The Last of Deuteronomy
Nor you must show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. Deuteronomy 19:21
If there is any instruction in the Jewish Bible that is used to criticize it more than “an eye for an eye,” I don’t know what it is. Jewish skeptics, Christian supersessionists, chauvinists from other traditions and secularists have pointed to the barbarity of a system that holds the potential to create a society of blind, dentally challenged amputees. If this is God’s instruction, they say, we can do without this kind of god.
Apologists for the Bible itself will sometimes demand consideration of its context. The instruction, they claim, is about the punishment fitting the crime, and about the equality of perpetrator and victim. It is to be an eye and only an eye for an eye. A wealthy or powerful perpetrator or one who is a skilled artisan cannot claim their hand is worth more than a poor and unskilled victim.
In fact, an extremely long discussion of ten possibilities to understand this instruction literally takes place in the Talmud. What if a dwarf put out the eye of a giant? What if a blind person put out the eye of a sighted person? What if someone was so faint of heart that imposing the penalty would not merely blind him but kill him? The conclusion (which is actually reached before the arguments take place) is that the Biblical text uses a shorthand to declare that the penalty is the value of an eye for an eye, not actual physical retribution. In modern terms, the perpetrator pays compensatory and punitive damages.
The Bible itself offers a similar workaround for another example of retribution. Ancient codes of conduct allowed for revenge killings in the case of manslaughter, that is, when one person unintentionally causes the death of another without malice aforethought. But in the next breath (well, set of verses), the Israelites are instructed to establish cities of refuge to which a manslayer could flee and enjoy safety from the next-of-kin.
Not being a Biblical literalist (or, perhaps, originalist) myself, I feel no need to defend the apparent plain instruction for retribution. And no matter the absurdity of some of the arguments in the Talmud, I am satisfied that almost from the beginning of what became Jewish law, nobody really believed this cruel punishment was right or just – even if it was there as God’s instruction in black and white.
For all this repudiation, retribution still manages to have a place in modern society. In some subcultures, it is quite literal; criminal enterprises have notoriously employed it against rivals. Art and literature (both high and low) build fantasies around just desserts that result in appropriate suffering for guilty characters. And nowhere is retribution more popular than in the blood sport that has become American politics.
If you were wondering where I was headed with this exposition, you have arrived at the answer. The most contentious political season in my memory has ended. (Perhaps more accurately, it has paused.) The chasm between the two candidates for president has not closed; it merely has been rendered irrelevant now that the polls are officially closed. The attempts of the candidates to inflict damage on each other were more than hostile, and too many of their followers tried to emulate their political champions. Now that there is a victor, there may be taste for retribution against those whose hopes have been dashed by the electorate.
I urge everyone to resist the impulse. I am certain that I am not the only one who feels I have been injured by the last four years of chaos. Civil discourse, an early casualty, may not be so easy to resurrect, but it is necessary, most especially among neighbors. Personal denigration ought to be forgiven on the condition that it end. And public policy should be debated and decided with dignity.
But most of all, everyone should eschew punitive actions against former opponents. If there were transgressions of the law, they should be investigated and prosecuted based on evidence. But bad behavior – from the mildest to the most egregious – is justified if it is returned in kind. It will become ensconced as the new norm.
We are all having enough trouble living in a world terrorized by a virus. We don’t need to create a society of blind, dentally challenged amputees.