his own eyes must be struck out. If he has shattered the limb of a man of rank, let his own limb be broken. If he has knocked out the tooth of a man of rank, his tooth must be knocked out.”

A very similar concept is articulated in the Bible. In Exodus 21:23, the Israelites are instructed to “Give life for life, eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” For the purpose of this work, I shall focus on the Biblical understanding of lex talionis. If this verse is understood in isolation, it appears to be advocating for violence. However, taken within the broader context of a violent ancient world, lex talionis actually sought to limit what acts were allowed to obtain justice. So while it is difficult for a modern westerner to accept the legitimacy of lex talionis, it was actually a moderation of the more violent versions of vengeance and justice. 

Taking a canonical view of the Bible (interpreting the Old Testament in the light of Christ), God’s imposition of lex talionis may have been an effort to “ween” the Israelites off of even more violent practices. By the time of the prophet Isaiah, this “weening” or moderating of the violence of human beings is clearly present. God is adamant when He tells the Israelites, “Your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.” (Isaiah 1:16-17).

Ultimately, what undergirds lex talionis and God’s efforts to detach human beings from their violent tendencies is the presupposition that the effects of original sin have damaged human nature. The damage done cannot be repaired by damaged human beings. Only a Savior can return human beings to their original state. That is the message of the Gospel.

Turn The Cheek 

Two events involving Christ depicted in the New Testament will illuminate our understanding of violence in relation to the Kingdom of God. 

The first event is depicted in Matthew 5:38-39 and is a direct refutation of lex talionis. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” Initially, this appears to be unduly passive. However, to properly understand Christ’s command, we must place it within the context of first-century Jewish culture.

The key to understanding the passage is to understand the significance of the hand being used when striking someone. In the ancient near east, when one sought to assert dominance over one who was of a lower rank, one struck the opponent with the right hand on the right cheek – essentially backhanding someone. If the one being hit turned the other cheek, the attacker faced a choice: hit with the left hand, which was considered unclean or hit the left cheek with the right hand – which was seen as an act of equality and recognition of a common humanity. 

Thus when Christ’s command to turn the cheek is placed in its proper context, we see that the violence being perpetrated is to be “mirrored back” on the one doing the violence. The attacker is either engaging in an unclean act (in accord with Jewish tradition) or admitting that the person he is striking is his equal. Since one cannot oppress one’s equals, turning the cheek can be understood as a non-violent act against oppression.

The second event that I think will shed light on the Christian understanding of lex talionis and violence is contained within the beatitudes. Jesus informs us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9). To be blessed is to be happy; it is the highest goal of human nature. To be a peacemaker, to be a Catholic, is to be someone who, through grace, imitates Jesus in bringing reconciliation to others by giving of themselves. Those who do so are true children of God and show us the way to true happiness.

Conclusion

Due to the effects of original sin, human beings have a tendency for violence. It is no coincidence that the first act depicted in the Bible after the Fall is a murder. Despite this propensity, or perhaps because of it, ancient civilizations developed the principle of lex talionis. 

However, in taking a broad, canonical approach to biblical interpretation, it becomes evident that God has sought to ween human beings from their violent propensities. Viewed this way, lex talionis can be seen as a first step toward modifying our violent tendencies. From the Catholic perspective, however, it is only in the teachings of Christ that these efforts to dissuade human beings from violence come to completion. 

 


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