I get quite disturbed when I see demonstrations outside U.S. prisons on the eve of executions with various groups of people who identify as Christians both opposing and supporting the death penalty. Something is out of whack about this. What troubles me most is when I see people who claim to be Christians showing their support for capital punishment by waving signs that say “an eye for an eye.” What disturbs me is not just that they are vocally in favor of the death penalty, which it seems to me every Christian should oppose on all kinds of grounds, but that they are using the Hebrew Bible to support their position. Much of what is in the Hebrew Bible is quite explicitly superseded by the Greek Bible. Using the Hebrew Bible to support a supposedly Christian position is a dubious practice at best, and, more often than not, is completely misguided.
Let’s begin quite simply with “an eye for an eye.” The original formulation comes from Exodus 21:23-25:
23 But if any harm follows, then you must take life for life,
24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
25 burning for burning, wound for wound, and bruise for bruise.
This is what we call retributive justice. There’s a simple air of fairness about it, but in light of my discussions here, especially of grace, we have to acknowledge that it falls short of Christian ideals. Grace trumps revenge. Unconditional love outweighs the simple desire to get even. Love and grace call forth higher ideals from us than old fashioned notions of the punishment fitting the crime. Jesus himself makes this clear in a passage in Matthew that is part of what is now conventionally known as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-39):
38 You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’
39 But I tell you, don’t resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.
If you follow the old retributive law you cannot be legally faulted. But Jesus is asking us to be much better than that. Simply put, if you demand an eye for an eye you are not following Jesus. You cannot stick to Hebrew Bible codes of conduct and claim to be a Christian. Evangelical “Christians” often miss this key point.
Let me not be misunderstood here, though. I do not believe that Jesus preached the abandonment of the Law of the Hebrew Bible whatsoever. If anything, his interpretation of the Law at times was more stringent than that of any strict legalist. Nor do I believe that the old Law, as such, was entirely wrongheaded. People need guidelines. The main point is that Jesus put a new set of guidelines in place, and if we insist on going back to the old ones we are also turning our backs on Jesus.
One way to think about the progression from the principles of the Hebrew Bible to those of the Greek Bible is in terms of a maturing or a deepening of spiritual vision. The old Law is largely fair and even handed, it spells out rights and wrongs in excruciating detail, and it strives towards creating and maintaining a society that functions well. To some extent it is a hodge-podge of regulations put together over time. It can, at one and the same time, be extremely harsh and tenderly humane. It suits the legalistic and moralistic mind, yet it has a soft center.
The Law’s high degree of specificity makes it an example of what the anthropologist, and one of my spiritual mentors, Gregory Bateson calls Learning I. It is like a complex dictionary of right and wrong. When a situation occurs and you don’t know how to deal with it, you look it up in the Law, where, it is to be hoped, some guidance will be available to you. So, for example, the law tells me what the penalty is if I am fighting with another man and in the process injure a pregnant woman so she gives birth prematurely, but the baby is fine (Exodus 21:22). Learning I is an entirely mechanistic process without any thinking involved. The model is mindless rote learning. Under Learning I you painstakingly memorize the fact that a carnivore is an animal that eats meat, that a herbivore eats vegetation, and that a piscivore eats fish. When you come across the word “voracious” you have to look it up too, because you have failed to draw the conclusion from the other words that the root –vore means “eater,” so “voracious” means “eats a lot.” You are just learning the meaning of each individual word, one at a time. You are going to have to look up “insectivore” and “omnivore” as well under Learning I.
Learning I legalism requires that every time a new situation arises you need to look up the applicable rule. If the precise rule does not exist you have to go to a legal expert to adjudicate the case. The old Law ranges over all manner of practices including the details of sacrificing various animals, how to maintain public health standards, dealings with foreigners, the treatment of slaves, acceptable bodily adornment, food regulations and taboos, the minutiae of worship, and many, many more subjects. Penalties for wrong behavior are also spelled out in excruciating detail.
As a not completely irrelevant aside, I have to say that by modern standards the old Law could get very harsh with its penalties. The death penalty appears for most cases of homicide, as to be expected (although, rather intriguingly, God does not condemn Cain, the first murderer, to death – and there are a number of escape clauses for killers). But the death penalty is also advocated for a whole slew of misdeeds such as, working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2), bestiality (Exodus 22:19), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), a woman practicing sorcery (Exodus 22:18), making sacrifices to alien gods (Exodus 22:20), cursing your parents (Leviticus 20:9), taking advantage of orphans and widows (Exodus 22:23-24), and contempt of court (Deuteronomy 17:12) to name a few. On these grounds alone, the thinking Christian ought to see that the old Law is obsolete. Running to the mall on Sunday morning to gun down (or stone) all the store clerks because they have profaned the Sabbath would not be pleasing to God, I suspect. We would also likely have a severe decline in population if we killed every disobedient child (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).
