Eye for an Eye

Frodo: “It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had the chance.”

Gandalf: “Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.”

Due to my arrival in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:22—23:33), this blog post—and not in my typically fashion—is more of a rant and exegetical approach to the lex talionis, known in popular circles as, “an eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:24).

I believe that purposefully taking the life of a human being in an act where one is not defending his or her own life (or the lives of others) violates the sanctity of life.

As difficult as it may be at times, I hold fast to this principle. Therefore, death in war or self-defense is excusable. Since I believe human life begins at conception, than abortion is a violation. Since capital punishment is “purposeful” and doesn’t occur in an act of self-defense, I have to consent to the logic: capital punishment also violates the sanctity of life.

It ruffles my feather a bit, when individuals claim that a true Bible believing Christian has to support the death penalty because the Bible supports capital punishment. Similar to stating that the Bible supports slavery, this blanket statement is typically ascertained through very poor hermeneutics. I affirm the authority and infallibility of scripture, and through proper hermeneutics—specifically investigating the lex talionis—I continue to believe that the Bible in no way supports the capital execution of violent criminals.

Violence is not justifiable either interpersonally or socially. The principle found in Exodus regarding an eye for eye, has to do with an individual or a judge determining the value of an eye. The same has to do with the value of a life. According to Christopher J. H. Wright in An Eye for An Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today, an eye for an eye wasn’t a principle to carry out vengeance, but was a law that limited punishment and prevented excessive or vengeful retaliation. Within the Book of the Covenant, immediately following the principle regarding an eye for an eye, the text addresses what a slave owner is to do if he destroys the eye of a slave. The slave owner doesn’t poke his own eye out. Instead, he frees his slave (Exodus 21:26). The equal value of the slave’s eye is his or her freedom. The lex talionis provides for exact justice, not for exact retribution. The punishment must commensurate with the crime…neither too excessive nor too lenient. The text suggests that in a case of violence, the judge must carry out justice so that the punishment fits the crime. In the Hebrew culture, the death penalty served as appropriate punishment for certain crimes including cursing one’s parents (Exodus 21:17), witchcraft (Exodus 22:20), adultery (Leviticus 22:10), and worshiping other gods (Exodus 22:20). Considering this, I believe that through careful interpretation of scripture, one concludes that capital punishment is not trans-cultural and is no longer an appropriate punishment for any type of crime in the contemporary context. On the other hand, lex talionis (an eye for an eye) is trans-cultural. However, the lex talionis needs to be interpreted as making the punishment fit the crime instead of literal and exact retribution.

I believe that God values life and that life is sacred. I also believe that God has a plan for everyone—even the Gollums of the world have parts to play. Whether good or ill, God only knows whether these individuals will affect our fate. It is not up to us “to deal out death in judgment.”

“Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, ‘I will take revenge; I will pay them back,’ says the Lord.”

—Romans 12:17-19


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