How does Jesus fulfill the lex talionis? (law of retribution; eye for an eye)

Question: How does Jesus fulfill the lex talionis (the law of retribution) and not just overturn it?

Response: In Strong’s Literal Translation, the Leviticus passage related to lex talionis reads:

17 And when a man smiteth any soul of man, he is certainly put to death.
18 And he who smiteth a beast repayeth it, body for body.
19 And when a man putteth a blemish in his fellow, as he hath done so it is done to him;
20 breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he putteth a blemish in a man so it is done in him.
21 And he who smiteth a beast repayeth it, and he who smiteth the life of man is put to death;
22 one judgment is to you; as a sojourner so is a native; for I am Jehovah your God.

It is interesting how the literal translation of the “imperfect” verbs in 17 and 19 change the meaning. What I do to another I do to myself, I do to the one body, I do to the body of the ha Adam. If the reality is enforced by law it looks like a dictatorship. If it’s the revelation of Love it’s rather different… “When one part suffers, all parts suffer…” “What you do to the least of these, you do to me,” says Jesus. That is interesting. And looking at those verses in isolation, you could view it as a philosophical observation, not a legal prescription. In that case it would be more like a “law” of nature, not a “law” as in part of a legal code of rules and regulations.

I used to think that Jesus’ statement about not abolishing the law but fulfilling it meant that Israel had just misinterpreted the law in the first place and Jesus was there to tell them how they should have understood it. The observation you’re making here could fit with that approach: that God was really telling Israel “if someone puts out your eye, it’s as if they’ve also put out their own eye,” thereby implying, “no need for retribution. You guys are even. Turn the other cheek.”

But I don’t think it’s possible to read this passage and think that’s what God is telling them. Compare verse 17 to verse 16, where the Young’s Literal uses the same wording “is certainly put to death”: “and he who is execrating the name of Jehovah is certainly put to death; all the company do certainly cast stones at him; as a sojourner so a native, in his execrating the Name, is put to death.” It’s bizarre grammar, but I’m pretty sure that “all the company do certainly cast stones at him” explains the way that he “is certainly put to death.” If there’s any doubt, verse 23 clears it up: “And Moses speaketh unto the sons of Israel, and they bring out the reviler unto the outside of the camp, and stone him with stones; and the sons of Israel have done as Jehovah hath commanded Moses.”

They stone him, and Leviticus tells us that they have done as God commanded.

Now, this particular stoning was a penalty for “execrating the Name,” and I suspect that its inclusion here has something to do with the sojourner and native thing, since the execrator was only half-Israelite. Maybe not. But that phrase repeats after the Law is summarized for killing people, killing animals, and causing permanent injury to people. It’s like God wanted to remind them: Hey, this is the simple summary of the law, and it applies to everyone, Israelite or foreigner.

Even though the imperfect tense is used in the YLT, when the man is put to death it’s at the hands of the people. It wasn’t an abstract consequence (him hurting himself), it was an act of physical violence in fulfillment of God’s command. The passage doesn’t specify who putteth the blemish in the blemisher, but in this context I don’t think it’s possible to believe that those words are about an abstract “law of nature” (i.e. he’s really blemishing himself) and not a concrete law of retribution.

So, although it may be true that I’m hurting myself when I hurt someone else (because we are all part of the body of Christ), there’s no way to read this passage and think that God was actually commanding Israel to “turn the other cheek.” When Jesus says that I don’t think he’s explaining a misinterpreted nuance from the Leviticus passage, I think he’s telling people to do something radically different from the lex talionis principle they were all taught.

I don’t mean to imply that the original recipients of the lex talionis could’ve understood a different meaning than what they did; I think Jesus is saying that he is the meaning—the hidden meaning, now revealed. Fulfilling “the law” or “the way” without the meaning is quite literally hell (Gehenna to be more precise); however fulfilling the way, or the law, with the meaning which is the judgment of God (love in flesh, that is Jesus), turns everything on its head. It’s the difference between rape and making love on a honeymoon, the difference between being made to bleed and choosing to bleed, it’s the difference between perceiving your neighbor as a separate and competing organism, and a member of your own body.

God has already given us all up to death and the illusion that we could fulfill the law in the power of our own flesh. He’s given us up to “knowing evil.” Jesus is the revelation that this “giving up” (Judgement ala Romans 1) is part of the process of “knowing the good,” receiving life, and coming to choose Love in freedom. The lex talionis reveals that sin really is death, and Grace reveals that Love constantly fulfills the lex talionis – every eye that I take is Jesus’ eye, and every eye is already forgiven, every eye is our eye, every life is “our life.” It’s my perception of being a separate and competing organism that makes the punishments of the Lex Talionis even a possibility. “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me” said Jesus… And if we did it to him, we will one day realize that we also did it to ourselves, for not only are Jesus and the Father One, but we are all one in the same way. I’m not saying that the Israelites understood this, or that Moses or even Matthew understood this, but I do believe that Jesus means this – he actually is this, the head of “the Body.”

I should add that this new perception changes the fulfillment of the law. It’s why I think the statement of David in the Psalms is so important, “Against you and you only have I sinned.” It’s always the life of Jesus that is taken, and always the life of Jesus that is given. If someone takes my eye, they take the eye of Jesus. And if I give my eye, I’m giving the eye of Jesus. And if he/she re-gives, or for-gives the eye, everything is grace. “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” is the substantive justice that fulfills the lex talionis. An eye that I take has been fore-given at the cross. Indeed, it was forgiven from the foundation of the world… and the lex talionis is a stage in the development of the human psyche.

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