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July 8th, 2014
01:01 PM ET

Eye for an eye: The Bible's role in revenge attacks

Opinion by Joel Baden, special to CNN

(CNN) – This past Sunday, six Israelis were arrested for the murder of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy. Israeli officials admitted the likelihood—already acknowledged by many—that this killing was carried out in revenge for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers.

Both sides have stepped up their aggression in the past few days, with rocket launches from Gaza into Israel and Israeli airstrikes against Gaza.

It’s a familiar cycle: attack for attack, murder for murder. Such patterns are familiar from conflicts across the world, but they have a special resonance in the Holy Land.

After all, it was from Israel, nearly 3,000 years ago, that this famous concept spread.

The Book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible says, “The penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”

The Book of Deuteronomy uses even stronger language: “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

And the Book of Leviticus says again, “Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.”

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.

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This law is often brought as evidence that the Bible cannot be a reliable guide for modern morality: Who today would truly advocate for this kind of retributive justice?

It seems barbaric that the penalty for arson, for example, would be burning the arsonist to death—this sounds like something out of the Middle Ages, not out of the 21st century.

Though famously biblical, lex talionis isn’t a biblical creation at all.

It was already present in the famous Code of Hammurabi, from the 18th century BCE: “If an upper-class man should blind the eye of another upper-class man, they shall blind his eye,” and so on through breaking bones, knocking out teeth, etc.

Earlier Mesopotamian law codes, two generations before Hammurabi, take what we would consider a more civilized approach to the matter:

“If a man bites the nose of another man and thus cuts it off” —don’t ask— “he shall weigh and deliver sixty shekels of silver; an eye, sixty shekels; a tooth, thirty shekels …”

It turns out that the oldest codes in the Near Eastern legal tradition, Sumerian laws from the 21st century BCE, also have payment in place of retaliation.

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.

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In the Talmud, the fundamental Jewish legal text, there is an extended discussion about the phrase “eye for an eye,” with multiple rabbis arguing, and the text concluding, that the phrase means nothing other than financial compensation.

Eventually, in Judaism the literal reading of lex talionis came to be associated with heresy.

There is another important aspect of “eye for an eye” that is often overlooked: in the Bible, the law prescribes that the punishment be leveled against the offending individual by the state.

It is not permitted for the victim himself to turn around and inflict the same injury on the aggressor. On this the Bible and modern law agree.

But another biblical legal tradition provides the exception to this rule, and it too has enjoyed a long life down to the present: the idea that in the case of premeditated murder, someone from the family of the victim is appointed the “blood-avenger.”

The notion of putting a murderer to death is common enough even today (see: death penalty). But not so the idea that it is the obligation of the victim’s family, rather than of a central government.

This biblical passage enshrines in law the retaliatory instinct of anyone whose close relative has been injured. And it is this instinct that we see playing itself out in the Middle East today.

The problem, both between the two nations and for the rest of the world, is defining which side is playing which role. Both Israel and Gaza believe themselves to be the blood-avenger, and the other to be the murderer.

Yet even in the case of blood vengeance, biblical law at least keeps the system under the watchful eye of the elders, who arbitrate the claims of the respective parties, just as in the more direct cases of lex talionis.

Nowhere in the world is the Bible more alive and its traditions more present than in Israel and Palestine, the lands from which the holy book emerged.

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As the conflict between the two parties worsens, yet again, comparisons with the kinds of retaliation and blood vengeance found in the Bible grow more and more apt.

And so, therefore, does the need for a third party to play the part of arbitrator: to settle the price of monetary compensation, to declare the terms of retaliation, and to put a stop to the cycle of blood vengeance.

That's a role the Bible calls for someone to fill - and we're all still waiting.

