An Eye For An Eye

Published by DonDavidson on

In Matthew 5:38 Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ ” He is quoting from chapter 24 of the book of Leviticus, and specifically Leviticus 24:20, which says, “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a person, so shall it be inflicted on him.”

At first glance, someone might think Leviticus 24:20 is about exacting vengeance on someone who has hurt them. But the real purpose of Leviticus 24:17-21 was to prevent the kind of violence that led to a decades-long feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys.

The Hatfields and the McCoys lived on opposite sides of the Tug Fork tributary of the Big Sandy River, near the border between Kentucky and West Virginia. The feud between the two families is legendary, and goes back at least as far as 1865, when one of the Hatfields—who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War—was suspected of the murder of Asa McCoy, who had fought for the Union.  However, matters escalated in 1878, eventually resulting in the murder of one of the Hatfields by the McCoys, the kidnapping and execution of three McCoys by the Hatfields, and a lot of murders and other atrocities on both sides until about 1991, when the feud finally ended. 

Leviticus 24:17-21 governed punishment of a person who killed or injured another member of the community. The community was to punish the perpetrator with the same type and severity of injury as had been inflicted. And that was to be the end of it. No further retribution, no vengeance, no vigilante justice. And no escalation. Leviticus chapter 24 was intended to avoid the escalating violence that the Hatfields and the McCoys visited upon each other for so many years.

But Jesus followed up his quotation of Leviticus 24:20 by offering a different solution. He said we should turn the other cheek.[1] In effect, he said we should simply accept an affront[2] or an injury, forgive it, and move on.[3] Needless to say, this was, and still is, a radical concept. Jesus wanted us to have so much love for other people that we would prefer to endure additional wrongs rather than cause physical or emotional harm to another person.

On the other hand, the very radical nature of this and other teachings of Jesus are, for me, part of the convincing evidence that he was speaking for God, for what human being would ever come up with an idea so clearly contrary to human nature?

So let us love each other enough to avoid hurting each other, physically or emotionally, even if it means being hurt ourselves.

[1]. Matthew 5:39

[2]. A right-handed person who struck another on his right cheek would use the back of his hand, so this was probably as much an insult as it was an attempt to injure.

[3]. I do not interpret Jesus as saying anything about punishment inflicted by the governing authorities in the interest of maintaining civil order.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *