The Lex-talionis and Turning the other cheek
“My point is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are dumb enough to take them literally.” John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus?
Exodus 21:22-25…if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
Matthew 5: 38-41 You have heard it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. But I say to you. Do not resist one that is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
Quick Google search on lextalionis describes as follows: While all cultures have some system of social regulation and conflict resolution, law is a distinct phenomenon in that it is written and administered retribution and conflict resolution. T
he earliest human legal systems were almost universally forms of lex talionis, or "the law (lex) of retaliation."
The lex talionis is a law of equal and direct retribution: in the words of the Hebrew Scriptures, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an arm for an arm, a life for a life."
In the Old Testament, God allows you to exact the compensation in kind according to the law of talion when you were harmed by others, and this retributive justice as well as various aspects of the Laws in Exodus is similar to Babylonian laws known as the Codes of Hammurabi that is a few centuries older than the Bible.
The Hammurabi Code is derived from the even older Sumerian law codes that meant punishment and justice must be evenhanded and compensation should be equal to the crime though it is harsh and cruel by modern standards and meant also to limit people from exacting vengeance out of proportion to the party that did harm to them.
According to the pulpit that was eager to “decaffeinate” an image of habitually vindictive, prejudiced, violent, and provincial Yahweh to a loving, caring, universal, and benevolent Jesus to all mortals, it was said later in the New Testament, Jesus overturned the Hammurabi Code of vengeance in kind and advocated passive and non-violent responses to evil…Jesus seemed to ask Christians to become the cowardly doormat, to counsel submission to power, and to corroborate with the oppressor, if you read it without the consideration on the real world where Jesus lived, taught, and died.
Namely, the “turning the other cheek” passages in the Bible has been taken for granted by a majority of Christians around the globe as the teaching of Jesus Christ to submission to the powerful, and the Church had actively collaborated with the state power to suppress the revolt of the poor and oppressed people, claiming that “the powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1-2)
When the Bible was translated from Greek to English in 1604 by the 54 court scholars hired by King James, people believed in a mythical creature like unicorn, a horse with a single horn in the center of the forehead, mentioned by Deuteronomy 33:17, as if for most contemporary American Christians the Bible is a book written by God in English (Korean Christians are not so much knowledgeable in reading the Bible as they have been manufacturing a “Moonie” variety of Messiahs who are more palatable to their religious taste.
In addition, it is safe to bet that these hired court translators had endeavored not to irk the King James in the process of the translation and had made sure to conform with the absolute submission to the monarchical power.
Generally speaking, there are two schools of thought about how we read the contexts of the Bible…. One is that we read it words for words, parables for parables, and chapters for chapters, as if it is infallible and inerrant as the words of God and no questions allowed to be asked.
They insist that the Bible was written by humans inspired and revealed by the Holy Spirit, which text is prophetic, instructional, and devotional, as if American Christians take it like a sacred totem or flag.
They try to emphasize the biblical relativism to the contemporary society in literal sense that we can employ the same methodology as the first century people functioned and experienced in their values, moralities, and modus operandi, because the Bible is the words of God, irrevocable and transferable to any stages, circumstances, periods, ages, or generation.
This group does not give a slight consideration on the linguistic dilemma destined to occur in the translating process between original manuscripts and translated copy that results in a failure to convey the precise meaning or sense of words.
The other is that since the Bible was not a document concerned with history but a vast collection of sublime myths and metaphors, it is vital to approach the Bible with the allegorical, spiritual, and mythical ways in order to solve the many enigmas of Christian stories.
Since, this group argues, there are huge variations in languages among human races, say, even between Jews and Christians who share the Scriptures, the words of God vary considerably depending on whom you ask.
This group also says the Bible was a collection of little books, an archive of a thousand years of writings that was borrowed from Sumerican, Babylonian, and Egyptian mythologies, and people are free to interpret the words of God according to the light of their own understanding and conscience, and they began to question the authoritative views of their inherited institutions, the Churches.
Take for example in analyzing the biblical text about the “Turning the other cheek”…. When we read it literally, it recommend that you accept the blow no more attempt to block the strike than offer the striker other cheek for an extra blow, when anyone strikes you on the right cheek.
However, when you take into account the social, political, and cultural background of the society where Jesus was mentioning, the whole shebang of “turning the other cheek” in the authorized scenario by Church collapses miserably.
First of all, you try to strike someone in front of you on his right cheek and you only are able to hit him on his left cheek, not on his right cheek in the right-handed society where you do not use left hand except to wipe your rectum after you relieve yourself.
Therefore, the only way you could strike the right cheek of other with your right hand would be with the back of your hand…which means the blow is not intended to cause a fight but give an insult to other.
There is also another factor to be considered…the backhand slap does not normally occur between friends or comrades on the same social rung but is intended to scold the inferiors like masters backhand slaves, parents children, or Romans Jews.
Here Jesus was addressing the unequal relation between Roman soldiers and his disciples, Jews, in which Jews would never think of retaliation against the Roman oppressors unless they prepare to be hanged.
So when the Jew offers again his left cheek to blow to the Roman soldier, the oppressor cannot slap on the left cheek of the oppressed with his backhanded blow but to strike it with a fist, which means the oppressor and oppressed are on the same footing, negating the caste system of the society.
In another word, Jesus never intended to counsel his already humiliated people to surrender to the mercy of oppressor again, but to embarrass and harass the oppressors forcing them to acknowledge that Jews are also human beings as they are.
Embarrassing the oppressor and the powerful can be applied to the another misunderstood passage of the Bible about “offer your total garment to your loan shark”…Jesus never intended to put his people in double jeopardy by advising that you give out your coat and underwear in toto when you are sued.
Instead, he was telling how atrocious and merciless the society his people live and the possible way his people react against it. (You can imagine an awkward and comic court scene in that a stark naked man standing in front of an embarrassed creditor holding a collection of dirty rags from the debtor in a society where nakedness is taboo in Judaism.)
On the matter about offering two miles instead of one mile, Jesus was again talking about the relationship between the oppressor, Roman soldier and the oppressed, his Jewish people…since Jews do not have a choice to say no to Roman soldier who orders them to carry their duffel bags, they offer more help that Roman soldier can not accept without violating their military rule that allows their knapsacks to be carried by Jews only one mile.
In other word, Jesus knew that Jews do not have the luxury of refusing the Roman oppressor’s demand, his advice was: embarrass, lampoon, and afflict the Romans as far as Jews could possibly inflict upon their oppressor by turning the other cheek, becoming stark naked, and walk an extra miles.
That is, Jesus never taught his people to submit themselves passively to power as popularly believed in the pew, but rather he advocated the non-violent resistance against the institutionalized oppression.
“Resist not that is evil” is simply a translation error from Greek to English that caused by the lack of consideration on the social context at the time.
So which group do you prefer to join with? The literalist or the metaphorist?
Personally, I cannot imagine myself to dance, like rabbits, with a bunch of “Holy-rollers” with abandon in an evangelical mega-gathering in the Cincinnati Sport Auditorium.