An Eye for an Eye Leviticus 24:1-23


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Leviticus 24:1-23

We are nearing the end of the book of Leviticus. After this evening, only three chapters remain. But there is some fascinating and highly important material in these last chapters, including a passage, or at least a phrase from this evening’s text, which is undoubtedly one of the most widely known and often quoted statements of the Bible. It may not be original to the Bible but it is from the Bible that it made its way into the common thought and speech of the world.

Text Comment

v.4       One explanation of why we have this and the following paragraph at this point in Leviticus, viz. instructions about two temple rituals, is that the instructions concerning the annuals feasts that were the subject of the previous chapter included those requiring the Israelites to bring agricultural produce to the temple. In the first case the lamps required olive oil, harvested in the autumn; in the second case the bread was made from the flour that worshippers harvested in the spring and early summer.

The lampstand, a central trunk with three branches on each side, stood on the south side of the holy place and on the near side of the curtain separating the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place, from the Holy Place. “Pure oil” from “beaten olives” was the very best olive oil. The light burning continually (at least during the evening and nighttime hours; so v. 3) was an acknowledgement of the Lord’s constant presence. Hence the “before the Lord,” in v. 4.

v.9       A table covered with pure gold stood on the north side of the holy place opposite the gold lampstand. Because the bread was placed “before the Lord,” as we read in v. 6, it was also called the “Bread of the Presence.” The loaves were unleavened and so flat, making them stackable in piles. There were to be twelve loaves on the table, one for each of the tribes of Israel. The frankincense was also part of the grain offerings, as we read in Lev. 2, which were also memorial offerings, that is, an indication that the one making the offering wished to be remembered with favor. [Sklar, 289] In this particular case all Israel is wishing to be remembered with favor by the Lord. The frankincense placed by or with the bread may have been burned, filling the sanctuary with its fragrance. [Levine, 165] To call the bread and frankincense a “covenant” means that it served as a sign of the covenant. Last Lord’s Day morning we read of circumcision as the Lord’s “covenant in your flesh.” Circumcision isn’t the covenant itself; it isn’t the relationship between God [and Israel]; it isn’t the promises and is but one of the obligations of that relationship; but it is a sign of that covenant. The priests ate the bread and so confirmed on the people’s behalf their covenant with the Lord. Covenants in those days were often sealed by the parties eating a meal together. Since it was a “most holy portion” only the priests were allowed to eat it.

Both of these perpetual provisions were powerful acknowledgements of the Lord’s presence with his people and, in particular, at the temple. In the words of one commentator, lights on and food on the table is proof that someone is home! [Averbeck in Sklar, 289]

Again, there is some debate as to why the following paragraphs are put here in the book. There has been in the recent chapters teaching about holy things and holy times. Perhaps it is for that reason that concern for the holiness of the Lord’s name is found here, but it’s not entirely clear by what principal of organization these particular paragraphs are placed here in what is our chapter 24.

v.10     The particular situation was blasphemy committed by a resident alien. How does the law against blasphemy apply to someone who isn’t an Israelite? Moses needed guidance because the Law that the Lord had revealed to him did not cover this particular eventuality. The man who blasphemed was not a full Israelite citizen. Hence the contrast between him and the “man of Israel” in v. 10. Since descent was calculated through the father, he was not considered a full Israelite. It is, by the way, a further reminder, of which there are several in Exodus and Numbers, that a mixed multitude left Egypt at the exodus; the wilderness generation was not entirely Israelite. It would be interesting to learn how this particular Egyptian found himself among the Israelites leaving his homeland.

v.11     In other words, we are not talking about using the Lord’s name as a curse word or an interjection, as is so common today. This man spoke evil of the Lord. He was, in effect, rejecting him as Israel’s King. So this is both blasphemy and treason, the last, at least, being a crime we still take very seriously today.

v.14     As he was to be executed, he had to be taken outside the camp where his dead body would not pollute the place of God’s presence. Again, the law took great care to ensure that the crime had been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, hence the appeal to witnesses and the requirement that they identify themselves as those who had accused the man of blasphemy. The whole congregation would, of course, have been represented by a relatively few men, chosen we don’t know how.

v.16     In the ancient world and in the world of the present day, treason against the government was regarded as a capital crime because of the deadly threat it posed to the public order. That is why Edward Snowden is living in Russia today.

