Sanhedrin, Execution, and Eyes

Jesus, in Matthew 5, says that instead of requiring an eye for an eye in reference to retaliation, He says that we should turn the other cheek.  The statement “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Matthew 5:38) is kind of violent way to go about retaliation.  But this is not an invention of Jesus to show contrast to his teaching, but it is actually found in Exodus 21:24 within the abbreviated version of the Law.

The 10 Commandments (along with the rest of the Law) are not just rules to settle disputes, but are guidelines to live a godly life with others and God.  It is not just a list of do’s and don’ts, but it is a roadmap to a better lifestyle for both the individual and society.  With this in mind, the proposal for retaliation seems a little harsh for a society that is trying to live in the shalom God intended.

But what if the command was never intended to be literal.

Rabbis wrote in Midrash (collection of Rabbinic teachings on the Torah) that this passage (in Exodus 21) is not to be taken literal a physical eye for an eye or a hand for a hand, but rather a broader meaning of punishment.  For example, if two people were working on building a house and one of them dropped a hammer on the other’s toe and broke it, what good would it be if that person broke the other person’s toe?  What compensation would that cover?

So if the interpretation is not necessarily literal, what is the meaning then?

In ancient Israel there was a group of religious leaders called the Sanhedrin.  They were the Supreme Court of Israel.  When it came to interpreting the Torah and the Laws concerning and punishments concerning them, they were the final authority.  The Rabbis believed that instead of a physical retaliation, the punishment was a monetary retaliation.  Instead of cutting off another hand, causing more harm, and maiming another brother, the retribution was monetary in order to offset medical costs and workman compensation.  Seems like more of a fair deal than cutting off someone else’s hand for the sake of revenge.  Let the punishment fit the crime.

The Sanhedrin was the governing body that handed down the punishments for any of these civil cases, mostly made up of a religious sect called the Pharisees.  Also, they were the only ones who could sentence the death sentence.  But there was a process before any action was even taken.  First witnesses would be brought to the court.  They would be interrogated thoroughly and individually cross examined to see if their stories actually fit together.  It could not be just one witness to condemn someone, there had to be two sharing the same details of the incident.  Many cases never moved past this stage, since rarely did the two witnesses agree on the details that they experienced.  Therefore, the accused would stand innocent and be released from the future punishment.  But if the stories did go parallel and agree, then the death sentence could be enforced.  But this was not a common occurrence.  Actually, Rabbis said in the Midrash that the death penalty was an extreme action intended to be used in a very select few cases.  Rabbis would actually try to find ways around the death penalty in order to bypass the results.  They tried to be extra compassionate in life or death cases, sometimes trying to find “loopholes” for the accused in the Torah.  Kind of sheds a different light on the Pharisees of Jesus’s day.

Regardless, if the witnesses’s testimonies agreed the next step would be the punishment.  If the punishment was indeed the death penalty, the ones who carried out the sentence were not the Sanhedrin, but rather the witnesses themselves.  The accused life hung in the balance between the two witnesses.  Think about being put in that position.  Someone who wronged you is taken out to the outskirts of town, and you are handed the first rock to stone them and eventually kill them.  As you look at the rock in your head, you catch eyes with the embarrassed, humiliated man huddled up in front of you.  You see the remorse, you feel the sorrow, you see the repentance in their eyes.  Although the death sentence was handed down by the Sanhedrin, the execution was left in your hands.  In order to carry out the orders you had to fully believe that whatever they did is worthy of death.  Your hand held the rock that either cause death or life.  You could either carry out retaliation, or exercise forgiveness.  The verdict laid in your hands.

So the Pharisees brought a woman who was caught in the act of adultery to Jesus.  According to the Torah, she should be stoned for her unfaithfulness.  It looks like the Pharisees are bringing a civil case for Jesus to judge (in hopes that they can find something to fault him for concerning the Torah).  Jesus begins to write something on the ground and replies that the one who is without sin should cast the first stone.  The one who is worthy to be the one to carry out the sentencing should have their heart in tune with God perfectly.  Jesus’s response seems a little pious and condemning.  And while it is, He in no way contradicts the Torah or the civil traditions.  For what He said (and maybe what He wrote) forced the Pharisees (and scribes) to take a introspective inventory of why they were doing this act.  Jesus used their own tradition of the witnesses stoning the accused against them.  By compelling the religious leaders to look at their own hearts and become convicted, it in turn, caused them to look on her with compassion.  So after they left (one by one) Jesus stands up and asks the woman who condemned her, and she tells them they all left.  Jesus reassures her that neither does He and commissions her to leave her life of sin.

Praise God that we have a witness who is on our side.  One that does not look at us with contempt or anger, but rather with love and compassion.  Despite our guilt and our shame, He takes our place.  He hands the stones to us and willing takes our place amidst the crowd.  Instead of condemning us for our sin, we condemn Him for our sin.  Each sin we commit is another rock aimed at his skull.  Another fragment of dried dirt flung at his face.  Another kick to the stomach.  Each bruise that is inflicted is a reminder of love.  Not only the love we traded for a life of unfaithfulness, but the love God has for us.  Every gash bleeds a blood that should be our own.  But that blood that flows is forever the perfect representation of forgiveness and grace.  Beauty mixed with sorrow.  Love mixed with pain.

For he bore our griefs and carried our sorrows.  We recognized him as stricken,afflicted, and abandoned by God.  But he was slashed for our sins.  He was crushed for our unfaithfulness and idolatry.  On Him was placed the punishment we all deserved, but in turn brought us grace and peace.  By his bloodied wounds, we were given hope and new life.


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