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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Lex talionis and the Reverend George Bush

A year ago I blogged about Reverend George Bush and his 1859 commentary on the Hebrew Bible.

Since this week was Parashat Mishpatim, I thought it would be fun to relate his interpretation of " עין תחת עין" :
Nor does it appear that even in this form it was ever a compulsory mode of retribution. Although sanctioned as a general rule by which the decisions of magistrates were to be governed, yet it is probable that a pecuniary satisfaction might be made by the offender in cases of this nature provided the injured party would consent to it.

When it is said, Numb. 35. 31, 'Ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer,' the inference is that for minor offences satisfaction might be taken. This is confirmed by the testimony of Josephus, who says, that the law allowed him who was injured to estimate his own damage, and to accept of a pecuniary compensation, unless he had a mind to be reckoned severe or cruel. Selden, a modern authority of great weight, says, ' This doth not mean, that if I put out another man's eye, therefore I must lose my own, (for what is he better for that?) though this be commonly received ; but it means, I shall give him what satisfaction an eye shall be judged to be worth.'

This is perhaps the most correct view of the lex talionis in its actual operation, as we find no instance on record where the law was literally carried into effect. The spirit of it might be, that the injuring party should in justice receive a punishment similar to the injury he had inflicted, but was allowed to redeem his eye, tooth, hand, &c., by a suitable payment to the injured person.
His use of the text in Numbers to prove that "eye for an eye" should not be taken literally closely mirrors one of the Talmudic proofs of the same idea in Bava Kamma 83b.

Not bad, Rev. Bush!