What do You Mean… Turn the Other Cheek?
James Scott Trimm
We read in the King James Version of Matthew:
But I say unto you,
That ye resist not evil:
but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek,
turn to him the other also.
(Matthew 5:39 KJV)
This verse has been used by many to teach the doctrine of pacifism. But is that really what Yeshua was teaching?
To begin with, the Torah does not teach pacifism. To the contrary the Torah requires us to defend ourselves.
We read in the Torah:
“If a thief be found breaking in, and be smitten so that he dies, there shall be no
bloodguiltiness for him.”
It is from this verse that we have the Baraita which says:
“When a man comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first.”
(b.Berachot 58a, 62b; Numbers Rabbah XXI:4; Zohar 1:138a)
Rashi writes of this verse:
“He has no blood. [This signifies that] this is not [considered] murder. It is as though he [the thief] is [considered] dead from the start. Here the Torah teaches you: If someone comes to kill you, kill him first. And this one [the thief] has come to kill you, because he knows that a person will not hold himself back and remain silent when he sees people taking his money. Therefore, he [the thief] has come with the acknowledgement that if the owner of the property were to stand up against him, he [thief] would kill him [the owner]. – [From Talmud Sanhedrin. 72a]”.
So if the Torah teaches that we should defend ourselves from attack, then is Yeshua countering the Torah, or has he been misunderstood?
Yeshua’s point in this whole section of Matthew is to build a fence around the Torah so that we can be more righteous than Pharisees (Matt. 5:17-20).
In Matt. 5:21-26 he builds a fence around “you shall not murder” advising us not to even hate.
In. Matt. 5:he builds a fence around “you will not commit adultery” advising us not to commit adultery in our imaginations either.
In Matt. 5:31-32 he builds a fence around the commandment not to divorce without giving your wife a bill of divorcement and suggests not divorcing at all except for cause of fornication.
In Matt. 5:33-37 he builds a fence around the commandment to keep oaths, and suggests not making oaths at all in the first place.
(Skipping 5:58-42 for the moment)
In Matt. 5:43-48 he builds a fence around “you your neighbor” suggesting we should love everyone just to be sure.
In order to properly understand this verse we must look at the verse in context. This passage is part of Yeshua’s teaching on the proper meaning of the Torah passage which says “An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.” (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:2)
Here Yeshua also builds a fence around “en eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (as a law of liability rather than revenge) by paying double damages, more than an eye for an eye. Thus, two garments, two miles, and two cheeks… not that the cheeks are literally smiten, but the financial value of two smiten cheeks rather than just one.
In this teaching Yeshua said:
38 You have heard what was said, An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.
39 But I tell you, that you not withstand evil: but if one would smite you on the right cheek, turn unto him the other.
40 And whoever wishes to contend you in judgment, and wishes to take from you your coat, leave him the cloak also.
41 And he that impresses you for one mile, go with him even two.
42 And whoever asks of you, give to him: and from him that would borrow of you, turn not you away.
(Matthew 5:38-42 HRV)
Now to understand this teaching one must understand that in the first century there was a great debate between Pharisees and Sadducees regarding the interpretation of the phrase “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
The Sadducees took this very literally as a law of revenge. They maintained that the court should be knocking out teeth and putting out eyes.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, understood the passage, in light of the Oral Law, to be a law of liability and not a law of revenge. Thus if a man caused another to loose a tooth or an eye he was liable to compensate that man financially as we read in the Talmud:
Why [pay compensation]? Does the Divine Law not say
‘Eye for eye’? Why not take this literally to mean [putting
out] the eye [of the offender]? — Let not this enter your mind,
since it has been taught: You might think that where he put out
his eye, the offender’s eye should be put out, or where he cut
off his arm, the offender’s arm should be cut off, or again
where he broke his leg, the offender’s leg should be broken.
[Not so; for] it is laid down, ‘He that smiteth any man. . .’
‘And he that smiteth a beast . . .’ just as in the case of
smiting a beast compensation is to be paid, so also in the
case of smiting a man compensation is to be paid.
(b.Baba Kama 83b)
Yeshua seems to have understood this passage in the light of Oral Torah, as did the Pharisees, as a law of liability rather than as a law of revenge. This is a good example of how the “letter of the law” kills but the “spirit of the law” gives life. (see also notes to Lk. 10:29-36)
Yeshua begins by saying:
But I tell you, that you not withstand evil:
but if one would smite you on the right cheek, ‘
turn unto him the other.
You may notice that the KJV has “That ye resist not evil”. However the actual Hebrew reads: meaning literally “You will not stand before evil” (שלא לעמוד נגד הרע) The KJV understands this verse to mean “you will not stand against evil” but it is actually meant to be understood “you will not stand for evil” or “you shall not withstand evil”. It is telling us not to allow evil in our presence.
Next Yeshua addresses the idea that “eye for an eye” is a rule of revenge. He tells us “if one would smite you on the right cheek, turn to him the other.” Not that the cheeks are literally smiten, but the financial value of two smiten cheeks rather than just one, just as the text speaks of two garments or two miles.
And whoever wishes to contend you in judgment,
and wishes to take from you your coat,
leave him the cloak also.
And he that impresses you for one mile, ‘
go with him even two.
Here Yeshua discusses the Torah command concerning collateral on a loan. As the Torah says:
10 When you do lend your neighbor any manner of loan, you shall not go into his house to fetch his pledge.
11 You shall stand without, and the man to whom you do lend, shall bring forth the pledge without unto you.
12 And if he be a poor man, you shall not sleep with his pledge.
13 You shall surely restore to him the pledge, when the sun goes down, that he may sleep in his garment, and bless you, and it shall be righteousness unto you before YHWH your Elohim.
(Deut. 24:10-13 HRV)
Yeshua is telling us that this general principle of liability means that borrowers must beet the financial liability.
Finally Yeshua says:
And whoever asks of you, give to him:
and from him that would borrow of you,
turn not you away.
Telling lenders that they may freely lend knowing that they are protected by the same law of civil liability.
Yeshua’s point in these verses is not to nullify the Torah precept of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” with a teaching of pacifism, to the contrary just a few verses earlier Yeshua tells us that he did not come to nullify the Torah (Matt. 5:17-18). Instead Yeshua supports the idea that “an eye for an eye” is a Torah principle of financial liability.
The fact that Yeshua teaches “an eye for an eye” is not a law of revenge, this does not mean that he taught pacifism. Yeshua absolutely upheld the Torah principle that we can, and should defend ourselves, even going so far as to say: “And he who does not have a sword: let him sell his garment and buy for himself a sword.” (Luke 22:36).
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