RE: [asa] Vengeance/Vindictiveness vs. Lawfulness/Justice [was: A question on morals (OT and NT)]

From: Ryan Rasmussen, P.E. <>
Date: Mon Nov 02 2009 - 16:19:55 EST


If you would care to do a little research on this yourself before troubling others to break it down into bite-sized bits... take a look here. Warning: Comes in the form of a non-pithy, exhaustive argument.
Good Question...God is Wrathful, Vengeful, Jealous, and Angry every day--and you want me to have a relationship with Him?!

Here is the section that addresses your concern but you really should read all of it for a full understanding.

4. Understood this way, NQM/ekdike is NOT 'opposed to love' in any sense, and the often-assumed dichotomy between the OT "god of vengeance" and the NT "god of love" cannot be sustained from the biblical data.

  "This group of nqm texts is closely related to the imprecatory psalms (Ps 7; 35; 58; 59; 69; 83; 109; 137; 139 are often cited examples, although imprecatory statements appear in numerous other psalms), which call for divine judgment on the ungodly. The imprecations in these psalms have often been viewed as expressions of personal hatred and explained as a manifestation of a low level of religious and moral maturity in the OT. Some have then contrasted these statements with NT commands to love one's enemy (Matt 5:39, 44; Rom 12:14) as a basis for concluding that the NT abandons the OT concept of vengeance and calls for a higher ethic grounded in love rather than hate. This sort of antithesis between the Testaments, however, cannot be sustained. The OT not only enjoins an ethic of love and forbids revenge (Lev 19:17-18), but clear statements on the vengeance of God may also be found in the NT (cf. e.g., Matt 25:41; Acts 8:20; 13: 10-1 1; Gal 1:8-9; 1 Cor 16:22; Rev 6: 10). In addition the NT speaks even more clearly than the OT about the reality and seriousness of the wrath of God (cf., e.g., 2 Thess 1:5- IO). [NIDOTTE, s.v. "Retribution: Theology of"]

"Because of the OT expressions of just hatred against God's enemies who also sought to destroy his people (Ps 54) we tend to feel that the OT teaches one must always hate his enemies. That this is not true may be seen from Paul's quotation of Prov 25:21-22 in Rom 12:20. "But if thine enemy hunger feed him." etc, The ancient Hebrews, like many modern Christians, misapplied the doctrine of divine vengeance and used it as an excuse for harboring vengeful feelings against each other. In Mt 5:43ff. Jesus was rebuking this misapplication and in such places as Mt 19:19 (cf. Mk 12:31) he is really quoting Lev 19:18. "You shall not avenge or bear a grudge against the children of your people but love your neighbor as yourself, I am the lord." [TWOT]

Indeed, the reader would probably have noticed that the verse that prohibited the Israelites from personal vindictiveness (Lev 19.18) contains the great Love verse quoted by Jesus as one of the two great commandments:

You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord. (NAS)

Even in the OT legislation, God placed so many limits on punishment--apparently to limit how much (modern) vengeance would be taken within the community. Even the often-maligned lex talionis (i.e., 'eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth', even though it was not understood literally, but was "same value" compensation-based in most cases) was actually a restriction on excessive punishment within Israel, as we now know quite well:

"The penalty for criminal assault resulting in serious or permanent injury was stated in terms of the lex talionis, i.e. the same injury must be inflicted on the offender. 'If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe' (Exod. 21:23 ff.; cf. Lev. 24:19 f.; Deut. 19:21; Matt. 5:38). This was much less severe than the Middle Assyrian laws (cf. ANET, 186), and, in fact, what the OT appears to be doing here is to establish a principle of equity so that punishments fit the crimes. [NIDNTT, s.v. dike]

"According to the laws in chaps. 17-26, two qualities are the girding pillars of a holy life, i.e., justice and love. Justice means equity. This is stated fundamentally in the principle of lex talionis, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life (24:20). This principle does not imply that punishment was carried out by inflicting bodily injury in kind, but that punishment for harm to a person is to be commensurate with the harm done, not greater, as revenge dictates, nor less, as indulgence desires. This principle was a great advancement in law codes, for it raised personal injury from a civil tort to criminal law, increasing the social worth of a citizen. Throughout these laws the worth of each person is affirmed. [WBC, Leviticus, Intro]

"The occurrence of lex talionis in the OT used to be quite embarrassing to interpreters who viewed it as a remnant of a barbaric society. Recent study, however, has turned this opinion on its head. Scholars have discovered that the laws of Eshnunna (42-48) and the laws of Ur-Nammu (15-19), which predate the Code of Hammurabi by a few centuries, set fines for personal injury. Only injuries against the gods and the king were treated seriously. Later the laws of Lipit-Ishtar and the Code of Hammurabi introduced the principle of lex talionis. Thereby these law codes elevated injuries against persons from purely civil torts to criminal law... [WBC, Leviticus, @24.19]

"The purpose of the principle was not to allow for revenge but rather to prevent it. The force of the principle was to insure that a given crime was punished only by a just penalty. It prohibited a penalty that went in excess of the severity of the offense. Like the laws establishing the cities of refuge, the principle of lex talionis was to prevent the escalation of an offense in blood revenge. [EBCOT, Gen 4.19]

"Although popularly dismissed as a vestige from a primitive era, the principle of lex talionis, which is also found in extrabiblical literature, both ancient and modern, actually marked a significant advance in the history of jurisprudence." [NIDOTTE, s.v. KWH, 'burn']

[Minor technical note: Some bibles have the phrase "avenger of blood" as the translation of goel haddam, but this is NOT correct. Goel is 'redeemer' NOT 'avenger' and NQM is NEVER used in passages relating to goel haddam. Literally, goel haddam means 'redeemer of blood', and even as the court appointed executioner for capital crimes before the institution of the monarchy, is NEVER associated in the text with NQM. See OT:VG:75-86 for discussion.]

