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The tradition of the Mosaic Law was a “one for one” retribution. In legal terms, this is known as lex talonis (law according to kind). A similar principle appears in the Code of Hammurabi, although Quarles points out lex talonis only applied to persons of the same social standing. Quarles, Sermon, 145. The Torah ideally applied to all people regardless of social standing, but it seems obvious from the prophetic books the poor did not receive the same justice as the wealthy.

Between the fall and the flood, there was no law and people sought justice through unparalleled blood vengeance. For example, Genesis4:23-24 implies vengeance could be ten-fold. After the flood God instituted human government to control anarchy and capital punishment for murder.

The Mosaic Law used the principle of compensation for a loss, using the phrase “eye for an eye” (Exod 21:23-24; Lev 24:19-20; Deut 19:21). Although it sounds harsh, the goal of this legal principle was to prevent excessive penalties and uncontrolled vengeance (Pennington, Sermon, 197) but also excessive leniency for the wealthy or powerful (“you must not show pity”) (Quarles, Sermon, 145). It was possible for a wealthy, elite person to demand a harsh penalty against a poor person, or for a wealthy person to avoid a harsh penalty because of their status in the society. “Eye for an eye” insures all people are treated fairly in the legal system.

By the time of Jesus, the “eye for an eye” principle was expanded to include monetary compensation for loses (Josephus, Ant. 4.8.35, §280). If someone was injured they had a legal right to monetary compensation from the one who injured them. This is probably the most basic sense of morality humans share. If someone harms you, you have a right to get “pay back.” Nobody teaches children to behave this way, yet when children argue they follow this principle. If someone does it to me, it is therefore right for me to do it back to them.

Even though “eye for an eye” was a legal principle, total retaliation was not common in Second Temple Judaism. In fact, there are many examples of Second Temple texts which recommend forgiveness and living in harmony with outsiders. Consider Sirach 28:1-8, for example. God is the one who keeps accounts of wrongs, therefore the wise person forgives their neighbor and does not harbor anger toward someone who does them wrong.

Sirach 28:1–8 (NRSV) The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance, for he keeps a strict account of their sins. 2 Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. 3 Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? 4 If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins? 5 If a mere mortal harbors wrath, who will make an atoning sacrifice for his sins? 6 Remember the end of your life, and set enmity aside; remember corruption and death, and be true to the commandments. 7 Remember the commandments, and do not be angry with your neighbor; remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook faults. 8 Refrain from strife, and your sins will be fewer; for the hot-tempered kindle strife.

Although the date of 2 Enoch is uncertain, the writer of the book expresses a similar view. Since God will provide justice on the Day of Judgment, the wise person ought to live in “peace and harmony.”

2 Enoch 50:2-6 Now therefore, my children, live in patience and meekness for the number of your days, so that you may inherit the endless age that is coming. 3 ‹And› every assault and every wound and burn and every evil word, 4if they happen to you on account of the Lord, endure them; and, being able to pay them back, do not repay them to ‹your› neighbor, because it is the Lord who repays, and he will be the avenger for you on the day of the great judgment. 5 Lose gold and silver for your brother, so that you may receive a treasure (not) according to flesh on the day of judgment. 6‹And› stretch out your hands to the orphan and to the windows, and according to (your) strength help the wretched, and they will be like a shelter at the time of the test.

This principle of non-retaliation was part of the oath made by the Qumran community. Once again, the wise person does not cling “sustain anger” with unjust people, but they await God to judge them on the “day of vengeance.”

1QS 10.19-21 I {shall not sustain angry resentment for those who convert} /shall not be involved/ in any dispute with the men of the pit /until the day/ of vengeance. However, my anger I shall not remove from unjust men, nor shall I be appeased, until he carries out his judgment. I shall not sustain angry resentment for those who convert from iniquity, but I shall have no mercy or all those who deviate from the path. I shall not comfort the oppressed until their path is perfect. I shall not retain Belial within my heart.

This is also Paul’s view in Romans 12. In verse 16 he tells his readers to live in harmony with one another and in verse 19 he says “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”

As with the other examples from the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus wants his disciples to reflect the heart of God revealed in the Law. Rather than seek revenge for perceived damages, Jesus’s people ought to set aside their rights in order to serve one another in humility. Jesus himself is the best example of setting aside rights to serve. In John13 he humbly serves his disciples by washing their feet in order to demonstrate how they ought to serve one another. In Mark 10:45 Jesus says he did not come to be served, but to serve others by giving his life as a ransom for many.

How should we push “setting aside one’s rights”? Can a Christian live out this principle as they play sports? Does this apply to Christians bringing lawsuits against one another? Against no-Christians? Does this apply only to interpersonal relationships, or does it extend to business ethics? How does one “do business” and live out the ideal of non-retaliation?

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Christian Theology

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