v.17     The following paragraph is very clearly arranged as a chiasm. It starts with killing a human being and, in v. 21, ends with the same; the second member and the second to the last concern the killing of an animal. The repetitions are virtually word for word. And in the middle it deals with injuries that are not fatal.

v.18     Presumably the animal in question is a domesticated animal and would have to be replaced either with an animal of like value or its value in money.

v.19     “Neighbor” refers to any person with whom one would come in contact through the course of a day. [Sklar, 294]

v.20     Vv. 19-20 are a statement of the so-called lex talionis, a Latin phrase meaning the law of retaliation or retribution in kind.

Now, before we apply this text, and particularly vv. 17-21 to ourselves and our life today, we need to be sure we understand what we have just read. Several observations are important. Again, as we have seen previously in the book, crimes against persons were treated much more seriously in God’s law than crimes against property. This was not generally the case in the ancient world, but it was in Israel.

Second, there was to be no favoritism, no respect of class or position, again a legal principle unique or at least apparently so in the ancient world. In those societies, crimes against the powerful and wealthy, the aristocrats, were taken much more seriously than crimes against the poor and weak. But here the same law applies to everyone, great and small. I wonder how many Americans realize the extent to which our common intuitions about justice and fairness derive from Holy Scripture and how alien they actually are both to much of world history and to many societies still today. For example, crimes against women across the world in our time are widely treated much less seriously than crimes against men. But not in the Bible and not in societies that have been deeply influenced by the Bible. Here we read not only that great and small were to be treated similarly, but citizen and sojourner were as well! The sojourner, in the nature of the case, had far less legal standing, and far less protection in the law. But here we read the law applied to him or to her just as it applied to the Israelite citizen.

Lest we imagine that this doesn’t apply to us today, think again. We all know very well that in our American legal system expensive lawyers that only the rich can afford are considerably more likely to secure favorable verdicts in court than much cheaper lawyers. In other words, the law – or legal system, call it what you will – still today favors the rich and powerful. Unequal verdicts are a fact of life in our society. General Petraeus leaked classified material and is a free man today. Others who did the same thing he did are in prison. Similarly, juries often favor the small fry against a rich and powerful company, irrespective of what facts can be proved in court. In the Bible, both of those situations are crimes against justice, but they are commonplace in our American jurisprudence today.

The lex talionis, the principle that the punishment should fit the crime, is nowadays commonly imagined to express a harsh principle of justice; we tend to associate the words “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” with severity rather than lenity. Perhaps we have actually envisaged someone in that ancient time actually gauging out someone’s eye to punish him for destroying the eyesight of someone else, perhaps in a fist fight. However, in the ancient world, that principle typically limited the scope of punishment rather than increased it. In tribal societies then and still today, the desire for revenge is a perpetual problem and the lex talionis severely limited the scope of revenge. No punishment could be imposed that was not fair compensation for the actual crime committed.

We will appreciate this principle better when we observe that no one understood “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” to be taken literally. It was a figure of speech meant to communicate the principle that the punishment must be equally balanced with the crime; it must fit the crime.

So, for example, in Exodus 21:26-27, we read this:

“When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.”

In other words, the master who injured his slave was not punished by inflicting upon him the identical injury he caused. He didn’t lose his own eye or his own tooth. Rather, the slave was set free as fit punishment of the master for his crime. This alerts us to the fact that it is not always easy to determine precisely what punishment is of equal weight to the crime committed.

Two further considerations are important for us to keep in mind. In the new epoch, the church is not the state in the same way it was in ancient Israel. It no longer imposes such penalties. The state does, of course, but not the church. Indeed, even in the case of blasphemy and other crimes that merited the death penalty in Israel, the New Testament makes it clear that the equivalent punishment in the new epoch is excommunication not execution. In I Corinthians 5, for example, in the case of the man living with his step-mother, Paul instructs the church to “expel the wicked man from among you,” but in saying so, he quotes a text from Deuteronomy that is actually a command that the person be put to death. Capital punishment has become excommunication, so far as the church is concerned.

