"An Eye for an Eye, With a Rock Through the Head as Well"

The “eye for an eye” proverb (Exod 21:24) sought to curb feuding in a violent world of honor-shame. The problem is that it escalated conflict in the name of limiting it, more often than not leading to “a rock through the head as well”, as I like to think of it. Jesus saw this hidden contradiction and counseled turning the other cheek (Mt 5:38-39) to break the cycle of violence.

Turning the other cheek is one of the many so-called “antitheses” from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The sermon-antitheses (Mt 5:28-42) served the same function as the Ten Commandments and other parts of the Torah. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh should be cited at length:

“The purpose of the Ten Commandments, historically, was to prevent feuding and thereby to halt internally generated group annihilation. Honor-shame societies are agonistic (conflict) societies; hence challenges within a group can escalate and actually lead to such annihilation… What the scenes described in the antitheses [of Mt 5:21-48] offer is a way out of the honor-shame impasse that requires taking satisfaction. If repentance, reconciliation, generosity, or the intervention of third parties exist, feuding rooted in the defense of honor need not mar the social landscape of the Jesus faction… Given the situation-based quality of Mediterranean moral sanctions, it is doubtful that such strategies involved the inward, psychological healing that U.S. persons imagine. But they would provide freedom from the in-group feuding that is pervasive in agonistic societies.” (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd edition, pp 43-45)

The Torah and Sermon both addressed feuding and violence, though Jesus one-upped Moses either by intensifying prohibitions internally or reversing those that backfired. Intensifications like “do not get angry” and “do not lust” took the law a step further in the way prophets like Jeremiah urged: if you don’t get angry, you will less likely murder; if you don’t lust, you will less likely commit adultery; etc. But reversals like “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” turned the law or cultural norms upside down. These reversals foster a misleading perception that Jesus was somehow against the system of honor-shame, but that’s not true. Malina and Rohrbaugh continue:

“It is important to understand, however, that Jesus does not call the system of honor itself into question. He does redefine the quality of behaviors deemed worthy of honor and thereby offers a new assessment that leads to a reversal of values or worth. But the social-psychological pattern of claiming worth (honor) and having other persons second that claim remains intact… What is called into question is the way in which the honor system is made to work, and the way it is made to fuel feud-based satisfaction.” (p 45)

Indeed, if Jesus thought conflict should be avoided physically, he loved escalating it verbally, as much as any macho man of his time. When confronted by adversaries like priests and Pharisees, he never responded directly to their questions (answering questions is a sign of shame and defeat in agonistic cultures), preferring to “burn” them with counter-questions, counter-accusations, scriptural one-upsmanship, and nasty insults.

Jesus was an honor-shame man to the core. The question was what constituted honorable behavior. Just as peasants operated out of a different code than elites (to peasants, for instance, wealth was dishonorable thievery; to elties it was a sign of honor), so Jesus operated out of an honor-shame code particular to him and his followers. The Sermon on the Mount invoked elements which would later find a home in integrity-guilt cultures, but Jesus favored these elements for different reasons. We “love enemies” and avoid vengeance (or try to) for the sake of integrity and inner peace — because it’s the morally superior thing to do, regardless of what others might think. Jesus advocated doing so to prevent group annihilation. “An eye for an eye” wasn’t honorable in the long run (in his view), because it was self-destructive.

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2 thoughts on “"An Eye for an Eye, With a Rock Through the Head as Well"

  1. Good and interesting stuff, Loren, though I would make one qualification. When you say ‘But reversals like “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” turned the law or cultural norms upside down’, I’m not so sure. The dominant view (at least in the sources available to us) is the non-violent interpretation of eye for and eye. The earliest rabbis go out of their way to make it clear that this must be the interpretation and the violent one must be rejected. Likewise, loving enemies is also known. So while I agree with what you say as a whole I would qualify the radical nature of Jesus’ sayings in relation to his cultural context.

  2. Thanks for this, James.<>The dominant view (at least in the sources available to us) is the non-violent interpretation of eye for and eye. The earliest rabbis go out of their way to make it clear that this must be the interpretation and the violent one must be rejected. Likewise, loving enemies is also known.<>That’s why I was careful to stress the law <>or<> cultural norms. The latter often trumps the former. Regardless of how Exod 21:24 was “officially” interpreted, in shame-based cultures violence escalates and gets out of control all the time. So a teacher like Jesus goes even better than the rabbis and reverses the saying altogether.The case of “loving enemies” is even more to the point. Jesus isn’t reversing a Torah statement here (the law, as you note, doesn’t teach hatred of enemies) but he is reversing a cultural norm — a norm that dominates regardless of what the law says.

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