Depending on your source, Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. both believed that “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”
While we know from our reading and devotions that Jesus completes the laws of the Old Testament, and specifically changes the interaction of Lex Talionis, or the Law of Retribution, in Matthew 5:38-42, we must also not pass over the laws given in Leviticus 24 and 25 too quickly.
For example, the year of jubilee is fascinating, not least because we don’t have any concrete evidence ANYONE EVER practiced it! The idea was that the poor who sold themselves into slavery should be freed. I want to be very clear : SLAVERY IS WRONG. Morally, it is repugnant, and praise God it is outlawed around the world and being fought against by many organizations. However, in the time of the Israelites, slavery was practiced, especially as a way to pay off massive debts owed for any and all reasons. While we should be rightfully repulsed, in Leviticus 25, God drags humanity forward in the midst of their issues by giving some fascinating commands : If your countryman becomes so poor and has to sell himself, treat him as a hired man. (25:39-40) And no matter what is sold or bought, it all goes back in the year of Jubilee, (25:13) so you may all be equal, and in that year the slave must be set free. (25:54)
God takes a terrible institution, and begins to create boundaries around it. Remember, if this law had not been given, ALL slavery would be morally justifiable and ALL treatment of slaves would be unimpeded. But starting in Leviticus, God begins to prune this terrible human sin, begins to eradicate it among his people. God is taking barbarous humanity and forcing it to be graceful and merciful, to a degree.
Add to that the law of ‘an eye for an eye’ and we begin to see where God directly challenges the law codes of other nations.
In Leviticus 24:19-20, we read, “If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted upon him.” Of course, Christ changes this law, but in the day it was given this was REVOLUTIONARY.
First, God is trying to stop something: exactly what happens in the life of Samson, specifically in chapter 15. Samson wants to go to his wife, but her father gave her to another man. Samson, in a rage, ties 300 foxes together in pairs, puts torches on their tails, and they burn the crops. Then the Philistines learn who Samson’s family is and burn his family. And then he slaughters the Philistines… OK, so God wasn’t trying to stop EXACTLY that scenario, but trying to stop the PRINCIPLE of that scenario. In our world, before the Law of God or without Law, violence is cyclical and escalating. Samson gets ticked off, so he burns crops, so the Philistines burn his wife, so he slaughters Philistines. It’s not pretty but it is the pattern of humanity. You attack my tribe and kill one person, we attack back and kill five people and you attack back… until we are all dead. Among the Israelites, God was saying, “when someone harms you, you only get to harm them back to a certain degree; namely, the way in which they harmed you.” This is a massive leap forward in our cultural and social interactions.
Of course, other national law codes were doing this at the time of the Jews, such as the ancient Babylonians (and possibly the Ancient Egyptians). But, while they may have grasped a portion of God’s truth, the Babylonians specifically missed a small but crucial detail. Leviticus 24:22 says, “there shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native.” In the Babylonian Law code, punishment was meted out based on the different classes of people involved. Men who owned land were above free men who were above slaves. If a man who owned land harmed a slave, financial compensation may have been owed, but if a slave harmed a landed man, then the slave could lose his hands or his life.
Not so with the people of God. Men were respected across socio-economic lines or boundaries. If a priest killed a peasant, the priest would die. In a law about punishment, God actually gives one of the strongest cases for the equality of all men (and women!) in Old Testament scripture. Whether or not the law was followed perfectly is quite beside the point; in principle, all people were equal.
This is why taking our time with the texts of Leviticus is so important. As you have seen this week, instead of getting stuck in “boring” and “confusing” laws, we are seeing God create a different people, a better people, a holy people. Praise God that we don’t have to follow all the Old Testament codes, but praise God even more that in these laws, he began to create a people who were BETTER, who were more CIVILIZED, more mature, more conscious of their place before each other and before God.
In Leviticus, God creates a people who are different, equal and free. As all people should be.