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Blasphemy and an Eye for an Eye: The Lex Talionis

Series: Leviticus

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Aug 10, 2005

Leviticus 24:10-23

Wednesday Evening
August 10, 2005
Leviticus 24:10-23
“Blasphemy and an Eye for an Eye: The Lex Talionis”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Leviticus, chapter 24. The last time we were together in this book, we were looking at the first nine verses of this chapter: Leviticus 24:1-9 — the instructions pertaining to the lamp and the bread in the sanctuary. And we said that one of the messages that the Lord was sending to His children, Israel, through the provision of the oil for the lamp to ever burn and for the bread to ever be before the Lord, was to say to them that the lights were on, and the food was on the table, and the Lord was providing for His people that they could come and fellowship with Him.

Now, this whole section of Leviticus we've seen repeatedly is to emphasize the holiness of God, and His holiness has been emphasized in a variety of ways: through the very strict commands regarding the religious festivals that are given; the demands of the people coming to offer sacrifices; the demands on the priesthood for how they were to administer those sacrifices; and for the ways that they were to assure the people of God that they had been indeed accepted in fellowship and communion with the living God.

And the passage we're going to look at today accentuates the holiness of God not so much through ceremonial instructions, as we've seen the holiness of God exalted over and over again in this passage, but through a story and through moral instructions from God which contain even the penalties which are to be applied in the case of certain immoral and criminal actions.

And before we read this passage together, let me just point out three parts to the passage. From Leviticus 24:10 down to the end of the chapter in verse 23, I see at least three parts.

In verses 10-12, we are told a story. It is not nearly as familiar a story as the story of Nadab and Abihu, which we studied earlier in Leviticus 10. It is not nearly as familiar a story as the golden calf in the Book of Exodus, but it is a very similar story to those two stories, and it comes in a very similar context to the context of those two stories. And so in verses 10-12 we see this story. It's a sad, sad story.

Then in verses 13-22 we see a second part of this passage, and in this part of the chapter we see the word of the Lord come to Moses with a view to being passed on to the people of God. In this passage the Lord tells Moses what is to be done in the case of those who blaspheme His name, and then He proceeds to speak to Moses about the laws of holiness in the land of His people...in the place of His people...and we’ll look at that in some detail.

So we see the story first, in verses 10-12; and then, secondly, we see the word of the Lord in verses 13-22; and then, finally, in verse 23 we see the response of the people of God to God's command and to this situation which has been described in the story. Those are the three parts of this passage that we’ll read and study together tonight. Before we read and hear God's word, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His help.

Lord, we thank You for Your word. And as solemn and sobering and sad as this passage is, as bracing and blunt as this passage is, we know that it is Your word in Your book for the people of God, so help us to hear it, to humble ourselves before it, to learn from it, to be grown up and strengthened and matured by it. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear the word of God.

“Now the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the sons of Israel; and the Israelite woman's son and a man of Israel struggled with each other in the camp. And the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name...”

[Let me just pause right there and notice...you’ll notice even in your English translation, it just says “the Name”; it doesn't say “the name of God.” It just says he blasphemed “the Name.” But it is implied, because “the Name” was often substituted as a way of designating the one true and living God, the God of Israel, the God Almighty, God of heaven and earth. And so this young man has blasphemed God's name in the midst of this struggle. Now, let's go back to the passage, then.]

“And the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name and cursed. So they brought him to Moses. (Now his mother's name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan.) And they put him in custody so that the command of the Lord might be made clear to them.
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Bring the one who has cursed outside the camp, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head; then let all the congregation stone him. And you shall speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘If anyone curses his God, then he shall bear his sin. Moreover, the one who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him. The alien as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death. And if a man takes the life of any human being, he shall surely be put to death. And the one who takes the life of an animal shall make it good, life for life. And if a man injures h is neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him. Thus the one who kills an animal shall make it good, but the one who kills a man shall be put to death. There shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as for the native, for I am the Lord your God.’ Then Moses spoke to the sons of Israel, and they brought the one who had cursed outside the camp and stoned him with stones. Thus the sons of Israel did, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

It's a hard passage. It's a passage that speaks of the famous Lex Talionis, the Law of the Talion: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. What are we to do with that in light of Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament? Does that teaching comport with Jesus’ direction to turn the other cheek? What do we do with God's command for the stoning of this blasphemer? What do we do with the death penalty for blasphemy? How does that work today?

Well, let's look at this passage in each of its three parts. We perhaps can't answer all the questions that you could legitimately ask about it, but I think we can perhaps touch on the most significant points. Let's start with the story, in verses 10-12.

There is a half-Israelite — (half-Danite...half-Israelite from Dan) — who gets into a fight with an Israelite in the camp. In the course of the fight, in the course of this struggle, the half-Egyptian/half-Israelite (half-Danite...that is, from the tribe of Dan) curses. He blasphemes the name of the one true God, the God of Israel, in violation of the Ten Commandments — “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God up in vain” — and in violation of other laws that have already been explicitly given to Israel. And he does this in the very context of God explaining to His people, His priests, and all who will bring sacrifices to Him, that He will be treated as holy!

