Lex talionis

The lex talionis (Latin for the law of retaliation), popularly known as “an eye for an eye,” was the ancient law to curb escalation. Culturally, when someone hurt your brother, you killed that person. If someone killed your brother, you killed him plus a couple more. This “reciprocation+some” might have been intended as a deterrent, but it usually resulted in merely escalating violence. The lex talionis spoke into this and attempted to limit escalation. The part that “went without being said” (which is usually the most important part) was “an eye for an eye and nothing more.

The lex talionis is found in the Old Testament law:

But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exod. 21: 23-25)

The biblical context shows it was to limit the retaliation.

In a recent radio interview on WHAM 1180AM, one presidential candidate cited “an eye for an eye” as a favorite Bible verse, adding that considering “how people are taking advantage of us … we can learn a lot from the Bible.” (I left out the name of the candidate because I don’t want this blog to be about politics.)

So, is this a lesson to learn from the Bible? Actually, the lex talionis is one of the few Old Testament commands that Jesus directly overturns:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matt. 5:38-39)

Jesus exchanges the lex talionis for the gospel of love and forgiveness.

This brings us back to a radio interview. Instead of googling to see who the offender was, so that you can decide if you like this blog post or not, maybe we can learn a better lesson. (Read the posting on Nov. 15 to see the difference between the government punishing wrongdoers and vengeance/retaliation.)

Some might say: “Well, we do live in a crazy world and people are trying to take advantage of us … and really the message of Jesus sounds great, but it doesn’t work in the real world.” Did this thought also cross your mind? Jesus wasn’t offering a suggestion. Paul reminds us the gospel is foolishness to the world: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). The old saying is “the proof of the pudding is in the tasting.” Rome did not turn the other cheek; Jesus did. Who changed the world?

The lex talionis wasn’t Jesus’ favorite verse.


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