So back to “an eye for an eye”, this week it is Deuteronomy 19: 21 under the microscope. It reads as follows, (*ahem) “ And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot”. At first glance, again it seems as if I am to indulge in the art of retaliation but looking at the big picture, I can see that the chapter covers “Cities of refuge for murders” and “Laws about Witnesses” (it is labeled in my Bible). Verse twenty-one, the last verse of the chapter, is the one in question and falls under “Laws about witnesses” but there is a worthwhile connection to “Cities of refuge for murders” which I will mention later.
I used the NIV version as a parallel to clarify in plain terms what is going on. I separated the law into three parts:
- One witness is not enough to accuse someone of a crime, there must be two or more to establish an incident.
- If the witness is suspected of lying, both the accused and accuser will stand trial and the matter is to be investigated.
- If the witness is found to have given false testimony, whatever he intended to do to the accused will be done to him to purge the evil from among you.
Everyone else is to learn from this (then eye for eye etc.). So in this case, in addition to doling out an appropriate punishment, the punishment is meant as a cleansing tool to excise the evil from the community (which is what we do now with jail and whatnot).
“An eye for an eye” is not a license to retaliate; however, there are specific circumstances found in the previous verses (“Cities of refuge for murders”) that give more detail:
- If someone murdered someone else without malice aforethought (premeditation) and harbored no ill will toward the victim (like if the head of you axe flies off and kills someone while you are chopping wood as the biblical example says), the murderer was to be allowed to escape to one of three cities to put distance between him and any potential avengers (I am not talking about Thor here folks)
- If someone commits premeditated murder and flees to one of these cities of refuge, the town elders are to retrieve him and deliver him to the avenger to die.
The purpose was, again, to purge the evil of those who shed innocent blood. There was to be no pity for those who shed innocent blood.
Some may ask, “Why did God allow people to kill others, even if to purge evil? What happened to thou shall not kill?” Remember that back during the BC time, there were purification rituals, which were performed to remove one’s sins. In short, it was basically an “every man for himself” situation where if you sinned, you had to transfer your sins to a perfect lamb (via touch) and then slaughtered and offered as a sacrifice to God as a substitute for oneself. After Jesus died for all of our sins (as the sacrificial lamb) we no longer had to perform the ritual but still atone and ask forgiveness (I did not do a good job at connecting those things but I wanted to mention it). Yes God could have easily snuffed whomever he wanted without human involvement but I believe he was trying to teach his people something. Not only was it a test of obedience, it may have been that he wanted us (I am saying “us” now but referring to Israel back then) to feel the atrocity of taking a life so we would know just how terrible it was and be less inclined to take life for granted and take another’s so easily. Most important, it was an act of love. God did not want his people to be tainted by sin, so those who committed grave sins had to be eradicated for the spiritual safety of the whole. Imagine God having watched Adam and Eve brought to ruin with the aid of some outside force and watching that same thing happen to his people over and over again.
Of course this is just what I see from a little reading and studying on my own but it only reaffirms to me that I serve a loving God, though I may not always understand his actions. Deuteronomy 19:21, in context, is yet another verse that dispels the notion that “an eye for an eye” was meant to be a simple justification for retaliation. Next time Matthew 5:38! Good stuff!