This passage is in that way just like the story of the golden calf. In the context of the story of the golden calf, what is God teaching Israel? That He is the only God; that He only is to be worshiped; and He is only to be worshiped in the way that He says that He is to be worshiped. And what do the children of Israel do, right as God is teaching them that? They worship another god according to their own devices, in direct violation of God's clear command which they had heard with their own ears. And what does God do? He brings judgment.

And then as we were studying earlier, in Leviticus 10, right in the context of God telling the priests that they were never to do in the Holy of Holies and in the tabernacle anything that He instructed them not to do, nor were they to do anything that He had not instructed them to do — in other words, they were not supposed to ad lib — they were to do exactly as the Lord commanded. And in that very context, the sons of Aaron do something that God had not commanded. They offer unapproved, uncommanded, unauthorized fire on the altar of the Lord. And what does God do? He brings judgment.

What is the point of both of those passages? That God is not to be trifled with. Our God is dangerous. And the irony of that truth is this, my friends: If you do not understand that God is dangerous, you cannot understand His grace. Because this story, though our focus is on the judgment of God falling upon this young man who blasphemed the name of the Lord, what Moses wants us to see is that this dangerous God is a God of grace, because even though this sin was going on in the camp of Israel, God in His mercy still was giving His law to His people. He was still providing ways for the forgiveness of their sin. And so though He does indeed strike out in judgment against this blasphemer, yet the magnitude of His grace is made clear in that He does not bring judgment on the camp, where He certainly could have. God is not to be trifled with. He is to be treated holy. And the story, the sinful deed of this young man simply serves to highlight that truth which has been highlighted through the ritual laws of Israel.

But I want you to notice that this young man does not become the victim of vigilante justice in Israel. You know, if you've been told that he's half-Egyptian, half-Israelite, and then you've been told ‘And by the way, his mother was from Dan....’ — now, that means nothing to us. You know, it would be like you, in the course of a conversation with a fellow Mississippian, saying ‘Well, you know, his mother was from Aberdeen.’ Or, ‘You know, his mother was from Gulfport’ and you had some inside scoop on people from Aberdeen or Gulfport that you were intending to indicate something about his character.

I remember my father making this remark. I said, “Well, Dad, you know So-and-So's from Monks Corner, South Carolina.” And he said, “Oh, everybody in Monks Corner is illegitimate!” It was one of those pronouncements Dad was wont to make...I hope there's no one here from Monks Corner, South Carolina, by the way!

There's something going on here, because you will remember that in Israel's history the tribe of Dan was involved in false worship, going after another god. And the intimation is that not only was this young man the son of an Egyptian who perhaps had not properly pointed him towards worshiping the one true God, but perhaps his mother had not been faithful in pointing him toward worship of the one true God of Israel. Even so, the children of Israel do not inflict vigilante justice on this man. They set him aside, and they wait to see what God will tell them to do.

What is Moses telling you? Moses is telling you the death penalty that will be applied to this young man is not the act of an unjust mob. It is the result of the penalty appointed by the wise, holy, just and righteous God of heaven and earth. And tough we ourselves may feel our flesh tingling when this pronouncement, this judgment, is pronounced on this young man, we must remember that this is not vigilante justice. This is the wise and considered judgment of Almighty God.

Have you ever heard of a legal ruling coming down, and you wonder about that legal ruling? And then you noticed who the judge was who made that ruling? I remember looking in the newspaper just a few months ago and reading on the front page a legal ruling that had been made against a particular woman in South Mississippi, and reading the details of the ruling I thought to myself, ‘That is a stiff penalty!’ And then later in the article the judge's name was mentioned, and because I knew the judge, even though I didn't know the details of the case myself, I was able to comfortably think, ‘Well, if that judge thought that that was the right penalty, I have confidence that that was the right penalty, because I know that man's character. He's not only a Christian, he's a Bible-believing Christian, and he's a good judge.’ And so even though when I see that penalty I think ‘Ooo, that's tough!’ I know the character of the judge.

Well, in this case, when we wonder ‘Lord! That seems like a stiff penalty!’ - remember the character of the judge.

So there's the story. This young man goes out and blasphemes the name of God, curses the name of God inside the camp of Israel, and he is put into custody to see what the Lord might do with him.

Then, in verses 13-22, the Lord comes to Moses with His instructions: “Bring the one who has cursed outside the camp, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head; then let all the congregation stone him.”

Let me walk you very quickly through seven things that God does from verses 13-22.

First of all, notice in verses 13-16 God makes it clear that blaspheming the name requires death; that what blaspheming the name of God deserves is death, because reviling or cursing or blaspheming the name of God is to heap scorn and derision on the God who made you, and in the case of Israel, the God who had brought them out of captivity, and therefore it deserves death.

