‘An Eye for an Eye’ Doesn’t Mean What Trump Thinks It Means…
Donald Trump famously said, “Nothing beats the Bible. Nothing beats the Bible. Not even ‘The Art Of The Deal,’” by which he implied it was a close second. Unfortunately for Mr. Trump, he has stumbled badly trying to identify his favorite verse.
The previous favorite verse he identified, “never bend to envy,” is not in fact a Bible verse at all even though it is a noble concept.
Donald now has a new favorite Bible verse, “an eye for an eye.” Here’s how he explained it to a New York radio host:
“You know when we get into the Bible I think many, so many. And ‘an eye for an eye,’ you can almost say that. It’s not a particularly nice thing, but you know when you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, you see what’s going on with our country how people are taking advantage of us and how they scoff at us and laugh at us and laugh in our face and they’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our money, they’re taking our — you know, they’re taking the health of our country. And we have to be very firm and we have to be very strong and we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.”
Trump’s understanding of the “eye for an eye” phrase here is partially right, although I suspect he doesn’t understand why. The single most important thing to understand about this statement of Scripture is that it is a directive to government, not to individuals. It is a standard for justice, not personal life. It is a directive to the courts to administer justice fairly and evenly, but it most emphatically is not a license for individuals to take matters of revenge into their own hands, which is how the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day applied it.
And unfortunately Mr. Trump seems to have adopted the pharisaical mangling of this verse and is using it as a directive for his own personal life. According to CNN, his personal philosophy of life is quite simple: “I always get even… If you do not get even, you are just a schmuck!” This, of course, is exactly contrary to Scripture’s view, in which we are taught quite plainly, “Repay no one evil for evil … Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:17, 19).
According to Scripture, God uses civil authority as his instrument of “vengeance,” which is just a synonym here for “justice.” Contrary to Mr. Trump, we are not to take retribution into our own hands, because that is the task God has assigned to government. According to Romans 13, civil government has been given authority by God to punish those who infringe on our fundamental civil and legal rights to life, liberty, and property. “He is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out the wrath of God on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).
The legal standard Moses established with his “eye for an eye” instruction was exactly what we mean today when we say that the punishment must fit the crime. The punishment, we all agree, must be proportional to the crime. We don’t, for instance, demand the death penalty for shoplifting. When we read about draconian sentences imposed on people for comparatively minor offenses, it rightly offends our sense of justice and fairness. And likewise it justifiably outrages us when we see judges give a wrist slap to perpetrators of heinous crimes.
Jesus dealt directly with this verse since it was a favorite verse not just of Mr. Trump but of the scribes and Pharisees as well. Jesus had to disabuse the political and religious leaders of his day of their erroneous interpretation of this verse, and so we must do today.
Here is the relevant passage goes, from Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” ~ Matthew 5:38-39
The first thing to clarify here is that Jesus is not rejecting the teaching of Moses but the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees. When he says, “you have heard that it was said,” he is talking not about what Moses said but how the Pharisees had misinterpreted what Moses said. Jesus’ listeners had “heard” about this verse from the teachers of their day. Moses had originated the phrase, but Jesus contemporaries had heard about what Moses said through the scribes and Pharisees. The opening phrase in Matthew 5:38 could be accurately translated, “You have heard (from the scribes and Pharisees) that it was said (by Moses)…”
Jesus was not in any sense rejecting the authority of Moses. He was rejecting the authority of the scribes and their misguided interpretation of Moses’ words. Jesus was quite pointed about this earlier in the Sermon (emphasis mine throughout). “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).
The phrase “eye for an eye” occurs three times in the Old Testament, in the criminal and civil code of ancient Israel. The first occurrence is in Exodus 21:24, which occurs in the larger context of an issue that had been brought before Moses for adjudication. The case had to do with two men who were fighting. When the pregnant wife of one of the men tried to intervene, her husband’s combatant struck her in the stomach, leading to the premature delivery of the baby.
Here is how that text reads:
“When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” ~ Exodus 21:21-25
In other words, if the actions of a man cause injury or even death to an unborn baby, there should be an appropriate, proportional level of punishment. There is certainly a lesson here in a just world about criminal sanctions for abortion providers.
The standard is also found in Leviticus 24:17, 19-20. “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death … If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.” Again, the point is that the punishment is to be just, equitable, and proportional. You don’t take a life for a life, not for a tooth.
And the standard is also reiterated in Deuteronomy 19:19-21, where it is applied to anyone who commits perjury in a court of law. Whatever punishment he hoped to inflict on the individual against whom he gave false testimony was to be inflicted on him. “You shall do to him as he meant to do to his brother…Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
The point here is this was a standard for judges to follow in a court of law, not for individuals to follow in private life. The Pharisees had taken this exacting standard of justice and used it, as Mr. Trump does, to excuse personal revenge. Jesus flatly rejected this interpretation, this counterfeit use of Scripture, by saying, “you have heard…but I say to you.”
Jesus prohibits us from taking matters of justice and vengeance into our own hands. In God’s economy, that is the role of government. If men begin to take the law into their own hands, the result is vigilante justice, anarchy, and total societal breakdown. It is the fair, swift, and equitable application of justice that keeps a society peaceful and stable. Individuals should have an assurance that they do not need to take matters of justice into their own hands because their government will do it for them.
So Jesus says, “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” This is not, by the way, a prohibition against self-defense. There is no biblical prohibition against using physical force to defend yourself in response to a physical assault. Jesus even instructed his own disciples (Luke 22:36) to buy a sword to use for their own protection.
No, Jesus is talking about about not retaliating when we have been insulted. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, he must use the back of his right hand to do it. Jesus is not talking about a punch, a right cross, he is talking about a slap. It might sting but it does not injure. Jesus teaches us to use self-restraint in such situations rather than escalating matters by responding in kind.
This, by the way, is what Senator Cruz has consistently done during this campaign. He has resolutely refused to return evil for evil when he is insulted, demeaned, degraded, and called names. He has done exactly what Jesus directed his disciples to do in such circumstances.
The bottom line: we are to turn the other cheek but government not. Forgiveness is our duty; justice is the duty of civil government. Government is never to turn the other cheek, to overlook an offense, for the moment it does, justice falls to the ground. People begin to lose confidence in their government to protect them from harm and inevitably will begin to take justice into their own hands.
So Trump is partially right when he applies the “eye for an eye” principle to the proper role of government. But he’s surely wrong when he says it’s “not a particularly nice thing.” There’s nothing wrong and everything right about civil government using force to protect the safety and security of its people from foreign threats and to punish criminal behavior. In fact, that’s how government shows compassion. It shows compassion to the victims of crime by punishing perpetrators. It’s the nicest thing government can do.
Perhaps the next time Donald Trump picks a favorite Bible verse, he should listen to the voice of Jesus rather than the enemies of Jesus.
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