Though few know how to translate "lex talionis," everyone knows what it means. These two Latin words refer to the principles which regulate how much or how little we can retaliate for injuries we receive.

As small children, we learned when we could hit back, return bite for bite, or take the toy of a playmate who had just taken one of ours. We've always had instructions on the lex talionis.

So it's not surprising that the question of retaliation comes up frequently in Scripture. But if we read the appropriate texts chronologically, we discover an evolution in the way the sacred authors treat the question. Their rules constantly change.


The earliest author of the Torah, in the tenth century, BCE, quotes Yahweh on the question in Genesis 4: "If anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged sevenfold." But within a few verses, the same author, emphasizing the moral depravity leading up to the Flood, mentions how retaliation increased dramatically.

Lamech, one of Cain's descendants, tells his wives, "I have killed a man for wounding me, a boy for bruising me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold."

BY the time the author of Deuteronomy writes in the seventh century, BCE, both Cain and Lamech's formulae for retaliation have been discarded. The Code of Hammurabi now becomes the Jewish norm: "Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, and foot for foot." People can't take more from an aggressor than the aggressor took from them.

Eventually, some authors of the Hebrew Scriptures encourage their readers to leave all retaliation to Yahweh. The second century, BCE, author of Sirach teaches this in Sunday's first reading (Sir 27:30-28:7): "The vengeful will suffer Yahweh's vengeance; for He remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven."

Sounds like a commentary on the sixth petition of the Lord's Prayer; just as Jesus' words to Peter in the Gospel (Mt 18:21-35) sound like a commentary on the Cain and Lamech narratives.

Now instead of avenging ourselves seven or seventy-sevenfold, Jesus insists we forgive seventy-sevenfold. (Of course, seven is the perfect Semitic number, so to forgive someone seventy-seven times means we forgive them an infinite number of times.) Jesus follows Sirach's advice: Retaliation belongs to Yahweh. Our job is simply to "forgive our brothers and sisters from our heart."

Lord's way

Paul makes certain the Christian community in Rome knows why it's expected to forgive so completely (Rom 14:7-9). Jesus has given us a completely new way of looking at reality. Instead of seeing others through eyes focused on ourselves, we're to see ourselves through eyes focused on others.

"None of us lives for oneself," the Apostle writes, "and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's."

One of the deepest insights I've received through my years of studying Scripture is that the process by which God's word is conveyed is often as inspired as the word itself. When we see, for instance, how God's word on retaliation evolved over ten biblical centuries, we being to understand how important it is for various dimensions of our faith to evolve -- especially on issues of retaliation.

Nowhere is this clearer than on the Roman Catholic Church's present position on the penalty. One simply has to read Pope John Paul's writings on the subject chronologically to understand how his own morality on the issue has evolved.

God's word not only changes those who hear it; it also changes the way we hear God's word. We're always discovering a deeper dimension. (09-09-99)