Jacob and Crime and Punishment

It’s hard to remember just how different a world Jacob lived in.  When we read the Genesis account, it’s easy to think Esau unusually evil.

Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”

Genesis 27:41

To us, murder seems an extreme remedy, disproportionate to the offense. It seems to us that retribution should be no greater than the original offence. We sometimes hear today that one country’s response to another’s violent action is ‘disproportionate.’ We fail to realize that this sense of ‘proportionality’ comes from the Bible, and from an often criticized passage.

In Exodus, God sets forth the the notion of proportional response:

But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,  burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

Exodus 21:23-25

Today it is is fashionable to sniff and declare ourselves morally advanced over shuch primitive notions, without realizing that our morally advanced ideas come from different passages in the Bible. But lets stay with Jacob and Esau half a millenium before the moral advance (that’s right, advance) of an eye for an eye.

There was no law, as we know it. Certainly no law enforcement agencies out among the nomadic herdsmen such as Isaac. And if there had been, they would not have been horrified at Esau’s pledge of revenge. The reason “eye for an eye” was a moral advance is because prior to that, it was common practice to kill someone for wounding you. Believe it or not, that too, is in the Bible.

Lamech said to his wives,
“Adah and Zillah, listen to me;
wives of Lamech, hear my words.
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for injuring me.

If Cain is avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy-seven times.”

Genesis 4:23, 24

Revenge killings were still commonly practiced among God’s chosen people during the time of the judges. That’s the reason for the establishment of the “Cities of Refuge.”

In short, the ancient world was wilder than the “Wild West.” The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had to take people from that lawless, violent environment and begin teaching them His ways. It was– and still is– a long journey.


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