Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hey, that's my eye!

I was asked once how to interpret that crazy old biblical injuction to take an eye for an eye.

If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth . . .

I think the implication was something like this: "That's not really what it means, is it?" Well, I think it is. Here are some things to consider.

1. Context
Here's that passage in full. Notice that its purpose and emphasis is much more than just "revenge gougings". It's about justice. It's about making sure that no one thinks evil actions with disastrous results are just something you do for fun. It is not about accidents, but about the community's response to malicious attacks.

Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal's life shall make it good, life for life. 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. (Leviticus 24:17-20 ESV)

2. Justice
To understand this law, we first have to rid ourselves of any false notions that justice involves any tolerance at all for evil. The true definition of justice is full & right payment for wrongs done. In the most literally accurate sense of the word, the most just response to someone willfully removing my eye is that I remove theirs.

3. From an age before Grace
Keep in mind that this is an Old Testament precept (and one that is actually forbidden in the New). In that age, God was the same, but dealt with people in a different way. It was an age, culture, etc we would hardly recognize now. In those days, the idea that someone should be treated with special kindness because (for example) they had a hard childhood was absurd. Humans had not yet received forgiving mercy from God (the originator and giver of all things), so they did not yet know to extend it to one another. This was an age when conquering armies cut open pregnant woman and smashed toddlers against rocks like we do rugs. That's how innocents were treated. What seems barbaric to us now was actually tame to people then.

4. Limitation
Many scholars believe this was actually a regulation of mercy, since the normal form of retribution was "death for everything". You poke out my eye, I kill you. You break my arm, I kill you. Etc. This kind of limitation was revolutionary at the time. It basically said, "You can't do anything worse to me in the name of justice than I did to you." This idea is pretty obvious now, but that was then.

5. Deterrent
Think about it. Wouldn't you rather someone think twice really hard before walking by and knocking your teeth out with a big stick? Many say that punishment is not a deterrent - that if someone's going to do something wrong, they're just going to do it. But I beg to differ. The ideal of rehabilitation aside, our current deterrent system (prison) is exactly the same concept with a different public face. And in my opinion, the visceral reality of the expected punishment (creating at least subconscious sympathy with the intended victim) in an eye-for-an-eye world is much more deterring than the abstract possibility of incarceration could ever be.