I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Lex Talion

There is in Scripture a principle of justice know by the old Latin term lex talionis. Roughly, this means a law or principle of retribution; that the punishment is commensurate to the crime committed. More specifically, it is associated with the five occurrences of the variously stated “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” et cetera. Far from the modern critic’s appraisal that this law is indicative of our primitive, barbarous past, the lex talion insured that the penalty did not exceed that which the injurious act warranted.

This principle, I argue, is that which underlies all of God’s judgment on the children of men. It is not some mere, impersonal law knitted into the fabric of nature or the like, such as assumed in Eastern Mystic philosophies. Contrarily, the lex talion is part and parcel of the living God’s attribute of justice—perfect justice. And as one aspect of his holy nature, the lex talion is a reflection of his perfection.

We should not fail to look beyond the specificity of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” to the rounded nature of the law in principled instances. For example, Paul’s warning, which has been engrafted into common English parlance, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Gal 6:7), is based upon this same principle of God’s justice and judgment. Likewise, from beginning to end, there is the cautioning all throughout Scripture that God has, does and will judge and recompense every one according to their deeds or works.

This means, on the one hand, that God sees to it that the punishment will correspond qualitatively to the crime; that is, the degree of punishment will meet the offence. But it also means, on the other hand, that the kind of punishment one (individually or collectively) receives corresponds in similitude and likeness to the offence. As Paul said, “what” one sows is precisely also “that” which he reaps. Perhaps a couple of examples from Scripture would be helpful to elucidate this latter sense of the principle, the similitude or likeness of the punishment to the crime.

Think of the exodus story, Pharaoh’s war against Yahweh and his Seed, for instance. It opens with allusive statements of Israel, according to Yahweh’s promise (Gen 17:1f), as a corporate Adam, fulfilling Gen 1:28. “But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Ex 1:7). In response, Pharaoh and Egypt were terrified of Israel’s growing strength, and so Pharaoh tried first to “afflict them with heavy burdens.’ This foil, however, failed his purposes; Israel grew all the stronger under his oppressive hand (vv. 9—12). This is all too true to Israel’s surrogate name, Ephraim, meaning, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (Gen 41:52). Just another felix culpa, a fortunate fall in Israel’s history.

Having seen that plan-A had not met the growing challenge, Pharaoh attempted to thwart the purposes of Yahweh with a plan-B—kill the firstborn of Israel (1:15ff). From here follows the terrors and horrors that Yahweh brought upon Pharaoh and Egypt with the first nine plagues. (Many understand each of the plagues to be a direct battle between the God of Israel and one of the many gods of the Egyptian pantheon, thus making each plague-judgment lex talionic in character: “You desire to worship and serve idols, then you’ll have more of them [through means of their imaged representatives, e.g., frogs] than you can handle.”). Each of these nine judgments, and the subsequent hardening of Pharaoh, is foreshadowing and anticipating one climactic judgment; one that would finally break Pharaoh’s relentless grip.

And what is that 10th and final judgment? Exactly what Pharaoh had decreed, only in recompense. Pharaoh’s evil plot was turned on his own head; he was clothed with his own devises as with a garment, to put it in psalteric terms. And so, the Destroyer came a snuffed the life of the firstborn of Egypt, just as Pharaoh had struggled to destroy the firstborn of Israel.

The section ends similar to how it began. The Egyptians are again in fear and dread of the people of Israel (12:33; cf. 1:12). Also again, the Egyptians burden the Israelites under heavy loads. This time, however, it was silver and gold jewelry and clothing, “Thus they spoiled the Egyptians” (12:35—36). God gave to Pharaoh just what he wanted, a dead son; the punishment was commensurate to the crime— in both quality and likeness.

Another case in point, in connection with the exodus, is that which lead to it. The patriarchs’ dealing treacherously with Joseph; and rather than kill him outright, they sell him into slavery in Egypt, “the land of his affliction.” We know how the rest goes.

Finally, we’ll look at a more experimental example of the lex talionis. There are numerous instances in Scripture were we find what one has called sensory organ malfunction language. This is usually, if not always, associated with idolatry. Perhaps this is nowhere more clearly stated than in Ps 115:4—8 (ESV), which reads,

Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but they do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throats.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust them.

Anyone interested in witnessing this theme fleshed out would do well to consult Dr. Gregory Beale’s recent work We Become What We Worship. Beale does a biblical theology of idolatry in Scripture, especially the lex talionic nature of becoming like the idol so cherished by the worshipper; they, like the idol, become deaf, mute, lifeless and “worthless.”

We’ll stop here for today, but I wanted to share this much now so as to provide a paradigm for future posts that will rest upon and assume the general observations above. There are literally hundreds of demonstrations of this principle in Scripture (believe me, I’ve been accumulating a list for about two years now). Thus, if 1) the lex talion is a reflection of God moral character and his justice, and 2) the principle underlies so many of God’s dealings with men and nations in Scripture, then we’d do well to understand this theme as much as possible, and make applications in our interpretation and experience.

Blessings to you on this glorious Lord’s Day!


  1. Beale's book grew out of an article he published in Vetus Testamentum entitles "Isaiah VI 9-13: A Retributive Taunt Against Idolatry." The article can be purchased here: http://www.jstor.org/pss/1519067 (or a person could just go to a seminary library).

  2. Old Geezer (I write that with as much respect as I can;), thanks for the kind word. Would love to hear your thoughts.

    Steve, thanks for the link. And as for the seminary library thing...I promise, I'll get there sooner or later. It's only been three plus years. Besides, have you seen my library?!? I remember you calling it bibliolatry or something like that.