Exodus 21:23-25

But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

New International Version

Matthew 5:38-41

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”

New International Version

These two scripture passages seem to contradict, but they don’t. Let’s learn why this matters to us.

The passage in Exodus contained radical instructions for the Hebrews, compared to the tribes in the middle East at that time. While there were established governments in Egypt and Assyria, the region in which the descendants of Abraham wandered was lawless. Tribes sought to protect themselves through intimidation, threatening fierce retaliation for wrongs done to them. If one tribal leader was insulted by another, he was expected to retaliate by injuring the other. If a tribal leader was injured, his tribe would kill the person who inflicted the injury. If a tribal leader was killed, his tribe in response would kill every man in the offending tribe and sell their women and children as slaves.

Those who followed in the God of Abraham were to be dramatically different. God’s people would show restraint and respect, not retaliation and escalation. God would lead and protect God’s people in ways that were impossible for the false idols of the other tribes to do. In response, the people would demonstrate their trust in their Leader by the respect they showed to others.

When we read the chapters around this Exodus passage, we notice that God through Moses was setting the expectations for a new society. These were the societal mandates and governing laws for the descendants of Abraham and for anyone else living in their territory. These instructions include how the laws will be applied and upheld, how disagreements and infractions will be judged, and how those who violate those laws will be punished.

In this passage from Matthew, Jesus radically contradicted the religious leaders in Jerusalem who had were too comfortable with legalism. Then, like now, many had succumbed to the temptation that “anything that is legal must be right,” and the converse that “anything that is wrong should be illegal.” The Pharisees and Sadducees had elevated opportunistic regulations to a ridiculous level, and in other passages, Jesus harshly criticized those abuses. In this passage, however, Jesus contrasted His teaching with Mosaic Law. Why was this teaching not blasphemous?

The key is the audience. God gave Moses instructions for a new nation. Jesus is giving us instructions for a new heart. The Mosaic Law states that God’s model for society doesn’t allow escalated retaliation as a response to an injury. Jesus’ Law of Love states we are to forgive again and again. The Mosaic Law creates a nation where people are able to live together with mutual respect. Jesus’ Law of Love creates restorative relationships between people and God.

In my earlier post titled “Freedom in Humility”, I asked how we as Christians should use our freedom to humbly love in ways to change laws, practices, opinions, and hearts. From these passages in Exodus and Matthew, I’m convinced my one question confused two separate questions, one about society and the other about individuals. There are Christians who are called to serve as politicians, committing themselves to the compromises and negotiations necessary to build the consensus needed to create a new law. In contrast, all of us are called to humbly love others, even those whose opinions we oppose, so that God’s love, seen in us, can change hearts. It is valuable to have a nation with just laws for everyone, but God has blessed Christians under all sorts of governments, even under rulers brutally oppressing Christians. A nation’s laws can never create a Christian, only a loving God can.

I want to close by considering the story of Adam and Eve from my mindset as a computer programmer. To be ridiculously simple about it, I write programs, and God created Adam and Eve. When my programs don’t do what I expect, I fix the lines of code that don’t work and I rerun the program. Adam and Eve didn’t do what God expected, instead violating the only law God had given them when they ate the forbidden fruit. However, God didn’t “fix” them, and God didn’t “rerun” creation. Why?

As fond as I am of (some of) my computer programs, they exist only because they do what I tell them to do. God’s laws are designed to nurture and grow the souls of God’s people, so God’s Law serves people, not the other way around. I can’t love my computer programs, and they can’t love me back. God loved Adam and Eve, and God loves each of us, so profoundly that God’s laws, God’s creation, and God’s interactions with people all show God’s Love and invite us deeper into that Love.


Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Being Citizens and Being Believers