Joel S. Baden is the author of “The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero,” and professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School. The views expressed in this column belong to Baden.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Ethics • Foreign policy • Israel • Jerusalem • Judaism • Opinion • Palestinians • Religious violence • Violence

soundoff (3,571 Responses)
  1. truth1914

    ARMAGEDDON! An Act of Love?
    The book of Psalms, the prophet Zephaniah, Jesus Christ, and the apostle John, said that this earth wide event, Armageddon, will begin the start of a time period where only the meek will inhabit the earth.
    Psalms 37:11, 29 11 …the meek will possess the earth, And they will find exquisite delight in the abundance of peace.+
    29 The righteous will possess the earth, And they will live forever on it
    Zephaniah 2:3 Seek Jehovah,+ all you meek ones* of the earth,
    Who observe his righteous decrees.*Seek righteousness, seek meekness.*Probably* you will be concealed on the day of Jehovah’s anger
    Matthew 5:5 Jesus confirms: “Happy are the mild-tempered,*+ since they will inherit the earth.+
    Revelation 7:14 The apostle John’s vision: “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation,+ and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (See also 1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
    Revelation 1:3 Happy is the one who reads aloud and those who hear the words of this prophecy and who observe the things written in it,+ for the appointed time is near.

    http://www.JW.org

    July 27, 2014 at 2:42 pm |
  2. truth1914

    This good news of the kingdom will be preach in all the inhabited earth...Matthew 24:14

    July 27, 2014 at 2:18 pm |
    • igaftr

      Propoganda....man made, man created, propoganda.
      Oldest scam ever.

      July 27, 2014 at 2:29 pm |
      • truth1914

        Despite your disbelief and mocking God still wants you to have a chance for everlasting life.

        John 3:16 and 17:3

        July 27, 2014 at 2:45 pm |
        • igaftr

          Despite you belief in that false god, Odin wants you to die in glorious battle so that he may welcome you into Valhalla.

          On the other hand , I will remain in the realm of reality.

          July 27, 2014 at 2:48 pm |
      • truth1914

        None of the 40 writers of the Bible felt that way. Even God's very own son Jesus believed in the word of God and quoted from it on many occasions.

        July 27, 2014 at 10:28 pm |
  3. 19covenant19

    Great MIRACLES have been discovered in the GOSPEL (=John & Luke & Mark & Matthew);
    it will change the World forever!

    http://www.19covenant19.com
    BIBLICAL EXCELLENT MIRACLES -3-

    July 27, 2014 at 6:44 am |
  4. jonathanlk

    I would rather cultivate a strong intuitive sence of judgment and understand the root of morals from within that to live by a very limited and conflicted set of rules such as in the KUran or Bible and never cultivate a good sense of judjment or a moral sense. If you just memorize verses and only obey rules you may never learn how to think and will just waste your life on earth.

    July 25, 2014 at 3:28 pm |
  5. thesamyaza

    oh i have not covered this fact yet

    Hamas are not terrorist, they are a resistance movement.

    think the wolverine from Red-Dawn, they are heroes fighting against an occupy government. if what happened in Palestine happened in America would you call the resistance terrorist or heroes?

    July 21, 2014 at 4:55 pm |
    • kenmargo

      You can call it whatever you want. Bottom line the palestinians are the real losers here. Hamas is not doing anything for them. They've had these clashes with Israel for years and the Palestinians have ALWAYS been getting their azzes kicked.

      July 21, 2014 at 5:24 pm |
  6. Reality

    And once again returning to the topic:

    An easy solution (saw this mentioned a few years ago on this blog):

    All the Muslims in the USA should voluntarily move to Israel. All the Jews in Israel should voluntarily move to the USA.

    Tis easy considering that there is no historic justification for either religion as both Abraham and Moses are fictional characters invented by the Jewish scribes. Details previously presented.

    July 20, 2014 at 11:23 pm |
    • tallulah131

      Good luck getting the Israelis to give up their hold on Jerusalem. And why should American muslims move to a country where they've never been? Religious freedom. Look it up.

      July 21, 2014 at 1:06 am |
    • thesamyaza

      an easier solution, raze Jerusalem!

      July 21, 2014 at 1:46 am |
      • tallulah131

        Go for it. Let's see how long you survive.