Nowadays pious moralists hunt and peck their way through the Law finding scriptural justification for their pet peeves. Some people are really down on tattoos and bring up Leviticus 19:28 for support:
Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you: I am the LORD.
The second phrase here seems to be saying that God does not like tattoos, so the moralists have their scriptural justification. But if they are going to be consistent, these same moralists need to be burning witches and stoning blasphemers. They can also sell their daughters into slavery, but must avoid eating lobster. I’m quite fond of the many websites that make fun of the hunt-and-peck legalists (although I wish the website designers would consider the moral implications of plagiarism a little more). They usually contain statements close to the following (which I have deliberately re-worded to avoid plagiarizing others):
Lord, I understand that I should not have physical contact with a menstruating woman (Leviticus 15:19). Should I just ask all the women I meet if they are menstruating to avoid any problems?
Lord my neighbor shaves every day in clear opposition to your word (Leviticus 19:27). What penalty should I exact on him?
The point is well taken. You cannot just use the Law as a personal gold mine of moral principles to be brought out arbitrarily when you don’t like something. This principle applies as much to orthodox Jews as to Christians. You have to have a consistent stance in relation to the entire Law as a single entity. The two extremes – simple acceptance or simple rejection – have little to offer the thinking Christian. Simple acceptance is clearly out of the question. Not even the most rigidly orthodox of Jews does that. I’m even given to wonder if there was ever a period in history when the Law as a whole was followed rigidly and literally.
Outright rejection of the Law cannot be our position for several reasons. Jesus on many occasions, including in the Sermon on the Mount, upholds the basic tenets of the Law. If we are to follow Jesus we must accept this fact. As always we have to be careful about the historical legitimacy of the gospels, and I most certainly do not accept the Sermon on the Mount as a verbatim transcription of an actual sermon by Jesus. It’s much more likely to be an artistic construction of Matthew’s. But there are just too many references in the gospels to Jesus affirming key principles of the Law to be able to discount them all. We have to reckon with the Law at some level. What is more, much of the Law resonates with a Christian perspective. Leviticus 19:18 sounds pretty familiar:
You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people; but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
So what are we going to do? One solution from the Greek Bible itself is to follow the guidance of Paul to the people of Galatia. The Galatian church had been founded by Paul himself, but apparently got caught up in a number of disputes concerning some basic theological issues. Prime of these was whether Gentile Christians needed to follow the Law. Paul makes an important statement about the Law’s role in the Christian’s life (Galatians 3:23-25):
23 Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed.
24 So that the law was our caretaker until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith.
25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a caretaker
The word translated as “caretaker” here is an interesting one, with a curious history. The original Greek word that Paul uses is paidagōgos, which eventually gives us the English word “pedagogue.” But the original word did not mean a teacher, but, rather, referred to the slave who accompanied children to and from school. It literally translates as “one who leads children.” For me this metaphor is right on the money, and brings me back to Bateson’s notions of education. The slave who took the children to school made sure they got there safely, and also made sure that they did not get up to any mischief along the way. Without such a trustworthy guide children are likely to stray from the goals that adults know are good for them, but which they shirk from themselves because they are not mature enough to understand what is in their best interests. The Law, like the slave, is an unbending guide and disciplinarian that leads people who are spiritually immature in the right direction. But children eventually grow up and no longer need a guide to take them in the right direction. I am reminded of a famous passage from Paul’s first letter to Corinth (1 Corinthians 13:11-12):
11 When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.
12 At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.
The Law was not wrong or misguided, any more than the slave who took the children to school was wrong. The Law was put in place to move people in the right paths until they were capable of finding their way by themselves. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus treats his disciples as people on the verge of spiritual maturity. They can put aside the letter of the Law because they can now see where it was leading them, and can begin to chart their own courses without it. Jesus is not dispensing with the Law at all: far from it. Rather, he is giving us a much more mature version of it for us to take and use as our spiritual guide. But it’s not just a more complex legal code; it’s a qualitatively completely different entity.
