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Lex Talionis and Easter 2

Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done so shall it be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.      Leviticus 24: 17-21


The above words in bold are an extract from one of the oldest books in the world. They prescribe an assessment of the appropriate punishment for a certain crimes. Before you quickly dismiss the punishments as outdated, wrong and barbaric, think a bit more.


We’ve had some barbaric crimes in Jersey of recent times. One of them is known as “glassing”. That’s an innocuous word for someone being seriously disfigured by a broken bottle smashed for the purpose. Euphemisms do not deter awful crimes.


The penalties often don’t deter either. Severe harm is repeated even after a prison sentence.


The Lex Talionis – the law of just retribution – was set out (as above) in the 14th century BC. It was not a revenge recipe. It did not permit a glassed person to go out and glass the one who has disfigured him. In fact it was a guide to judges who would have cases brought before them and who needed guidance about the fitting punishment for a person who had been carefully and fairly found to be responsible for the injury.


Who set out this judicial scale? Well, it’s in the national archives of Israel – of the Jews. It is from the same source as the Ten Commandments – and from the same year. The Lex Talionis is part of their Holy Scriptures, received from Almighty God.


How interesting, though, that Jesus Christ of Nazareth endorsed these Holy Scriptures. It was this Jesus who said, “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.”


Can you imagine a Jersey Court in 2010 ordering that a person guilty of glassing must be disfigured? That would be a powerful deterrent (but contrary to present Human Rights Legislation).


Disfigurement? What a punishment. Yes – but that’s what the victim has to endure for a whole lifetime.


But this Jesus who endorsed the Law in the Holy Scriptures was also criminally disfigured in AD 33. See the quotation above from another book in the Jewish archives – Isaiah – that describes Jesus’ face at the end of that holy-week. Worse than glassing.


Why? Why did this happen? This Jesus was a healer, a restorer of life, a teacher of righteousness, of forgiveness and of love towards enemies. He was not violent. There was no deceit that came from his lips.


The reason is Lex Talionis.


Lex Talionis would prescribe that, as soon as it could be established that the perpetrators of this disfigurement could be established as having brought it about, they themselves should be disfigured. Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth.


Instead, he was disfigured so that he could forgive those who disfigured him.


That same principle applied (and applies) to something else to do with the face of this man, Jesus of Nazareth. One of his biographers records the actions of the members of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin. (Jersey’s States members, legal profession and religious leaders combined would be a 2010 equivalent.) They spat in his face and punched him - on Good Friday early morning.


Lex Talionis: they must be spat on, rejected for having rejected Jesus.


No. Jesus was spat on so that he would be able to forgive those who spat on and rejected him – when they turned back to him, won over by his love. For them Lex Talionis no longer applies. For others Les Talionis is deferred.

 ‘… his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind ….’ (Isaiah, Prophet in Jerusalem, c. BC 730)
 ‘But he was wounded [by and] for our transgressions, crushed [by and] for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.’ (Isaiah, Prophet in Jerusalem, c. BC 710)
Richard Syvret

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