And, finally, though many Christians have been taught that the lex talionis, the principle of retribution in kind was characteristic of the harsher, less forgiving regime of the Old Testament and was done away with by Christ in his Sermon on the Mount, this is manifestly not true. Jesus did famously say:

“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.” [Matt. 5:38-39]

But it is important to recognize that in that section of his famous sermon he is combatting not the Law of Moses itself, but its misinterpretation among of the Jews of his day, and that he is talking about personal ethics, not about the ethics of the state and its criminal justice system. How the state is to handle offenses and how we are to handle them individually are very different matters. In Jesus’ day many were applying the lex talionis to personal offenses and in that way justifying the spirit and the practice of revenge. Jesus forbad that most strongly. We are to forgive those who sin against us; a judge in his courtroom has other responsibilities. I will return to this as we conclude this evening.

But now this question: what do we mean by justice? Most Americans, still today, I suspect think justice amounts to something quite close if not identical to the ancient lex talionis. They expect that those proven guilty of a crime will be punished in a manner fitting the crime. There will be a discernable balance between crime and punishment. No doubt many lawyers and judges would say the same thing. They would, at least theoretically, accept the concept of justice suggested by the famous statue of lady justice that stands outside many American courthouses: blindfolded, she is impervious to influence by money or power, and she holds in her hands scales in balance, the crime on the one side weighing as much as the punishment on the other and vice versa.

But, of course, it is not always so and perhaps the more so in our time when the concept of justice has more and more been replaced by a concept of rights. Some years ago now I read a fascinating article by Phillip Johnson. Johnson has become well known to us as a remarkably effective critic of the modern theory of evolution, but in his previous life he was an influential law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Most of his writings up to his discovery of the issue of Darwinian evolution had to do with the law. In this article he charts the course of this development, the collapse of our historic concept of justice into the modern concept of rights. And he illustrates it with the case, famous to criminal lawyers and law students, known as the “Christian Burial Speech” case.

On Christmas Eve, 1968, a ten year-old girl named Pamela attended an event with her family at the Des Moines, Iowa YMCA. She excused herself to go the bathroom and never came back. Shortly afterwards Robert Alton Williams was seen hastily leaving the building with what appeared to be a body wrapped in a blanket. He drove east across Iowa to Davenport on the Mississippi river, discarding Pamela’s clothing on the way and hiding the body someplace in the countryside.

Two days later Williams phoned a Des Moines lawyer and surrendered to the Davenport police on his lawyer’s advice. His lawyer went to the police station to arrange matters and there, in the presence of the police, had another telephone conversation with Williams. He told his client that a Captain Leaming would be coming to Davenport to take him back to Des Moines by car, that Leaming would not question him during the trip and that he should not discuss the case with anyone until he could confer with his lawyer in Des Moines. His lawyer also told Williams that he would have to reveal the location of Pamela’s body after his return to Des Moines. Although no one later testified that Captain Leaming or any other police officer made any promise not to question Williams, various judges later inferred that the police had so promised, perhaps by their silence, to abide by the terms Williams’ lawyer had stipulated to his client over the telephone with the police present and listening.

Leaming and another officer went to Davenport and collected Robert Alton Williams, who had been arraigned in a court there on a murder charge and repeatedly advised of his constitutional rights. Shortly after leaving Davenport, en route to Des Moines – a trip of some 160 miles – Leaming delivered what came to be known as his “Christian burial speech.” He addressed Williams, who was an escaped mental patient with strong religious tendencies, as ‘Reverend’ and urged him to consider how much it would mean to Pamela’s parents if her body could be recovered before an anticipated snowfall could cover it, so that she could be given a “Christian” burial. Although the police captain made no demand, he certainly did appeal to the man’s conscience in hopes of finding out where the body had been hidden. Some hours later, as the police car approached Des Moines, Williams took the officers to the body which he had hidden in a ditch about two miles from the interstate.

State courts affirmed the resulting conviction for murder, but a federal appeals court ordered a new trial because, it held, the defendant’s rights had been violated when Captain Leaming prevailed on him to disclose the location of the body. The evidence of the body could therefore not be admitted. The State of Iowa appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court but that Court, on a 5-4 vote reversed Williams’ conviction and sent the case back for a new trial.

