Here it is before us, in Lev. 24:19-20, a repeat of the Exodus passage that some claim is the most misunderstood and misinterpreted of all the passages in our holy Torah, the lex talionis, "eye for an eye." (Ex. 21:23-25)
We have no record of a Jewish court or community ever carrying out such a sentence, and the rabbis clearly understood this to be metaphorical, and substituted monetary compensation instead.
But were the rabbis correct it their interpretation or was it merely a clever circumnavigation? For one thing, V. 22 puts it more plainly-for killing a beast he makes restitution; but for killing a person, the penalty is death. So I'm not at all sure that the Torah permits monetary restitution in the case of injury or death by a human of another human. But then, who I am to argue with the rabbis?
In any case, I see an entirely different meaning here. There is a reading which removes the troublesome element. One way to translate what the text literally says is:"the blemish which he put in a person thus it shall be put in him." (Lev 24:20b)
It is not a call for others to inflict upon this wrongdoer the same blemish he caused to another, it is a reminder to those who would commit a wrong that the sin of what they do will always be in them.
In V. 19 it is stated differently, and using different verbs: "If a man puts a blemish in his kinsman, that which he did thus shall be done to him." Again I think you can get the same reading - blemishing another will also cause one to blemish themselves. (There is more difficulty in this reading for this verse because of the verbs used. In both verses, the man "puts", "yiteyn" (from the root n-t-n) the blemish. In v. 20 the same verb root (n-t-n) is used again to describe what will be done to him in return. Yet in the earlier verse, 19, after the first use of the verb root n-t-n, we see the use of the verb root asa - ayin-sin-hey, to make or do. The implication is a it clearer. For causing the injury, that which he has done shall be done to him. Nevertheless, I still think a reading in the style of my interpretation of verse 20 is possible.
The context here in Leviticus is different. In Exodus, these laws are promulgated as part of a long series of instructions for the children of Israel to follow regarding treatment of others. Here in Leviticus, it is sandwiched in between verses dealing with blasphemy (speaking Gd's name.) And the end of the verses pertaining to the lex talionis end with a very important verse which I have written about in previous musings on Emor:
"You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike, for I am the Lrd your Gd." (Lev 24:22)
Gd's rules apply to all living in the land, equally. The stranger who blasphemes, or who injures another shall be responsible under the law and treated as any other person. (Hmmm...what implications does this have for those who say non-Jews are only responsible for the Noahide laws?)
Why sandwich this repetition of the lex talionis in a segment about a blasphemer? Perhaps because to Gd, the speaking of Gd's name, this blasphemy, is injurious to Gd, so injurious that it invokes a severe penalty.
But there is perhaps another reason. If my interpretation of the reading of verses 24:19-20 are correct, perhaps they are there to also mitigate the harsh punishment for blasphemy - that one who blasphemes shall injure him/herself when blaspheming Gd. The death that is meted out in punishment to the blasphemer or the murderer is their own slaying of themselves, of their soul, by what they have done.
Thus, when we do not keep the Sabbath, it is ourselves that we injure. When we blemish the Sabbath, we blemish ourselves. But also, if we blemish the Sabbath, shall not our penalty, in lex talionis fashion, be that the Sabbath shall blemish us?
Let this Sabbath be blemish free.
©1999 by Adrian A. Durlester
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