From: [] On Behalf Of Dehler, Bernie
Sent: Monday, November 02, 2009 1:34 PM
Subject: RE: [asa] A question on morals (OT and NT)

Hi Pete-

Thanks for your response. It was a good general response. But let me re-ask the question with more specifics, and is it possible to answer with a yes or no with small comments? (I understand your general response is that the NT rachets up the level of moral expectation on people from the OT.)

Given what you wrote, let me give a precise question with more detail.

Suppose a Christian boy is beat-up at school and his bike is destroyed by a bully. He says he wants to get even with the kid- eye for eye. He plans to destroy the other guys bike as well as hurt him physically. His Christian parents tell him it is wrong, per Jesus' teaching, to pay back evil for evil. The boy does it anyway. Is that a sin? Is it immoral? You will likely say 'yes' I'm guessing.

Now re-work the same scenario with a Jewish family. Since they are following the OT, is it s sin? I can't guess what you'd say. If yes, they are being held to an account above that which they have accepted from God in the OT. If you say no, then apparently there are different levels of morality from the same God?

Maybe your answer will be that people are only accountable for what they know, and reject. It just seems strange to me that one can do 'evil for evil' as a command from God (OT) while another says that the practice of 'evil for evil' is evil (NT). Christians and Jews have the same God but different moral directions.

So can you clarify using these two specific examples? Is the boy from the Christian family sinning because they have a higher standard, whereas the Jewish boy is not sinning?

From: Pete Enns []
Sent: Monday, November 02, 2009 10:18 AM
To: Dehler, Bernie
Subject: Re: [asa] A question on morals (OT and NT)


If that is the case, I am glad you are out of your church and seminary. The manner in which the Gospel "goes one better" than the OT is a basic Christian teaching. It summarizes much of what is happening throughout the NT.

So, let me put it briefly here. I will try to respond as I can in the next few days.

Jesus is the new and improved Moses, and Christians follow his teaching and now read the Hebrew Bible under the authority of the risen Christ. Some things that were valid once now no longer are. That is why, even though "eye for an eye" is in the mosaic legislation (and reflects ancient moral conventions), with Jesus we have reached-and I say this without hesitation-- a new level of moral teaching, which Jesus, as the Son of God and soon to be risen Savior--has the authority to give.

In other words, the authority of the OT--as serious as that is--is now subsumed under the authority of the risen Christ. Christians read their OTs with this in mind, front and center.

I realize that this is not very much in line with a more fundamentalist, rationalist system of the nature of the Bible (which you apparently came out of), for here you have "one part of the Bible contradicting another." But, suspend that reaction if you can. The entire NT--and I am only exaggerating slightly, if at all--is about engaging the question of how this new people of God, made of up Jews and Gentiles--are to be connected to Israel's Scripture while also seeing how very clearly the empty tomb moves beyond, eclipses, even subverts that Scripture. "eye for an eye" is only one example. Others include: temple, sacrifice, land, dietary laws, Gentile inclusion, etc., etc., etc. The Sermon on the Mount is just one succinct example of what is happening throughout. (And, as for the Sermon on the Mount, is it not interesting that Jesus is on a MOUNTAIN giving LAW to the people, often times prefacing with "you have heard it said but I say to you...." What do you think is happening there, Bernie?)

I am serious when I suggest that you can help yourself, if you want, by reading the NT from that point of view, with its over 300 citations of the OT, and well over 1000 allusions to the OT, and see the case the NT writers are making. A rationalistic expectation that the Bible does not behave this way is, strictly speaking, hardly a biblical view of the Bible.

Hopefully that wasn't a long-winded sermon.

Pete Enns
On Nov 2, 2009, at 12:18 PM, Dehler, Bernie wrote:

Yes- these questions are serious. In 25 years of attending church and attending seminary, they have never been discussed, and I'm thinking of them now.

If you could answer concisely I'd appreciate it. I'm afraid of getting a rambling sermon in response from some people.


From: Pete Enns []
Sent: Monday, November 02, 2009 9:03 AM
To: Dehler, Bernie
Subject: Re: [asa] A question on morals (OT and NT)


Forgive me for chiming in. I have been resisting thus far.

In all seriousness, are you serious?

Do you mean to say that you really have no idea how this kind of situation--the differences between the testaments--is to be addressed? Is this ACTUALLY a theological problem for you (which is hard for me to imagine), or are you more being the contrarian here?

Pete Enns

On Nov 2, 2009, at 11:35 AM, Dehler, Bernie wrote:

Since the OT says "eye for eye" but Jesus says in the NT NOT to do "eye for eye," would it be immoral (a sin, "missing the mark") for a Christian to insist on "eye for eye" justice since it is contrary to Jesus' teaching? If yes, then is it also immoral for a Jew to insist on "eye for eye'' justice as God told them (for a Jew, who rejects the NT but accepts the OT)? If no, then does that mean God has different morals for different people?

Remember- 'eye for eye' comes from the Bible (OT) and is from God.

This is related to the thread of the existence of absolute morals being an evidence for the existence of God, the giver of morals. One of my Christian friends says this is the best evidence, he thinks, for the existence of God (his favorite).

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