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An Eye for an Eye

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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“[A]n eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, . . .”

Exodus 21:24

Exodus 21 contains one of the most familiar phrases in the whole Bible: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (21:24). Often called the Lex Talionis (Latin for “law of the tooth”), this passage establishes a principal of proportionality in the assignment of punishments and compensations. As we might say, the punishment should fit the crime.

We must exercise caution in our interpretation of the Lex Talionis. Literally, it seems to suggest, for example, that if somebody steals with his hand, then that person should have his hand cut off. But this was not the practice of ancient Israel, which understood the Lex Talionis to address questions of compensation for crime. If someone stole a cow from somebody else, for example, the thief needed to return the cow or something of like value. In a day when lawsuits often lead to exorbitant compensations, it’s easy to appreciate the benefit of the Lex Talionis as it was intended in the Torah.

For me, one of the most challenging contexts for exercising proportionality is in disciplining my children. I find that sometimes my desire for them to like me keeps me from holding them accountable for their actions. At other times, however, my anger can lead me to injudicious punishments that I later have to retract. It is essential for parents and others who care for children to learn to establish “logical consequences” for negative behavior, so that children can learn how best to live.

In tomorrow’s reflection, I will consider how Jesus teaches us to think about the Lex Talionis.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: Have you ever been the victim of disproportionate punishment? When? How did that affect you? In relationships where you are in authority over people, what helps you to exercise fairness and proportionality?

PRAYER: Dear Lord, today I want to ask for wisdom when I need to discipline my children. Help me to be wise in my response to their misbehavior. May I be neither too harsh nor too lenient. Keep me from disciplining them when my anger clouds my vision. Help me to require of them that which will help them grow as mature human beings and as your disciples.

I pray today for all who care for children: for parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, childcare workers, babysitters, playground supervisors, camp counselors, and others. Help them to exercise proportionality in their discipline. May those who have a tendency to harshness and cruelty see the error of their ways and get help. Amen.

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