Yom Rishon, 17 Av 5779
Sunday, 18 August 2019
Parashat Mishpatim 2012

Parashat Mishpatim by Rabbi Pete Tobias
14 February 2012

A few years ago(!) I celebrated becoming bar-mitzvah by reading ‘a portion of the Law’. At least, that’s what it said on the invitation (which also included my middle name, a secret I’m not prepared to divulge).

I was actually reading a section from the Torah, often mistranslated as ‘the Law’. One of the reasons for that mistranslation is that the Torah does indeed contain many laws. This week’s portion is a case in point. Even its title – mishpatim – could be translated as ‘laws’, though it literally means ‘judgments’. Following on from the Ten Commandments that were given at Mount Sinai in last week’s portion, we have a series of instructions intended to establish justice in a biblical society.

It’s sections like this in the Torah that give Jews the reputation of being obsessed with rules and regulations. In particular the law in Exodus chapter 21 verse 24 containing the frequently misunderstood phrase ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.’ Perhaps more than any other, this verse is quoted as proof of the brutality of the God of the Old Testament, insisting on revenge for any wrongdoing. This is often contrasted with the gentle, compassionate God of the New Testament, usually to the detriment of the Jews who are regarded as being harsh in their demand for justice (think of Shylock in Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’ demanding his ‘pound of flesh’, for example).

In the New Testament, the contrast between the approach of the Jewish God and that of Christianity is set out by Jesus, who refers specifically to this apparently vengeful law in this week’s portion. Jesus says:

“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.” (Matthew 5:38-39)

In making this statement, Jesus was picking up on the prejudice of his day, where many people were suspicious of the Pharisees, the interpreters of the Torah and the group responsible for developing what we now know as Judaism. But Jesus was being somewhat disingenuous. The Pharisees themselves were quite clear that the intention of this law in Exodus was to establish a system where the punishment was proportionate to the crime. The laws of Exodus were created in a lawless society where the response to misdeeds was frequently more violent and destructive than the injury they sought to avenge. In Genesis chapter 4, for example, we read about Cain’s great-great-grandson Lamech, who says:

“I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” (Genesis 4:23b-24)

In such a context, a law stating that an appropriate level of ‘revenge’ is like for like, rather than eleven times greater, is a positive advance in the establishment of a just society.

This is just one example of many which demonstrates that we must exercise caution when regarding biblical laws as archaic, brutal and vengeful. I have a simple series of questions which I always ask of any biblical instruction before dismissing it casino online as being irrelevant to our modern world. When confronted with a biblical law such as the one

in question, demanding ‘an eye for an eye’, I ask the following questions: 1) What situation existed that led to this law being introduced? 2) In what way did the law seek to address that situation? 3) What were the likely consequences of the law? 4) How successful do you think the law was? And finally, 5) Would it work or is it still relevant today?

In the case of Exodus 21:24, we can ascertain that the situation that existed was that individuals (such as Lamech) were happy to exact brutal revenge completely out of proportion with the initial injury. The law sought to make the punishment fit the crime. Its likely consequences were that a fairer society would emerge, and it seems reasonable to assume that it was successful as the current laws of compensation (even in our present-day blame culture) are still the basis of legal agreements – which answers the fifth question.

Take any biblical law, whether it be laws relating to the pledging of garments (Exodus 22:26), sabbatical laws (23:10ff) or even the laws relating to sacrifice or leprosy in the book of Leviticus and ask those questions of it, and it might help bring about an understanding of what the biblical lawmakers were trying to achieve by introducing these laws.

In the end, I think, the key is not to look at a biblical law and say ‘that is completely irrelevant to life in the twenty-first century’. It’s bound to be, because it comes from a different time, place and context. Rather we should look at biblical laws and ask what was the question to which this particular law sought to provide an answer. Then ask the question in a own twenty-first century context and see what can be derived. This should enable us to recognise the genius of our ancient ancestors as they sought to construct a just society and inspire us to continue their work.