In the second trial the defense attempted to argue that someone else had committed the crime and had left the body in Mr. Williams’ room in the YMCA. Fearing that he would be blamed, he fled with the body in a futile effort to save himself. Williams was convicted a second time. This time, the problem was that the state had used the body to prove that Pamela had died by violent means. The state argued that the body would have been discovered eventually but on appeal a federal court said that did not matter. The body was evidence wrongfully obtained and so could not be used by the prosecution.

Here is Professor Johnson:

“Imagine what a third prosecution (in 1983 or later [now some fifteen years after the commission of the crime]) would have looked like if that ruling had stood. The state might have tried to establish the corpus delicti with the testimony that Williams left the YMCA shortly after the crime with what looked like a body. The defense could have responded that since for legal purposes Pamela’s body was never found, the court must assume that she might be well and alive somewhere at the age of twenty-five [though, of course, everyone knew that she was dead and had been long since buried]. The citizens of Iowa were spared this travesty when the Supreme Court granted a petition for review a second time and reinstated the [second] conviction. [They were worried, frankly, that if they had let Robert Alton Williams loose he would have been executed by an enraged citizenry.] [The body could be used because it was reasonable to assume that it would have been found eventually.] [Objections Sustained, 141-142]

Here is Professor Johnson’s conclusion.

“What moral lessons could we draw from the long saga of the Christian Burial Speech case? First, many criminal defendants are very dangerous people who have committed unspeakable crimes. Second, the purpose of giving defendants lawyers is not necessarily to bring out the truth. Suppressing evidence and confusing juries is not unethical practice by our standards but good defense lawyering.

Whether lawyers achieve justice depends on what we mean by that that term. In [much elite thinking in our culture today] the concept of ‘justice’ tends to collapse into the category of ‘rights.’ The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and so it takes precedence over local regulations such as the prohibition of murder. The most important part of the Constitution is not the limitation of federal government power or the grant of legislative power to the Congress but the Bill of Rights. It follows that courts in criminal cases should protect the rights of the defendant and subordinate all other considerations to that end.

From this standpoint it is not an ‘injustice’ if a man escapes punishment after raping and murdering a child. The victim is dead, after all, and nothing can be done for her. Her friends and family have no ‘rights’ in a criminal prosecution, which is a contest between the state and the accused. If the legal rights of the parties were observed, justice was done.

Rights advocates generally assume that something will be done, one way or another, to protect the public from truly dangerous individuals. Justice Thurgood Marshall, for example, hinted that the state should commit Williams to a secure mental institution, presumably on the same evidence of murder he wanted to exclude from the criminal prosecution. But the insane also have their rights advocates, who have succeeded in emptying the mental institutions. Today persons who would formerly have been institutionalized fill the streets and parks of our cities.” [142-143]

Now I mention all of that simply to illustrate that most of us, most Americans, Christians or not I’m quite sure, stand much closer to Leviticus 24’s concept of justice than to that of the contemporary American legal profession, from law schools to Supreme Courts, both state and federal. In criminal matters we are more interested that justice be done than that rights be protected, however important individual rights no doubt are, and, more to the point, we think we know what justice is! We believe that an eye for an eye is the very nature of justice and that justice has not been done, no matter how scrupulous the process, unless the guilty are punished in a manner fitting their crime. We think of justice as a balancing of the scales and anything that interferes with that, even if it should be impossible to avoid – after all, even the Bible recognizes that some crimes are never solved and that the guilty cannot always be proved to be so – I say everything that interferes with the balancing of the scales is a crime against justice. Punishments too severe and too lenient are likewise betrayals of justice, as is a guilty man who remains unpunished or an innocent man who is punished by mistake or judicial indifference. It doesn’t matter if everyone’s rights have been preserved. If at the end the scales are not in balance, justice has not been done.

Now, lest you think that what I have given you so far is simply a lecture on my opinions regarding jurisprudence, consider now that this concept of justice, the very concept enshrined in the lex talionis lies at the foundation of our entire understanding of salvation by substitutionary atonement.

It is this principle of justice as a balancing of crime and punishment that explains the cross, at least so far as it can be explained. To be sure, we cannot measure the punishment that Jesus bore because we cannot even imagine what it must have been for the perfectly holy God-man, who hated sin with a perfect and eternal hatred, to be made sin for us, or what it must have been for the Creator of heaven and earth to be humiliated by and before his own creatures, or what it must have been for Jesus, who lived in unprecedented and perfect communion with his heavenly Father, to be rejected of his father. We can only analogize; we can’t really understand, but we do know what the Bible is getting at, at least in principle.

