The Law of Retaliation

June 10, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


"Saul Tries to Kill David" by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld, 1850's, Wikimedia Commons

“Saul Tries to Kill David” by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld, 1850’s, Wikimedia Commons

This past weekend in worship and ABC, we discussed the importance of friendship.  Every person needs a friend for encouragement, for challenge, and for consolation. In the words of Proverbs 17:17:  “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”  For good times and for bad, everyone needs a friend.

Perhaps the most famous example of friendship in the Bible is that of David and Jonathan.  These two guys far more than just bar buddies.  1 Samuel 18:1 describes their relationship like this:  “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David.”

Though David and Jonathan’s friendship was strong, it was also fraught with peril.  Jonathan’s dad, Saul, the king of Israel, hated David and wanted to kill him.  But Jonathan was so deeply devoted to his friend that he went to bat for him, telling his father:

“Let not the king sin against his servant David, because he has not sinned against you, and because his deeds have brought good to you.  For he took his life in his hand and he struck down the Philistine, and the LORD worked a great salvation for all Israel. You saw it, and rejoiced. Why then will you sin against innocent blood by killing David without cause?” (1 Samuel 19:4-5)

In my sermon, I talked about how Jonathan, in order to defend his friend, appeals to the lex talionis, a Latin phrase referring to the “law of retaliation.”  This law is classically expressed in Leviticus 24:19-20:  “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.”  This law, of course, is not meant to promote violence, but to contain it.  The lex talionis stipulates that “the punishment must fit the crime.”  If someone takes your eye, you can’t take his arm.  The example I used in my sermon is, “If someone steals $100 from you, you can’t sue him for $1 million because of emotional pain and suffering.”

The way Jonathan uses the lex talionis in 1 Samuel 19 is especially fascinating.  For rather than appealing to the lex talionis responsively to punish a crime, he appeals to it preemptively to prevent a crime.  Jonathan’s essential argument to his father is this:  “You can’t kill David!  The law of retaliation says you can only hurt someone if he first hurts you!  And David hasn’t hurt you!”

I have gained a deep appreciation for Jonathan’s argument to his father because Jonathan essentially turns the lex talionis into a catch 22.  You can hurt someone, but only if he hurts you first.  Someone else can hurt you, but only if you hurt him first.  This means no one can hurt anyone because no one can make the first move to hurt someone because, by sheer chronological necessity, there would be no prior just cause for such an injury, thus breaking the lex talionis!  Far more than regulating violence, the lex talionis prevents it.

This use of the lex talionis is nicely in line with Jesus’ commentary on the rule:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39).  Jesus essentially says, “Even if you are unjustly wounded, never give anyone a reason to use the lex talionis on you.  Self-control, even in the midst of terrible adversity, is paramount.  If you don’t hurt someone else, then that other person has no ground on which to stand if he hurts you.”

What tensions and quarrels do you have with others?  The best way to end them is to refuse to give the person with whom you are in conflict any reason to retaliate.  Your cool and collected response to someone who is angry may just be what diffuses a fight, ends a conflict, and restores a friendship.

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