(April 2016, then, candidate and now President Trump, held an interview with Bob Longsberry of WHAM radio, and he was asked )
“Is there a favorite bible verse or bible story that has informed your thinking or your character through life sir?”
“Well, I think many. I mean, you know, when we get into the Bible, I think… look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that. That’s not a particularly nice thing. But you know, if you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean… how people are taking advantage of us… ”
Most people probably find this response, “an eye for an eye,” wrongheaded and backwards.
Honestly, I’m not even sure Trump knows what to make of it:
“Look… eye for an eye…”
“That’s not a particularly nice thing. But you know…”
The brutal imagery invoked in the Bible is shocking to his cosmopolitan sensibilities of right and wrong.
Sam Harris echoes this sentiment perfectly:
Here’s one of his quotes: “There’s just so much in there that is patently insane and needlessly savage and absolutely divisive if you take it seriously… *applause*….
Under fire, Ben Shapiro appeals to the Rabbinic tradition, which rejects a literal interpretation of the verse:
“The Talmud tradition largely does take out that passage…”
Even Jesus wants to avoid vengeance:
“Ye have heard it said, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but I say unto you: that ye resist evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek turn to him the other as well.“
Regardless of the approach, the consensus seems to be that God, in his transmission of ethics to humanity, was in desperate need of a good editor.
But if it is so obvious to us, how WRONG the bible is, how did it become the most influential document in Western history?
Did some charismatic leader brainwash the masses? Or is it just a reflection of the brutality that defined our ancient past?
I want to suggest a radically different approach. I think the Bible is not only making a nuanced moral statement in the verse “an eye-for-an-eye”, I think it is answering a fundamental philosophical question.
What makes you, you?
Everyone realizes that we are not defined by our material possessions, however attached to them we might be.
Even our own bodies do not fully capture our essence. Just because you lose a toe, a hand, or even an eye, you’re still… you.
(Image: James Joyce Pablo)
But then what is your body if it’s not you? Is it something you own, like a fancy car?
If someone dents your fender, you expect him to pay for it.
But if someone pokes your eye out, what’s the right response?
The Rabbis Weigh In
The Rabbis reject a literal interpretation of the verse, “an eye for an eye,” and instead prescribe monetary reimbursement.
But the obvious question still stands:
If the Bible doesn’t require “an eye for an eye”, why did G-d write it that way?
The Malbim, one of the pre-eminent scholars of the 19th century, sheds some light:
In an absolute sense: the only fair punishment for the heinous crime of blinding your neighbor’s eye is equal retribution. But this simply cannot work in our world. While undoubtedly tragic for anyone, the impact of losing an eye could vary widely from person to person. People experience pain differently, and some people rely on their eyes more than others.
And so God instructs us to resort to monetary reimbursement as we would do for any case of property damage.
But still, why waste all this ink? Why the seeming misdirect by saying “an eye for an eye?”
A Brilliant Analysis by Ben Shapiro
I thought about this question for a long time, and I think there is a profound answer:
Had God merely told us that we reimburse personal injury like all other property, we would have missed a foundational idea about ourselves. What “an eye for an eye” teaches us is that our bodies are more than just vehicles that allow us to move from point A to point B.
And if you damage them, it is far more severe than some fender bender.
We humans are endowed with a spiritual essence that carries with it aspirations and incredible potential. And all too often our physical drives confound these loftier spiritual pursuits.
But just because this tension exists, the body and spirit aren’t contradictory. They’re partners.
The body is not just some leisure car for driving around, but a vehicle for self actualization, a vessel for our mission in this world.
And if someone decides to mutilate this vessel, it is a crime of a wholly different magnitude than mere property damage. But if God had only written “pay someone if you put out their eye”, then we would miss out on this lesson. We would be.. blind.
If we’re going to debate whether or not the Bible has any role to play in our greater moral calculus, then we have to know what it’s actually saying. And the only way we can do that is by trying to understand it’s true perspective.