Sermon for January 16, 2022

An Eye and the I

Matthew 5:38-39

There are certain things that we never really grow out of.  In many ways, many of our behaviors are childish.  Now when Jesus states that we ought to be like little children, what I am about to say is not what Jesus meant.  What I am talking about is the childish things we do that are not good behavior. I could have entitled this sermon “Oh Grow Up” but I decided to stick to the accurate understanding of Jesus’ position on the idea of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Matthew 5:38–39 (NLT): 38 “You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.

Well, before we get into Jesus’ position on this, we need to understand what he is referring to.  It is something found in Leviticus and since people who were following Jesus were all variety of priests and other educated religious people, Jesus is correcting how they celebrate and practice this law.

Leviticus 24:19–21 (NIV): 19 Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury. 21 Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a human being is to be put to death.

In 1901, while doing archeological dig in Susa which is in present day Iran, a French archeologist discovered a list of nearly 300 laws etched into a two and one-half meter high black diorite pillar.  Now, diorite is a very rare rock and is usually only found near active volcanic areas.  Both carbon date and the information written on the pillar place it’s construction during the time of King Hammurabi, an ancient Mesopotamian and Babylonian King.  Hammurabi reigned from 1795 to 1750BCE in Babylon.  Now, for a point of reference, Moses, who is recorded as recording the Levitical Law for us, recorded them around 1440 BCE, some 300 years AFTER Hammurabi.  Here is what the Code of Hammurabi says:

196. If a man destroys the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye.

197. If he breaks another man’s bone, they shall break his bone.

198. If he destroys the eye of a plebeian or breaks the bone of a plebeian, he shall pay one mina of silver.

199. If he destroys the eye of a man’s slave or beaks a bone of a man’s slave, he shall pay one-half his price.

200. If a man knocks out a tooth of a man of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth[1]

Why does any of this matter.  Why are these laws almost exactly similar?  I agree this can be confusing but in either case, Leviticus and Exoduscompared to the Code of Hammurabi are too identical to deny.  Now, Moses was not guilty of plagiarism although I think if Moses lived today, he may need to defend himself against such accusations, and wrongly so.

When it comes to these rules, the rules deal more with what is considered civil relationships.  Moses points towards the idea of One Supreme God compared to Hammurabi’s polytheistic and pantheon of gods and goddesses. 

The scribes drew a false inference from the letter of the law. As a legal remedy the lex talionis was probably the best possible in a rude state of society (Carr). The aim of the law, as Jerome remarks, was not to sacrifice a second eye, but to save both. When a man in a passion understands that he is liable to lose an eye if he takes one, he is likely, in the great majority of cases, to be so far controlled as to save both (Morison).


[1] https://avalon.law.yale.edu/ancient/hamframe.asp

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