        July 21, 2014 at 2:32 am |
      • kenmargo

        The Palestinians want jerusalem to be their capital also. Destroy it and what will you leave the Palestinians!

        July 21, 2014 at 5:44 pm |
    • kenmargo

      What brand of crack are you smoking? I noticed the word "voluntarily". And if they don't volunteer? Don't forget to add christianity to the list of made up religions.

      July 21, 2014 at 3:37 pm |
      • Reality

        Obviously if they don't volunteer, they will continue to suffer the pain and horror of war driven by the stupidity of their religions.

        July 21, 2014 at 11:32 pm |
  7. Robert Brown

    Ice core samples also have limits.

    Shallow cores, or the upper parts of cores in high-accu.mulation areas, can be dated exactly by counting individual layers, each representing a year. These layers may be visible, related to the nature of the ice; or they may be chemical, related to differential transport in different seasons; or they may be isotopic, reflecting the annual temperature signal (for example, snow from colder periods has less of the heavier isotopes of H and O). Deeper into the core the layers thin out due to ice flow and high pressure and eventually individual years cannot be distinguished.

    July 20, 2014 at 10:31 pm |
    • Reality

      So??

      July 20, 2014 at 11:09 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Trapped in these ice cores are bubbles of atmospheric gas.
      Weather/climate is determined by spectrographic an/alysis of these gas bubbles.
      If there had been a WWF, there wouldn't be differences in these gas bubbles.
      There is other evidence that comes in the form of trapped dust. For example, volcanic activity causes specific particles to be deposited in the snowfall – these dust particles give further evidence of the age of these samples.
      n 2011, a 10,928-foot column of ice was taken out of the Antarctic by US researchers.
      The site for this project was chosen because it is unusually thick and also comparatively stable, not having moved or flowed as much as other Antarctic ice.
      These are very clean and detailed ice samples that will allow scientists to literally count off the time, like with tree rings, more than 40,000 years into the past.

      Detailed ana/lysis of acient ice cores can be found in the paper:
      "Microbial Ana.lyses of Ancient Ice Core Sections from Greenland and Antarctica"
      – Caitlin Knowlton, Ram Veerapaneni, Tom D'Elia, and Scott O. Roger

      http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/icecore/

      July 25, 2014 at 3:46 pm |
  8. austin929

    Romans 13
    Submission to Governing Authorities

    13 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has inst.ituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

    6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

    July 20, 2014 at 6:54 pm |
    • austin929

      2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has inst.ituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

      now this is a letter to the church in rome , to Christians, some of whom were Jewish people who were sub citizens of Rome. He is saying to them, obey,

      why though?

      3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

      I think its worth talking about. God has a covenant relationship with Government. God also has a plan to bring about the return of Christ. The prophecy is that evil will rule the world. Yet Paul instructs the civilians of all these governments to obey for their own good.

      Yet as americans, we rebelled from Briton. so where does it end and why do we deter?

      Are we as Christians supposed to fight against the acts of evil? And how do we do that? Were Pauls instructions situational? Were they intended for the Roman Church at that time and not to the reader today?

      July 20, 2014 at 7:03 pm |
      • LaBella

        We got a lot of governments in this country, Austin. Which one are you talking about?

        July 20, 2014 at 10:01 pm |
      • tallulah131

        Paul appeared to think that Christ would return in his lifetime, so I doubt he thought that far ahead.

        July 21, 2014 at 1:08 am |
      • thesamyaza

        when evil is anything not of your god then of course that prophecy is coming, however your Jesus is in no way going to return to the world, chances are he already has, chances were ha came back and christian burned him as a witch. the days of your god are over the world does not need the psychopath, not know that people know their are more gods out their and its just a click of the mouse, and if that don't float the boat, reason has already hold your lie for what it is. your dark ages are over.

        July 21, 2014 at 1:41 am |
        • readerpan

          Incoherent.

          July 24, 2014 at 4:42 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.