In Bateson’s terms I would describe this transition from the old Law to Jesus’ new precepts as the movement from Learning I to Learning II (also called deutero-learning). Learning I, as we have seen, is, at heart, the state of being told what to do, and what things mean, without any need for deeper comprehension. Learning II, by contrast, involves understanding the principles that are the foundations of the facts we learn under Learning I. Here’s a little example from mathematics. Bateson asks us what the sum of the first two odd number is. We do the math:
1 + 3 = 4
Then he asks us what the sum of the first three odd numbers is. We do the math again:
1 + 3 + 5 = 9
He keeps this up for a while, and for simplicity’s sake I’ll show the next few equations in the sequence:
1 + 3 + 5 + 7 = 16
1 + 3 + 5 + 7 + 9 = 25
1 + 3 + 5 + 7 + 9 + 11 = 36
The mathematically challenged may end up doing this forever without seeing that there is a rule hidden in the sequence. They stay at the level of Learning I. Those with more insight will eventually notice that the results of each set of additions are a sequence of squares thus:
4 = 22 (sum of the first 2 odd numbers)
9 = 32 (sum of the first 3 odd numbers)
16 = 42 (sum of the first 4 odd numbers)
25 = 52 (sum of the first 5 odd numbers)
36 = 62 (sum of the first 6 odd numbers)
The rule that we can infer from this sequence is that the sum of the first n odd numbers is n2. Once I have figured out the rule I can easily calculate any sum of odds. Ask me the sum of the first 25 odd numbers and I will immediately tell you 625 (because I also know through Learning II an easy way of squaring numbers ending in 5 in my head). Learning II provides us with a deeper understanding of a system of knowledge by uncovering its operating principles. We become liberated from the childish limitations of Learning I. We no longer need to learn individual things painstakingly by rote.
I think of the principles established in the Sermon on the Mount as Learning II in relation to the old Law, which is Learning I. Jesus is getting underneath the specifics of the old Law to discover the working principles. Elsewhere in Matthew he is reported as saying the following (Matthew 22:34-40):
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together,
35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.
36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
37 He said to him, ” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
38 This is the greatest and first commandment.
39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
This is pure Learning II. If you love God and fellow humans unconditionally, everything else follows. The Law becomes superfluous because it represents no more than a long list of instances of how to love God or your fellows. If you have the basic principle down cold, you don’t need the list.
What’s even more impressive about Learning II is that it helps us in the interpretation of Learning I facts. As I have already said, I do not believe that Jesus intended to abandon the Law at all. But he was concerned with overly legalistic interpretations that defied the underlying point. The Sabbath law is a great example. The law really has two allied components.
- Honor God on the Sabbath.
- Do not work on the Sabbath.
The Learning I style legalist wants to know the precise definition of “work” so as to obey the letter of the law in a mechanical way. So the priesthood sets about defining precise acts that are “work” and those that are not. Before long you have become enslaved to the technicalities. What is even worse is that it is perfectly possible to misinterpret the intention of the original law by heaping up Learning I rules that end up negating the purpose of the law in the first place (created by legalists who are missing the point because they cannot flip into Learning II to figure out what is going on). When Jesus “worked” on the Sabbath, he was not doing so in opposition to the Sabbath law as such. He was opposing wrongheaded legalist interpretations that were leading people astray.
If the priestly legalistic interpretations of “work” on the Sabbath end up making the Sabbath oppressive to us, then something is radically wrong. Sure we have to keep the day holy, but we also have to have a day of genuine rest. It mustn’t be more real work than a regular weekday. So if you are hungry on the Sabbath it ought to be all right to go into a field and pick corn (Mark 2:23-28). Picking corn is technically “work” but it is in the service of a basic human need. God does not want us to go hungry on the Sabbath. Nor does he want the sick to have to wait for the Sabbath to be over to be healed because doctors, or healers, should not work on the Sabbath (John 5:1-15). We’ve got to get it straight, via Learning II, what the Sabbath is really about, and not get mired in a bunch of irrelevant details.
The principles in Matthew that Jesus lays out for the Pharisee lawyer are all you need to know to flip you into Learning II.
- Love God unconditionally.
- Love fellow humans unconditionally.
We could even get logically fancy and say that #2 is contained in #1. Loving our fellow humans is one of the ways we express our love for God. A Pharisee is chosen as the foil here, being the archetype of the Learning I style legalist/moralist.
In some ways, therefore, even the Sermon on the Mount can be considered logically superfluous. It’s all commentary on the basic premise that we should love God and one another will all our hearts. It spells out a few details, but we need to be very careful that we do not ossify them into Learning I precepts. So . . . on to the Sermon on the Mount.
To be continued . . .