Jesus and Lex Talionis

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”—Jesus, Matthew 7.12-14I want to take you on what will seem like a detour this week. It will seem like this is completely off topic, but I’m hoping you will see the relevance of this next passage to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

“If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.” (Moses, Exodus 21.7-11)

Sexual slavery, or being sold to become a wife, was common in the ancient world. The taking of multiple wives was also condoned and recorded many times throughout the Old Testament (Ex. 21:10; Dt. 21:15; Gn. 25:1; cf. 1Ch. 1:32; Gn. 30:4; 31:17; cf. Gn. 35:22; 2Sam. 12:11; cf. 2Sam. 20:3; Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 273). An Israelite father could sell his unmarried daughters into servitude, with the understanding that the master or his son would eventually marry her. Jewish and Christian commentators alike agree that this referred to the sale of a daughter, who “is not arrived to the age of twelve years and a day” and that this sale was the result of poverty (John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible; Exodus 21:7).

Here is the million-dollar question this week: Can we allow an Old Testament Jehovah to permit this detestable practice for a time, reforming a cultural practice rather than abolishing it, if that is what it takes for a culture to embrace a “Deity” who will eventually, in the long run, radically change them entirely? Do not misunderstand me. The trafficking of a young girl is truly horrific. Even worse is the realization that once she turns twelve, she becomes one of the wives of the man she was sold to, or possibly one of the wives of his sons. There is no way to justify this. But again, there is the question: Can we accept Jehovah meeting people within their culture, or even meeting their expectations of what He should be like? Can we not accept that He is moving them, patiently, slowly, away from their horrific practices, through years of growth and development, until at last they can understand Him and become a people that will rightly proclaim how He truly is?

As we all know, if you want to get any culture to “follow you,” if you want the people in that culture to change, then you cannot simply come in and bulldoze over their way of life. You must work with them, not against them; you must slowly transform them, little by little, into something other than what they were when you found them. Far from Exodus 21.7-11 being a revelation of what God is really like, it is rather a reflection of what the people God was trying to reach were like. If you want to find out what God is really like, Exodus 21.7-11 is not the place to look. Where are we then to look? I submit to you: Jesus.

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at multiple times and in multiple personalities [jealous, petty, unjust, unforgiving, controlling, vindictive, bloodthirsty, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent] but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and THE EXACT REPRESENTATION OF HIS BEING….” (Hebrews 1.1-3)

So radical was this revelation of God in Jesus that even the apostle John, who was raised with Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets, wrote: “No one has ever seen God till they met this Jesus” (see John 1.18).

And yet Jesus himself said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (see John 14.9).

So what does this have to do with our topic this week?

I want to look at the concept of lex talionis. Lex talionis is Latin for the “law of retaliation.” It encompasses the broad class of legal systems that specify formulaic penalties for specific crimes, which are thought to be fitting in their severity. Some propose that this was intended, at least in part, to prevent excessive punishment at the hands of either an avenging party or the state. The most common expression of lex talionis is “an eye for an eye”; however, lex talionis does not refer to exclusively literal eye-for- eye codes of justice, but to an entire legal system labeled as “penal,” or a form of justice that is punitive.

Jesus taught:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not use retaliation, even if it has been authorized by your law, against an evil person. Instead, if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your Chiton, hand over your Himation as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you [even if you are on the verge of the Jubilee] You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your fellow Israelite and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies too! And pray for those who even persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5.38-45, personal paraphrase. For a fuller exposition of Jesus’ teachings in this passage see The Way of Peace (Arizona) at

Jesus sought to lead us away from doing life via lex talionis to what others have called “The Golden Rule.”

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you [The Golden Rule]; for this was the intended goal of where the law and the prophets were always headed. Enter then through the narrow gate of the golden rule; for the gate of lex talionis is wide and the road of lex talionis is easy, but it leads to the whole world being blind, toothless and annihilated, and there are many who are presently on that path. For the gate of the Golden Rule is narrow and this road is hard but it leads to life, and there are so few presently who have discovered it and are traveling on it.” (Matthew 7.12-14, personal paraphrase)

Other great people have made statements similar to what we find in Matthew 7:

“An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind” (Mahatma Gandhi).

“The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).

“And then the whole world would be blind and toothless” (Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof).

The question I want you to consider this week is: Does lex talionis manifest the character of the God we see in Jesus? Or do we, in lex talionis, find the Jehovah of the Old Testament doing the same things we found Him doing with the other temporary cultural accommodations such as slavery, polygamy, the mistreatment of women, race-based preferential treatment, nationalism, genocidal violence, and even Israel having a King?

It’s a question worth asking. In seeking to answer that question, what I find ironic is that the Christian Church, as a result of the Constantinian Shift, in the fourth century reintroduced capital punishment (burning heretics at the stake, a form of lex talionis) against sinners. This should be contrasted with the abandonment of capital punishment (the Old Testament stoning prescriptions) by the disciples of Jesus during the first three centuries of Christian history. Israel definitely practiced capital punishment. The new Israel of the first century, defined as those who were endeavoring to follow Jesus, did not. It seems that the church, following the teachings of Jesus after His death, abandoned “eye for an eye” ethics, only to reinstate those ethics once Christianity and Empire became wedded under Constantine.

Something to ponder for sure!

HeartGroup Application

1.Go back to Matthew 7.12-14. Spend some time each day this week meditating on what it means for the rule of “doing to others what you would have them do to you” being the narrow gate, and “eye for an eye” being the broad path that leads to destruction for all.

2.Write down any thoughts, questions, insights, or inspiration Jesus gives you during your daily time with Him and this topic.

3.Share what you discover this next week with your HeartGroup.

Whether lex talionis can be explained as accommodation or not, we can’t live a life based simultaneously on both lex talionis and the Golden Rule. To the degree that we practice the Golden Rule, we will not, by definition, be practicing lex talionis. Instead, we will practice the way of forgiveness and love. Jesus showed us it is one or the other. He gave us three examples in Matthew 5.38-45 of what the Golden Rule looks like. My prayer for all of us, myself included, is that Jesus will help us learn how this way of salvation, restoration and redemption appears in our daily lives. There are no formulas. No three-step plans. But as we walk with Jesus as His disciples, allowing Him to teach us, I am assured He will be guiding us along the correct path. We will return to this topic in the future. May our understanding, as well as our practice, continue to deepen as we daily seek to follow The Way.

Keep living in love, following the example of the Truth and Grace we see in the life of Jesus. Until the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

I love you guys.

We’ll see you next week.