Jewish revenge and brother Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

Henry

Introduction

The struggle between Israel and the Palestinian population, especially in the Gaza Strip, has been raging since 1948, with the establishment of the state of Israel. Thousands of people on both sides of the conflict have already died in a low intensity war.

The hostilities took a major turn on October 7, 2023. Fighters from the “terrorist movement, Hamas” invaded Israel and brutally killed 1,332 people (mostly civilians) and took 250 hostages to Gaza. On October 27, Israel began a ground invasion to free the hostages and to eradicate Hamas. Since Hamas uses the Palestinian population as human shields, this war has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people, many of them women and children.

This contribution considers the conflict from a theological perspective with the intention of making a social-ethical contribution to the debate. It begins with an Old Testament legal principle, namely the right to revenge (ius talionis). The tempering of this right in the Old Testament then receives attention.

In the third section, the statements of the Jew, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) are contrasted with the Jewish legal principle. Since there is no human solution to earthly injustice and conflict, it concludes with the Old Testament expectation that a time will come when the swords will turn into plowshares. In light of this, it is suggested that an ethic of compromise will be followed as a way to relative peace.

Israel and the right to revenge

In Matthew 5:38 Jesus says that in the past, based on the Jewish legal rule, the ius talionis, (the right to retaliation), was said to be “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. He refers to Exodus 21:24 where it also says “a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise”. The same legal principle is also found in Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21 where it is further added “a life for a life”.

This legal principle was intended to stop continuous, limitless retribution as found in Genesis 4:23–24, among others. There Lamech tells his wives that Cain could be avenged seven times, but that he, Lamech, must be avenged seventy-seven times. However, the Jewish religion and jurisprudence have always rejected the idea of ​​persistent revenge.

The current Israeli government has decided, on the basis of the right of retaliation, to take revenge for the massacre of October 7, 2023 (and the ongoing missile attacks). The question is whether retaliation brings evil to an end, or whether it does not reinforce the nasty cycle of murder and revenge? In the Old Testament there are enough indications that revenge on the evils of the enemy does not offer a lasting solution to hostilities.

The tempering of revenge in the Old Testament

In Exodus 22:26–27 we find the legal rule that poor people may not be physically harmed when money is lent to them and they cannot repay the moneylender before dark. Not returning clothes taken as pawn for the night is inhumane and inhumanity does not belong to the covenant people. The Lord shows mercy and shelter to poor people, and the moneylender must do the same.

The thought of humanity runs like a golden thread through the Old Testament, and therefore the right to retribution must also be tested against this. There can be no doubt that the Jewish idea of ​​humanity tempers the right to revenge in Israel, and that no rule of law may be abused to create a state of injustice. The current government of Israel must therefore realize that their own “Holy Book” tempers the right to revenge and demands humanity from its people.

The most important ethical principle that can prevent inhumane retaliation is love for the enemy. With his commandment about love for the enemy (Matthew 5:43–47; Luke 6:27–36), Jesus set a very high ethical standard. The question is whether the Old Testament could come close to this radical demand?

The demand of neighborly love (Leviticus 19:17–18) is without any doubt primarily directed at the “fellow man”. However, can the “foreigner” count on the same treatment as the “commoner”? According to Leviticus 19:33–34, the “stranger” who lives among and with the “fellows” must be treated just like the blood brothers. However, the “stranger” is still not the “enemy”. In the later Proverbs 25:21–22, the “enemy” does appear in an ethical prescription. We read there: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord will reward you”.

Even though this demand is much less than what Jesus demands, it is clear that a “genocide” cannot be part of a conservative, religious Jew’s thinking and striving. It is therefore (theoretically) unthinkable that Israel’s retaliation in the current conflict could result in “genocide”. Such a thing is religiously not permissible. This is not to say that Israel’s revenge testifies to fellow humanity in all respects. One can only trust that the Jewish spiritual leaders, the politicians and the military will stick to the ethics of the Old Testament.

Brother Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

The Jew, Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) said the ius talionis of the Old Testament were questioned and totally new ways of acting were proposed. According to Matthew 5:38–39, he rejects the right of retribution and suggests that when an evildoer harms you, you should not oppose him, and “if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also… and if someone wants to take your undergarment, give him the upper garment as well”.

According to Jesus, nonviolence is the only way to stop the cycle of violence and revenge. The critical question is whether the Sermon on the Mount can be used as a political strategy?

There is great unanimity in the research that this cannot be transformed into a political and military strategy. Non-violence is a personal matter that can be applied within the private sphere, but it is not an action instruction for the political sphere. One reason is that every person and nation has the right to self-defense, and this also applies to current Israel. A world without justified violence is therefore unthinkable. Permanent and sustainable peace between people, nations and states therefore remains at most an eschatological ideal. We read about such a future expectation in the prophet books of the Old Testament.

The eschatological expectation

In Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3 we read what is expected in the Judeo-Christian religion of the future: “The Lord will judge between many peoples and uphold the law for numerous nations to the farthest corners. They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning shears. Nations will no longer take up the sword against each other, they will no longer learn to make war, but every man will sit under his vineyard and under his fig tree, without anyone chasing him”.

The end of world history (so we believe with our Jewish brothers) is not an all-destroying war, but peace and the right based on justice. God himself will take care of this. In the meantime, people and nations have the responsibility to do everything humanly possible to achieve peace. This also applies to Israel and Palestine.

The ethics of compromise

Peace can and will only be achieved through negotiation. Serious and honest negotiations have one goal in mind, namely to reach rationally-grounded compromises. The ANC’s complaint to the International Court of Justice, that Israel is trying to commit genocide, does nothing to reach a fair compromise. It only instrumentalises the terrifying thought of a genocide for cheap and opportunistic politicking. Just like Israel’s belief that persistent, brutal retaliation will lead to a solution. Neither of the warring parties is thinking of compromises at this stage, but the future will teach that there is no other way.

It will hopefully also be seen in time that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount ultimately lays the right basis for law, justice and peace. The love and intercession for the enemy (Matthew 5:43–44) may sound like nonsense, but it is certainly not irrational!