How an Eye for an Eye Explains Jesus on Remarriage

August 22, 2017 at 11:57 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

One of the most misunderstood statements of Jesus is this. Matthew 5:38-39: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”

Occasionally you will hear people interpret “turn the other cheek” as a nullification of “an eye for an eye”. The gnostic (or semi-gnostic) position is that an eye for an eye is a cruel concept of a vengeful Hebrew God, that Jesus came to change.

However, this ignores that only a few verses prior, Jesus spelled out the hermeneutic or means to interpret his sermons and his life. In Matthew 5:17-18, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” 2 Peter 3:10 would further clarify this refers to an end of the world at least as apocalyptic as a nuclear apocalypse where the whole earth is burned with fire.

There are multiple attempts to redefine this, but in context to his audience, the most central interpretation is that Jesus is not altering the law, he is giving additional insightful applications of the law that his disciples must follow.

An “eye for an eye” was neither vengeful, nor part of the application of revenge. The Pharisees of Jesus time already had the correct interpretation, and so he did not correct them on it. The Biblical concept of the lex talonis was understood not merely as a limit to stop vengeance, but as the value of an eye for the value of an eye. Therefore, monetary compensation for injury was already well accepted by the Pharisees. Instead of Jesus correcting them he lays a principle of an edge case.

When Jesus commands his followers to turn the other cheek, he is addressing something just beyond the edge of the eye for an eye principle and keeping them from extrapolating it too far and incorrectly. In an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth, those are cases of permanent physical injuries that will not grow back. A slap on the cheek, whether literal or metaphorical as a verbal insult does not cause permanent injury. Jesus commands his followers in this de minimis case not covered by an eye for an eye to err on tolerance and not attempt to demand compensation. Thus, Jesus fulfills and completes the law by explaining edge cases, not by replacing universal principles of restitutionary justice found in the Law.

Then within the same sermon, with the same explicit rule of interpretation already given note one of the most historically challenging to Christians, where Jesus takes the hard line on marriage against the School of Hillel and with the School of Shammai. But most confusing to many sincere Christians was Jesus statement, in Matthew 5:32, “whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” As commonly understood by many Christians, this seems to be an actual change verses the Torah which specifically allowed most remarriage. So is this merely an edge case?

However, if we acknowledge Jesus’ prefatory rule of interpretation, then reread the relevant marriage, divorce and remarriage rules in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. In context of Jesus’ rule of interpretation, note that inappropriate remarriage becomes the biggest issue in Deuteronomy, with a particular case as the only one very specifically pointed out as a horrible abomination. This is the special case of remarriage to a former wife after she has become another man’s wife.

Given that as a central context of Jesus’ rules, and that Jesus isn’t changing the law, then a primary difficulty of understanding Jesus can be cleared up. Jesus is not referring to any conceivable “whoever” in Matt. 5:32, he is referring to the specific antecedent “whoever” in Deuteronomy 24:3-4. A man cannot remarry a wife whom he divorced after she had then married another man.

This also shows why Jesus is not just siding with Shammai, he is explaining why Shammai is right about divorce requiring a major (sexual) transgression to be justified. It is this: If divorce for a trivial reason was acceptable, then it would not be such a horrible abomination to remarry a wife after such a trivial transgression. Thus Hillel is proven wrong about trivial divorce because Hillel’s position cannot explain remarriage to the same wife as such an abomination if the justification of divorce were a trivial fault.

Christians who failed to acknowledge the hermeneutic of Jesus have fallen into two or three camps: Those who take a simple and straightforward but Torah-ignorant meaning here, to prohibit any remarriage like Catholics, or those who cite other passages in the New Testament to clarify a few additional cases of allowed remarriage, or finally those who give up and assume it as an intended ideal not always met.

Similarly, those without Jesus’ hermeneutic have misunderstood how far to extrapolate “turn the other cheek,” and so wrongly think they must refuse to pursue compensation for permanent injury contrary to the restitutionary justice of “an eye for an eye.” Neither error would exist for any well thought out exposition of Jesus’ stance on the Law of Moses.

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