Monday, January 11, 2010

"An Eye for an Eye"

"An eye for an eye"

It was probably only an expression, something which Moses didn't intend them to enact literally. It wasn't about retaliation and revenge - it's meaning was that criminal law should focus on restitution befitting the crime.

I have friends from overseas countries who often saw people walking around without hands - because of a system of law that literally did such things. That is the exact opposite of what Moses actually meant.

For example, Moses didn't mean if a criminal damaged someone's foot that his foot should be damaged. It simply meant that the criminal could be expected to pay the expenses of restoring his victim's foot back to health. It was an expression. It was about fair restitution.

It actually restricted the severity with which crime could be punished. It meant that a criminal could simply be expected to restore his victim - no worse punishment was allowed.

The "eye for an eye" statement was designed to teach, for example, that a criminal shouldn't be bound in chains and sent as a convict to the other side of the world simply for stealing a loaf of bread. He should simply be required to restore the loaf of bread!

It had nothing to do with literally amputating eyes, hands, and feet. It was about ensuring restoration to the victim without being unfairly severe against the criminal. It was about giving everyone a chance to put it behind them and move on.

It also guaranteed equality. It meant that a criminal couldn't be expected to pay more for his crime just because it had been perpetrated against some "upper class" person instead of a poor person. The punishment could only be as befitting the crime - regardless of anyone's class or rank. It was always a "hand for a hand", never a hand for a finger just because the person he hurt happened to be a ruler or rich!

The "eye for an eye" principle (it was only an expression) was a system of civil law which was designed to protect both the victim of crime and also the perpetrator of crime from further injustice.

It protected the victim from injustice by focusing on restitution. The criminal had to pay the victim for his losses.

It protected the criminal by ensuring fair treatment. The criminal couldn't be expected to pay more than make restitution.

The mercy, compassion and justice contained in the "eye for an eye" principle was a breath of fresh air compared to the injustices the Israelites had grown accustomed to in Egypt! It was a new system of civil law which came straight out of God's heart!

In our modern system of criminal and civil law, we have rejected the balanced "eye for an eye" principle and replaced it with a prison system. But did you ever notice there was no prison system in God's Law? That's because a prison system disadvantages both the victims and the perpetrators of crime.

It disadvantages the victim because it doesn't focus on restoring the damages done to him. Plus it inflicts a double-damage on the victim because it's his money (through taxation) which pays to feed the criminal in prison.

A prison system disadvantages the criminal also because when he finally gets released from prison, he carries a criminal record with him, which makes it hard to get a job, so he has to go on Centrelink, which keeps him poor, so he re-offends.

This inflicts another cost on the victims of crime because it's their taxes which fund not only the prisons but also Centrelink!

A series of injustices and costs keeps getting perpetrated all around, and nobody is advantaged except the Government and its employees. Sometimes a criminal is even expected to pay a fine to the Government, instead of restoring his victim. This does nothing to teach the criminal how his actions hurt others. Instead, the criminal almost feels it's his right to steal because of the disadvantages inflicted on him through the "system".

The "eye for an eye" statement in Moses' Law, when understood propertly, is actually a beautiful principle that addressed all of these issues in a merciful, compassionate, fair and just way.

"Eye for an eye" (when not taken literally, but as a principle of equality and restitution) is a system of law which results in total restoration of the victim and total release for the criminal.

As David said, "Oh how I love thy Law!" It's beautiful for everyone concerned.

I think Jesus made Moses' intention real clear. You know how Jesus said, "You have heard that it has been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say to you, That you resist not evil: but whoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also".

Well, Jesus was explaining the real principle behind the Law, rather than disagreeing with it. He was pointing-out that Moses' statement was intended to be understood as dealing with the over-severe treatment of criminal justice.

It's like when He said, "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: but I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." Jesus wasn't disagreeing with the original statement, "Thou shalt not commit adultery". Rather, He explained the real heart of it.

Or it's like when He said, "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill...but I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment". Again, Jesus didn't disagree with "thou shalt not kill", rather, He explained the real heart of it.

It was in that context that Jesus said, "And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out... And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off..." He didn't mean it literally - it is the heart of it that matters.

So when Jesus said, "Turn the other cheek", He was actually explaining the heart that was behind Moses statement, "An eye for an eye". The Scribes, Pharisees and Saducees were totally misrepresenting God's heart as expressed in Moses' Law, to their own advantage. It was they who were inflicting cruel punishments on people which Moses never intended.

So Jesus brought his disciples back to the true heart, the true meaning of the Law, which God was looking for when He gave Israel that Law through Moses. Jesus said, "Except your righteousness exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees you will by no means enter the Kingdom of God".

So, Jesus wasn't annulling the Law - He was showing the real heart of it.

So, we need not be against the "eye for an eye" principle, when we really understand what was intended by it. It was about restricting severity. It was about focusing on restoration.

I think we make a mistake by taking things literally when they were only meant to be expressions that illustrated a principle.

Like when Jesus said to pluck out your eye or cut off your hand. Or when He said to "turn the other cheek". They were principles, not meant to be taken literally. Same with "eye for an eye".

And society still needs to have some system of criminal and civil law. Even the New Testament says there is a place for law enforcement in civil society (in the book of Romans). But not all of us are called to be law enforcers. Most of us are ordinary civilians, and we ought to leave law enforcement to those who are called by God to represent Him in that role.

A modern way of saying "an eye for an eye" might be to say, "Restitution and Equality". It's really saying the same thing. "Eye for an eye" is meant to be understood in a good way.

Jesus didn't come to do away with the Law. He said no-one who ignores the smallest principle in the Law can enter the Kingdom of God. He actually said that! But not as the Pharisees taught it. Jesus went to the heart.

The heart behind "an eye for an eye" is: that civil law should focus on restoration rather than on severe pushment. Ordinary civilians should leave it up to God's appointed law-enforcement officers rather than take justice into their own hands; and we should have a heart that would rather suffer wrong than treat others overly severely. That's what "eye for an eye" meant. It takes cruelty away.

Incidentally, Moses also gave a better system of social welfare than our Centrelink system. If we adopted his system, it would help the poor much more effectively, plus it wouldn't cost society any money in taxes. But that's another topic!

Leave a comment or mail me if you see any indadequacy in my understanding of God's heart.

1 comment:

Bob said...

Actually this was quite well stated. Great job! I was looking for something on Matt 5:38 and you did quite a nice job here. When I discuss the law in my class I focus on an excellent point you made: "So, Jesus wasn't annulling the Law - He was showing the real heart of it."