I just finished reading a news blog in which it was reported that Donald Trump shared his favorite Biblical teaching. And what is it? Well, “An eye for an eye,” of course.
I’m simply not impressed by anything that Mr. Trump says about the Bible. But I do find myself more and more intrigued by what other people say about what Mr. Trump says about the Bible (remember this one?).
I agree with the author that New Testament followers of Jesus are not ultimately guided by this verse when it comes to how we are to think about our enemies, but not for the same reasons. Let me ‘splain.
The author, “Allahpundit” says these things about the “eye for an eye” verses (c.f. Ex. 21:24, Mat. 5:38).
“…it’s Old Testament; it was specifically repudiated by Jesus himself in the gospel of Matthew in favor of “turn the other cheek”
“The whole point of Christianity, I thought, is to resist vengeance and embrace forgiveness, and it’s captured nowhere more succinctly than in the rejection of “an eye for an eye.”
“Jesus instructed his disciplines to ignore [this verse]”
[the verse is] “something archaic and defunct about taking revenge on people who have wronged you”
“Jesus may want you to love your enemies but the God of the Old Testament wants to make America great again, baby.”
Taking these reflections one by one, if I were sitting across the table from Allahpundit (who identifies himself as an atheist), I would respond in the following ways to his thoughts…
Allahpundit, Jesus was not repudiating “eye for an eye.” He was showing the trajectory of “eye for an eye.” This was originally given to Israel as a commandment by the God Jesus claimed to embody, whose law he said he did not come to destroy, but to fulfill (cf. Jn. 14:9, Mat. 5:17).
God’s law flows from God’s heart, and it is given originally to the people who God chose to show the whole world what he was like (cf. Is. 43:10). So, what could God’s heart possibly be expressing by telling people “eye for an eye?” Is this a commandment given to justify taking revenge on people? Not according to Jesus.
I say that the commandments have a “trajectory” because I want to emphasize that this law was not ultimately headed toward revenge, but away from it. How so? Well, what else might be a possible response if someone pokes your eye out, or the eye of someone you love? If the trajectory of this commandment is toward revenge (as Allahpundit proposes) then we might read it as a justification for returning the favor. It seems that this is how Jesus’ audience was reading it.
But if the trajectory of the commandment is away from revenge, then imagine someone who loses an eye in an accident or even in a fight becoming enraged enough to, say, take both eyes, or perhaps even the life of the person who injured them. We definitely see these kinds of inequities today. A person steals someone’s new Nike shoes and ends up dead in a back alley. An eye for an eye would require the thief to give back the shoes, or perhaps to provide another set of new shoes of equal value (cf. Lev. 6:1-7).
How is Jesus demonstrating this trajectory when talking about the “eye for an eye” text? Well, he said, “You have heard it said, but I say to you” (cf. Mat. 5:38). But wait! Notice that Jesus does this six times in Matthew 5 (cf. Mat. 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). Each Old Testament command is preceded by “You have heard it said,” and is followed by Jesus’ “but I say to you…”
- Command: You shall not murder. Trajectory: Be reconciled.
- Command: You shall not commit adultery. Trajectory: Deal with the lust in your heart.
- Command: Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. Trajectory: Work to preserve the marriage.
- Command: You shall not swear falsely. Trajectory: Just keep the commitments you’ve made.
- Command: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. Trajectory: Do not take revenge. Work toward a restored relationship.
- Command: You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy (Interestingly, the second part is not part of the O.T. command, but again – the trajectory they embraced lead them to that wrong conclusion). Trajectory: Actually, everyone is your neighbor — including your enemy — so love them and pray for them too.
If Jesus means to repudiate Old Testament commandments in these statements, then we have a serious problem. Is Jesus repudiating “do not murder,” or “do not commit adultery” as the archaic and defunct ideas of an Old Testament God?
Again, Jesus is, as we Christians teach it, the very embodiment — the incarnation — of the Old Testament God. Thus, he is showing God’s heart with respect to the trajectory of the Old Testament law. He is showing where the law was ultimately headed. The law, according to the embodiment of God himself, was headed toward his “but I say to you” statements.
In other words, Jesus is telling his original listeners that they knew what the law said very well (“You have heard…”) but they didn’t know what it meant. Embedded in Jesus’ “But I say” statements is the idea that they didn’t know where the things they had heard were ultimately headed, or how they could be ideally expressed as they were transformed into people shaped by that trajectory. They got the trajectory wrong so they got the application wrong. There is nothing wrong with “eye for an eye,” unless you’re using it to take revenge on someone. According to Jesus, it is better used to work toward forgiveness.
Jesus does not repudiate the verse (the first claim by Allahpundit), nor does he teach his listeners to reject it (the second claim). No. He teaches them what it actually means, and where it’s headed.
Nor did he teach his disciples to ignore the verse (the third claim), but rather to understand and apply it properly, and to understand God’s heart in giving it to them in the first place.
Further, it is not archaic or defunct (the fourth claim) any more than “do not murder” or “do not commit adultery” are archaic and defunct. It is, rather, misunderstood and misapplied by Jesus’ listeners (and Mr. Trump, apparently) as biblical grounds for taking revenge.
Finally, it is not demonstrating the difference between the “Old Testament God” and Jesus. As I have already said, Jesus is the Divine Hermeneut, who both interprets and incarnates as a living breathing human being, what the law ultimately looks like when it is lived out in a way that honors God’s original intent for it. Jesus came to embody and fulfill the law.
So, dear Allahpundit, on one hand I agree with you. Mr. Trump has a problem if he is a Jesus-follower, and this is his favorite verse (since he uses it to affirm his own penchant for taking revenge on his enemies, as perhaps some of Jesus’ disciples did as well — until he showed them a better way to look at it). But I suggest that you are also mistaken in why Jesus said what he said, and mistaken about the intent of this Old Testament law. It is headed away from revenge and toward forgiveness inside of a broken world (the world of its first recipients, the Israelites, the world of Jesus and the Pharisees, and even our own present world) that leans toward revenge and away from restoration.