For Bible Study Nerds

For Bible Study Nerds

Matthew 5:38-42; An Eye for an Eye (Historical Backgrounds)

posted by Mike Nappa

The legal for basis for lex talionis (“law of retaliation”) that Jesus referred to in Matthew 5:38 was well established in Jewish history and in the Law of Moses.

The “eye for an eye” concept first appeared in Genesis 9:6, just after the Great Flood when God told Noah, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.” It was more clearly spelled out in Exodus 21:22-24 as the judicial penalty for one who caused serious injury to a pregnant woman and/or her unborn child. Leviticus 24:19-20 expanded the judicial scope of both Genesis 9:6 and Exodus 21:22-24 to include “Anyone who injures their neighbor.” And Deuteronomy 19:21 added that even the intent to injure (through the means of bearing false witness) was worthy of lex talionis, while also indicating that it was intended as a deterrent to violent crime.

Interestingly, this seemingly-primitive law of physical retaliation was actually quite progressive for its time and even well into Jesus’ day. Jewish theologians tell us that lex talionis “had the important function of limiting private revenge, especially family or tribal feuds. Further, the Torah treats injuries to rich and poor, male and female, completely alike.”

It’s also significant to note that, despite it Scriptural and historical endorsement, the Bible doesn’t record a single instance in which someone was actually maimed or blinded under the justification of lex talionis. Why? Legal and religious authorities in ancient Israeli interpreted talionis as meaning that “financial compensation, and not literal, physical talion, was the intent of the law.” Thus in common practice, “compensation [was] scaled to the degree of the injury: the value of an eye for the loss of an eye, the value of a limb for its loss, and so forth.” To that end, Jewish law had encoded “detailed stipulations for monetary compensation, much as modern insurance contracts are wont to do.”

 

Works Cited:

[BKC, 31; TOR, 571-572]

 

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Matthew 5:33-37; Oaths (Symbolism)

posted by Mike Nappa

Matthew 5:35 quotes Jesus as reaffirming the declaration of Isaiah 66:1, saying very plainly that the earth is God’s “footstool.” But what does that mean exactly?

In Old Testament usage, the concept of “footstool” or “under the feet” carried a few important meanings. First was the assumption of ownership or full possession of whatever was “under the feet.” An example of this is found in Deuteronomy 11:24 where God promised the Israelites that, “Every place where you set your foot will be yours.”

Second, and similar to the idea of possession, was the assumption of absolute dominion or rule over whatever was “under the feet.” One Ancient Egyptian drawing illustrates this concept in a casually-cruel way: It shows a child Pharaoh sitting on his nurse’s lap. His feet rest firmly on the heads of bound and groveling enemies. They are a literal footstool of conquered foes over whom he now exercises complete dominion.

The idea of the earth being God’s footstool is not as cruel as the Egyptian imagery, but Jesus’ meaning here appears to be much the same. God is Lord of all, period. He not only created our earth—he possesses every inch of it. And what’s more, he is complete and total master over our world and everything in it. Therefore using his earth—or anything he possesses, including our own heads—as a pretext for frivolous oaths is both presumptuous and offensive.

 

Works Cited:

[DBI, 906]

 

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Matthew 5:33-37; Oaths (Cultural Commentary)

posted by Mike Nappa

In ancient Israel, an oath was both a ritual act and a binding promise.

Oaths were invoked in court cases to (supposedly) ensure that witnesses would tell the truth. They were also given as proof of an unbreakable pledge of loyalty, or as a guarantee that a person would fulfill some obligation being incurred (such as a promise to repay a loan).

People swore oaths by that which was valuable to them, such as families or personal wealth and security, and even their own lives (swearing “by my head”). The assumption was that failure to keep such an oath would either bring shame or personal loss. The highest, most binding ritual oath was one that brought God into the transaction because, it was assumed that God himself would inflict a curse upon any who failed to fulfill an oath made in his name.

By the time of Jesus, though, the Pharisees had used an array of semantics to skillfully excuse themselves from the duty to keep most oaths.

In much the same ways that disreputable lawyers today appeal to the “fine print” to get out of obvious obligations, Pharisees were experts at dissecting the oath ritual in order to find loopholes that justified their dishonest promises. For instance, in their reasoning, an oath sworn “by the temple!” in Jerusalem could be considered frivolous and assumed to mean nothing. A promise made “by the gold of the temple,” however, was binding and failure to fulfill that would incur punishment. (See Matthew 23:16)

When Jesus preached against making oaths in Matthew 5:33-37, he was also indicting this kind of Pharisaical hypocrisy—and calling all God followers to a higher standard of authenticity and integrity. As one theologian describes it, “Christ teaches that form is irrelevant…In the fellowship of honest people, a person’s word is as binding as a sacred oath.”

 

Works Cited:

[HBD, 716; RBD, 742-743]

 

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Matthew 5:33-37; Oaths (Bible Difficulties)

posted by Mike Nappa

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made…’”

In case you’re wondering, Jesus wasn’t quoting the Old Testament when he said that. At least not exactly.

Bible scholars think that this point in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount was instead a kind of colloquial summary of several Scriptures, lumped into a saying that Jesus’ hearers already recognized (i.e., “You have heard…”). The first part of his statement might have been a reference to the command of Leviticus 19:12, “Do not swear falsely by my name…” The second part is less obvious, but probably related to Psalm 50:14, “Sacrifice thank offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High.”

In light of this “creative paraphrasing” of Scripture, some question why Jesus opted to misquote the Old Testament here. Did he simply forget the exact phrasing? Was he unconcerned about textual accuracy, or implying that the original language was unreliable? Was he not quoting Scripture at all, but referencing some other source instead?

Given the context of his broader teaching here, that last option seems most likely. It’s very possible his phrasing quoted familiar rabbinical teachings rather than the Bible itself. That choice highlighted for listeners, at least subtly, how extra-biblical traditions had become so prevalent and revered they were often regarded on par with God’s Word—and used in place of the actual words of Scripture.

In essence, by quoting what his audience had been taught instead of what was accurate according to Old Testament texts, he may have been suggesting to his listeners, “What you’ve heard all your lives—and the way you’ve heard it—isn’t exactly what is true.”

Similar to religious leaders of ancient Israel, we modern Christians have had copious amounts of teaching between Jesus’ time and ours. One has to wonder where we too are susceptible to allowing our familiar, accepted traditions to overshadow God’s original truth.

Works Cited:

[BKB, 117]

 

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About: For Bible Study Nerds™

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