That's why God appointed such a harsh penalty in the Garden of Eden. “In the day that you eat of this tree, you shall surely die.” Why? Because to take of the fruit of the tree that God had commanded not to be taken was to revile the name of the God who made Adam and Eve. One theologian rightly has said that when they took that fruit, they broke every commandment — every one of the Ten Commandments was broken in the taking of that fruit. And God is assigning the penalty of death for blasphemy here.

Secondly, look at the end of verse 16. God there makes it clear that the same punishment regarding blasphemy, the same punishment is to be meted out to both aliens and natives in the land of Israel. In other words, if a person is a full-blooded Israelite and he blasphemes, he is to meet with the penalty of death; and if a person is a stranger or resident alien in the land, he is to meet the same punishment.

Thirdly, notice in verse 17 God goes on to make a general command relating to immoral killing. The death penalty is to be applied in the case of a person wrongly killing a human being. This principle has already been set forth in the Book of Genesis, reiterated in the Book of Exodus, and now again here in Leviticus is reiterated.

Fourthly, notice in verse 18 he says ‘Now, unlike the penalty of death for taking the life of a human immorally, wrongly, if someone wrongly takes the life of an animal the penalty shall be a proportionate restitution.’ What's the point? The life of a human is more valuable than the life of an animal, and if a person has been deprived of an animal, it does not call upon the system of justice to mete out the death penalty for the death of that animal but to make sure that person is made whole again, that restitution is done for the wrong that has been done against that person and his livelihood in the killing of the animal. But we see here a very clear distinction between the value of a human and the value of an animal, something that so many people in our culture don't understand any more.

Then, fifthly, notice in verses 19 and 20 we come to the Lex Talionis, the Law of the Talion: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Now very often when you hear this law referenced, the way you hear this law explained is [that] this is a law allowing for or commanding vengeance — brutal, bloody vengeance. Wrong.

Every time this phrase is used — “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” — it is God's way of saying that the punishment must be proportionate to the crime. You cannot take someone's eye (metaphorically) who has cost someone else a tooth, because an eye is more valuable than a tooth. Nor can you take someone's tooth (metaphorically) if that costs someone else an eye, because a tooth is not as valuable as an eye. No, if someone has committed a crime that has cost someone an eye, metaphorically, then the punishment should be equivalent, proportionate: an eye for an eye, not an eye for a tooth and a tooth for an eye; but an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. There shall be punishment which is proportionate to the crime.

This is a law not meant to incite vengeance, but to check vengeance. Vengeance was, in near-Eastern culture, rampant and out of control, even as it is rampant and out of control even in our own time, even at a global level. Moses was not encouraging that at all; neither was God. He was putting checks on that by demanding proportionate punishment, suitable punishment that was fit to the crime. So punishment must fit the crime in all other cases.

Then again, God comes back in verse 21 and says a sixth thing: This is why there must be a distinction between human and animal killing, because of the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. A human is more valuable than an animal, and so there must be a distinction in punishment relating to the death of humans and animals.

Finally, notice verse 22. In that verse, God says ‘Moses, there must be equal justice for all.’ There must be equal justice for all. In Israel both the stranger and the alien is to be treated under the same rubric of law as the native is dealt with, and so here God announces that there will be one standard.

Now again, what are we to do to this passage? Is Jesus overturning this passage in the New Testament? No. No. The principle of appropriate punishment for a particular crime continues on in the new covenant. But what Jesus does address in His Sermon on the Mount is the wrong use of this particular command: the use of this command to perpetuate vengeance and to undermine our responsibility to forgive.

Well, one last section. Let's look at verse 23 together. Moses speaks to the sons of Israel, and they bring the one who cursed outside the camp, and they stone him with stones. And so we see the story, or the illustration of God's holiness, in verses 10-12; we see the word of God to Moses and the people of Israel in verses 13-22 (God's instruction to them about how they are to live morally together); and then, finally, we see the discipline which the Lord had appointed carried out by the people of God in response to His command.

I want to pause with you here for just a moment as we close and say this: Do you remember what it was that Jesus was accused of by the elders of His people which landed Him before high priests and got Him the conviction of the cross? He was accused of blasphemy. But of course, the irony is that the ones who were the real blasphemers were the ones who were accusing the Son of God of blasphemy, and yet He died.

Why? Because blasphemy deserves death, and He was dying for blasphemers; because whatever command we break, we revile the name of God; and that is why — though this passage does indeed highlight the holiness and judgment of God — it all the more highlights His grace, who gave His Son for blasphemers like you and me.

Let's pray.

Lord God, grant us sight to see our sin and to see, then, the provision that You have made — the just provision, the merciful provision — in Your Son, our Savior. Grant us to trust in Him. And having trusted in Him, O God, give us more and more a heart for what You say is right and wrong, and to live in accordance with it. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

Would you stand for God's blessing.

Grace to you, and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.