Lex Talionis | Lex Talionis


“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” – Code of Hammurabi.

A frequent criticism of the Bible is the presence and even the apology of violence. While this review fails to appreciate the need to distinguish between what is in the Bible and what the Bible teaches, there is no denying that the ancient world was a violent place. One of the concepts underlying violence in the ancient world was the principle of lex talionis.

In this article, I will endeavor to discuss this ancient law of retribution and how the biblical story involves God’s efforts to ameliorate man’s violent tendencies, culminating ultimately in Christ and the message of God. Gospel.

An eye for an eye

Some three hundred years before the book of Genesis was written, the Code of Hammurabi codified the laws of ancient Babylon. The code provided for – among other things – a kind of retributive justice. The principle underlying retributive justice is called lex talionis or “talion law”. For example, part of Hammurabi’s code reads: “If a man has caused a man of high rank to lose an eye, one of his own eyes must be scratched out.” If he broke the limb of a man of rank, let his own limb be broken. If he broke the tooth of a man of rank, his tooth must be broken.

A very similar concept is articulated in the Bible. In Exodus 21:23, the Israelites were instructed to “give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot”. For the purposes of this work, I will focus on the biblical understanding of the lex talionis. If this verse is understood in isolation, it seems to advocate violence. However, taken in the larger context of a violent ancient world, the lex talionis actually sought to limit the acts permitted to achieve justice. Thus, while it is difficult for a modern Westerner to accept the legitimacy of the lex talionis, it was in fact a moderation of the more violent versions of revenge and justice.

Adopting a canonical view of the Bible (interpreting the Old Testament in the light of Christ), God’s imposition of the lex talionis may have been an effort to “steer” the Israelites away from even more violent practices. In the time of the prophet Isaiah, this “mitigation” or moderation of the violence of human beings is clearly present. God is emphatic when He tells the Israelites, “Your hands are full of blood. Wash yourself properly! Remove your misdeeds from before my eyes; stop doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your goal: repair the wronged, listen to the call of the orphan, defend the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17).

Ultimately, what underlies the lex talionis and God’s efforts to detach human beings from their violent tendencies is the assumption that the effects of original sin damaged human nature. The damage done cannot be repaired by damaged human beings. Only a Savior can bring human beings back to their original state. This is the Gospel message.

turn the cheek

Two events involving Christ described in the New Testament will illuminate our understanding of violence in relation to the Kingdom of God.

The first event is described in Matthew 5:38-39 and is a direct refutation of the lex talionis. “You have heard that it has been said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, offer no resistance to the evil one. When someone strikes you on the right cheek, also offer him the other. Initially, this appears to be unduly passive. However, to fully understand Christ’s command, we must place it in the context of first-century Jewish culture.

The key to understanding the passage is understanding the meaning of the hand used to strike someone. In the ancient Near East, when one sought to assert dominance over someone who was of lower rank, one struck the opponent with the right hand on the right cheek – essentially backhanding someone. ‘a. If the one being touched turned the other cheek, the aggressor had a choice: to strike with the left hand, which was considered unclean, or to strike the left cheek with the right hand – which was considered an act of equality and recognition of a common humanity. .

Thus, when Christ’s command to turn the cheek is placed in its proper context, we see that the violence perpetrated must be “reflected” upon the one who commits the violence. The assailant either engages in an impure act (in accordance with Jewish tradition) or admits that the person he strikes is his equal. Since one cannot oppress one’s equals, turning up one’s cheek can be understood as a non-violent act against oppression.

The second event that I think will illuminate the Christian understanding of lex talionis and violence is contained in the beatitudes. Jesus informs us: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9). To be blessed is to be happy; it is the highest goal of human nature. To be a peacemaker, to be a Catholic, is to be someone who, through grace, imitates Jesus by bringing reconciliation to others by giving himself. Those who do are true children of God and show us the way to true happiness.


Due to the effects of original sin, human beings tend to violence. It is no coincidence that the first act described in the Bible after the Fall is murder. Despite this propensity, or perhaps because of it, ancient civilizations developed the principle of lex talionis.

However, by taking a broad and canonical approach to biblical interpretation, it becomes clear that God has sought to steer human beings away from their violent propensities. Seen in this light, the lex talionis can be seen as a first step towards modifying our violent tendencies. From the Catholic perspective, however, it is only in the teachings of Christ that these efforts to deter human beings from violence find their fulfillment.

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