Joel Baden, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School, recently wrote a blog at CNN. In it he accuses the Bible for the most recent violence between Israel and Palestine. Earlier this month (July 2014), three Israelis murdered a Palestinian in revenge for the murder of three Israelis. Baden decides to blame the Bible’s “eye for an eye” teaching found in the Old Testament.
He looks at Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:17-22, and Deuteronomy 19:16-21. It is in these passages we find the “eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” law. Baden notes the importance of this law when he says, “Few biblical laws are repeated three times; this is one of those few. It is known as the lex talionis, or ‘law of retaliation,’ and it would seem to be central to the biblical worldview.” He continues:
“The concept of “eye for an eye” isn’t really representative of some primitive state of humanity—it’s actually a development from an earlier system of monetary compensation. Yet it was not a permanent shift; some of the earliest interpreters of the Bible read the lex talionis as advocating for monetary compensation: the value of an eye for an eye. This remains a very common interpretation even today—quite likely as an attempt to make the biblical custom seem less harsh in comparison to contemporary cultural and legal norms.”
The blog that Baden wrote shows a common misconception about the “eye for an eye” law that many have – that “eye for an eye” is to be taken literally. Sadly, Baden is partially correct in that many do take the law literally (he does not offer any evidence that it is to blame for the current unrest in Israel – maybe there is, but it would have been nice for him to provide it). What I am upset about is that Baden, a professor, does not mention that Scripture itself does not take the law literally. Instead, he charges that the non-literal interpretation is something that came later and that Scripture originally took it literally. I have already written an article over this topic. Here is what I wrote about this very topic:
“First off, what is very interesting about the passages above is that ‘eye for an eye’ is never taken literally. In the examples, the context usually demands another form of punishment rather than body mutilation, such as monetary compensation. For example, Exodus 21:26-27 (the verses immediately after the first passage above), says, ‘An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.’ Notice that in this passage we do not have a literal ‘eye for an eye’ in view here, only compensation for the harm that was done. Is it not interesting that in verses 23-25 God tells the Israelites to take ‘eye for an eye’ but in the very next verses (26 and 27) he tells them not to literally gouge out someone’s eyes or pull out their teeth? Did God forget what he just said in the previous verses? This shows us that God and the Israelites did not take “eye for an eye” as literally as one can possibly take it.”
In my article, I also noted that Jesus did not take the law literally and that he criticized those who did (Matthew 5:38-39). When interpreted correctly, the law actually has a positive effect on society in that it makes everyone equal under the law. The law made the punishment fit the crime. A punishment was not to be too lenient or too harsh. Please see my article (link is above) for more on what I wrote about on “an eye for an eye.”
Sadly, there are many who take this law (and other OT laws) out of context. Even more so, it is sad that a professor of Hebrew Bible does not mention that the text is not supposed to be taken literally. Instead he just mentions that a nonliteral interpretation came later.