sights and bites

[estimated reading time 5 minutes]

“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, the torah says. “retribution!”, you cry. and you are wrong.

there may be more frequently-cited phrases of biblical wisdom but i doubt it. good samaritans? needles’ eyes? solomon’s wisdom? even allusions to nudity and serpents in primeval gardens pale in comparison with this seemingly-obvious declaration of religious justification and divine instruction for retribution. it’s just what our culture is screaming out for. in an age where there is nothing more frequent than righteous indignation, nothing more desirable than justifiable anger and aggression, nothing more common than violence and no videos no more popular than payback (other than porn, which is the great equalizer in entertainment, as it has always been, though that’s another issue altogether), it sounds like not only do you have a right to be angry and demand retribution but you’ve got a god on your side when you do it.

and this is the point when you have to ask yourself a serious question. what if that really was the right way to read that statement, hear that logic?

וְאִישׁ, כִּי-יִתֵּן מוּם בַּעֲמִיתוֹ–כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, כֵּן יֵעָשֶׂה לּוֹ.
שֶׁבֶר, תַּחַת שֶׁבֶר, עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן, שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן–כַּאֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן מוּם בָּאָדָם, כֵּן יִנָּתֶן בּוֹ.

there are three possible ways to read this. one is very wrong. the other two are definitely possible, though i think one’s far more appropriate than the other, especially from a contemporary perspective. but i’ll let you be the judge of that in a few minutes.

the first is the way popular culture reads it. if you kill someone, they can kill you. if you hurt someone, they can hurt you. not simply compensation but violent, equalizing payback. to look at this more carefully, it’s important to remember where this line comes from. it’s in leviticus about building a more stable society. guidance from divine speech to the israelites through moses. in other words, it’s a prescription for a better way of life after escaping from slavery. now it’s extremely important to remember that the “slavery” part here is relative. whether this was real slavery or simply economic servitude is an open question and the balance of evidence strongly favors the second – in other words, exodus is playing a bit fast-and-loose with the truth to paint a dramatic picture. but that’s ok. the message is pretty clear. things were bad in egypt and it was better to have a coherent, stable, egalitarian society in the land of israel, free from the racial and social pressures of being second-class material objects in egypt (and, for that matter, most of the levant and nubia where egypt was the ruling body at the time…). so moses led the israelites from egypt to … the middle of nowhere for realistically far too long to be sensible. was this blatant stupidity? quite possible. but that part probably really did happen. it’s the why part that’s debatable, though not really relevant to today’s thoughts.

but there’s another why question that’s quite important. why were all these rules being communicated. perhaps more significantly, why did the teachers and elders think they were so important to write and keep. don’t forget, this was a mass of mostly-disorganized people far from the only homes they’d ever known traveling to a place they didn’t even completely know existed and were hoping for divine guidance. yet with all that happening they thought it was significant enough to write a very short list of instructions on how to live. humans are vindictive and aggressive. they have been since the creation of society. in many ways, society was designed and extrapolated as an extended justification for retributive violence rather than the simple hunting-and-gathering life before pseudo-modern cultural norms began. so if the instruction was to act the way they’d already been acting and it was ok, what was the point? continue as if nothing had happened? might as well have just stayed in egypt. might as well have said nothing. if there’s going to be an instruction, it’s because something had to change. like all other human societies, the israelites were already more than happy to punish each other for anything and everything. that went without saying.

yet it was said. the next possible version, the version that was assumed to be true at the time, was compensatory retribution. i think this is a dangerous line to go down in the modern sense but at the time it made a huge amount of sense. the idea was that there was a set financial compensation for crimes against others. cause someone to be hurt and you have to give them more than the money they’d have lost from not being able to work while they recover. kill someone and you owe their family vast sums of money. and the most important part of this was that it scaled based on the simple matter of potential payment. so a rich person couldn’t just kill someone then pay their family for the privilege. the rich were given immense fines for their crimes to make them difficult to justify – it was prohibitively expensive to pay off the family of a victim. which answer the question of why this was instituted. if you understand what predated it.

the system that came before was very simple. if you hurt someone, you were dragged in front of someone who would judge you – a religious or political leader, usually the same thing but with a few subtle differences we don’t need to get into here, especially in the egyptian context. then you stated your justification. if they agreed with you, you got away with it. if they didn’t, the punishment was generally whatever the judge thought appropriate at the time. the important part, though, is that there was a pretty good chance you could get away with it if you were “justified”. this was a huge change in that concept. the idea wasn’t “an eye for an eye if it’s not justified and a tooth for a tooth if they haven’t hurt you”. it was retributive compensation for harm even if you had a good reason to do it. there was no more “getting-away-with-it” potential. why was this significant? because we’re talking about creating a stable society. the opposite of a stable society may be understood as one where people continuously fight against each other. or where one bad deed turns into hundreds, back and forth. that’s not just a theoretical state. that’s what happened in most of the levant (especially what’s now the arab lands) for many thousands of years. realistically until the rise of islam with its new brand of justice and stability, arab nomadic societies engaged in the sort of vendettas that would make sicilians surprised at their severity and length. so did the israelites. until leviticus. enter moses and standardized retributive punishment in economic terms.

but that was then, as they say. and this is a new age. so we have the third interpretative model and i think it’s just as valid from a historical perspective and far more applicable to our modern society.

“retribution by active compensation” is what i have been calling it but i think a better term is “pay-forward culture”. in other words, reparative justice rather than retributive punishment. the idea is very simple, though not exactly in keeping with “human nature” – another word for “cultural norms” because “human nature” is to be like the great apes and they don’t do retribution, just survival and preprogrammed competition for sexual procreative supremacy. how does it work? if you take a life, you must spend the rest of yours saving the lives of others. if you have caused harm, you must spend your life relieving and preventing harm to others. hurt a child? help a hundred. kill someone? save a hundred lives.

of course, this is a startlingly departure from the traditional interpretation in popular culture of the concept of retributive justice. but it’s not at all a large departure from the traditional rabbinic interpretation. while the ancient version is financial rather than activity-based, that’s not as massive a leap as you might think. what would the money, land and possessions extracted in payment have been used for? to help those who suffered at the hands of the perpetrator, certainly, but far more frequently to prevent similar harm coming to others. and that, in effect, is exactly what we’re talking about.

so give it some thought. would you rather live in a society where payback and retributive violence were accepted and the norm or not? would you rather have the potential for self-justification and vicious anger or peace? i know where i’d rather be. an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? i’m fine with that. sounds like more funding for medical care to me. thanks, moses.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.