The entire Bible’s presentation of the atonement proceeds on the premise that Jesus bore our punishment in our place and that his punishment was a fit and so proper punishment for our sins. No other punishment would have balanced the scales, hence the incarnation of God the son; it would not otherwise have been severe enough to fit the crimes for which he was paying the penalty. When the Bible, as it so regularly does, represents Jesus as standing in our place to suffer punishment on our behalf, the presupposition everywhere is that for the sake of love God was satisfying his justice, or, as Paul puts it in Romans 3, so that he might be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Christ Jesus. That is, because our crimes have been properly punished, God can free us from their penalties. Paul makes the point more explicit still in Romans 4. When man, a human judge, justifies or acquits the wicked, it is a miscarriage of justice. In such a case a wicked man, a criminal, has not been punished. But when God does it, it is grace. But it is God-like grace because God has already seen to the satisfaction of justice by the cross. God is not indifferent to justice; the entire grand program of incarnation and atonement was made necessary by the demands of his justice! We had committed a vast multitude of capital crimes against God, and he contrived to suffer their punishment on our behalf that our sin might not stand in the way of his forgiveness and our acceptance.

We may not know, we cannot tell

What pains he had to bear;

But we believe it was for us

He hung and suffered there.

We know very well that our sins against God and man deserve punishment, but there are so many of them and so many of them are so serious that, while we can hardly calculate the exact weight, we have no trouble believing we deserve a heavy punishment, so much heavier because they were crimes committed against God himself! Another way of the Bible’s speaking of fit punishment is to liken our guilt to debt and to the requirement that the debt be repaid. For example, we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We understand that well enough, again even if it is only a metaphor, a way to help us understand or at least reach the outskirts of an understanding of what happened on the cross. It is a way of speaking about the consequences of our sin. When we sin against God and man, we owe them repayment. Debts are discharged when the amount owed is repaid. God is our creditor and he must be repaid. The primary purpose of that metaphor in the Bible is to personalize the relationship between God and our sin. We owe him because we have offended him. We cannot pay our debt and so Christ paid it for us. Remember, it is a metaphor only. It doesn’t explain everything. We’re not talking about money here.

At the same time it is this concept of justice, of fit penalties being assigned as recompense for particular crimes, that lies beneath our confidence that, the penalty having been paid, our salvation is assured. Is this not what Augustus Toplady meant when he wrote these lines in his fine hymn From Whence This Fear and Unbelief?

“Payment God cannot twice demand,

First from my bleeding Surety’s hand,

And then again from mine.”

That would unbalance the scale. You would have twice the proper punishment for the crime, that which Christ endured and that which we then endured as well. Like it or not, this is the lex talionis, the law of appropriate punishment, the law that requires a balancing punishment, because that is what justice is! If justice is not that, pray tell what is it? Everyone in the world instinctively understands justice to be a balancing of crime and punishment. The cross was that equally balancing punishment and not just any cross, but the cross of the incarnate God! We may not be able to calculate the punishment due our sins – we hardly know what our sins are! – but God can and precisely. It is this same principle of the lex talionis that is the biblical justification for hell as the destiny of the unbelieving. The equivalent punishment of eternal hell was borne for us on the cross, not because Christ’s suffering lasted forever, but because of its dreadfulness and intensity, and supremely because of the nature, the dignity, the purity, and the majesty of the divine person who endured it in our place as a man.  [Cf. Garry Williams, “Punishment God Cannot Twice Inflict,” From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, 497]

So we may be reading about the proper punishment of crimes in Leviticus 24, but we are also being taught what justice is, that very justice that stands between us and forgiveness, between us and eternal life, unless our sins should be compensated for by an equivalent punishment. Any true Christian knows very well, as it were by a spiritual instinct, that the cross of Jesus Christ was such a fit and appropriate punishment; the very punishment our sins deserved, and that justice – pure justice, a perfect balance of crime and punishment — was accomplished on that cross for our sakes. We learn what justice is there, the cross of Jesus Christ is the greatest demonstration in history of what justice is. But we’ve already had the concept defined for us here in Leviticus 24.