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Eye for an Eye?

One of the classic perceptions of the Old Testament is that it commands a strict and merciless justice. The showcase verse reads as follows:

If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. (Lev. 24:20) [NB: This is not to be confused with Exodus 21, which deals with damage to a newborn.]

Casual readers understand this verse as strict like-for-like justice – if you blind someone, you should be blinded in return, etc.  It sounds very harsh, to say the least.

Observant Jewish readers will immediately react: of course the verse does not mean that! Such a punishment has never been meted out in all of Jewish history! Instead, we know, from our oral law, that the law really means monetary compensation: the value of the damage should be paid.

The problem with this answer is that it does not properly address the original problem: regardless of how the law is carried out, why does the Torah word it this way, instead of clearly saying “pay compensation,” as it does so many other places? After all, the words are there, in black and white: surely, we are not meant to ignore them, and merely replace them with what we want them to say! If that were so, then the text would have no authority at all.

The answer is found within the Torah itself. The key is found in the word tachas, which we translate as the word between the nouns: eye for eye [eye tachas eye], tooth for tooth [tooth tachas tooth], etc. The problem, unsurprisingly, is that the word does not directly translate to mean “for.”

Tachas is very common in the text, and its usage is consistent. Tachas has two meanings in the Torah, and they are connected: the first means “under,” and the second means “in place of.” Except that once we see context, we find that these are inextricably linked concepts for a very simple reason: the substitutions that are used as tachas are the inferior, physical, and lower mirror images of superior, spiritual and higher things.

Here’s the proof:

The very first use of tachas shows us the waters below (oceans) mirroring the waters above (heavens).

God made the expanse, and it separated the water which was tachas the expanse from the water which was above the expanse.  

This encapsulates both meanings: “under,” and “instead of.”  The seas are the water below. They are physical and tangible. The heavens are the waters above – spiritual and impalpable.

And each and every time that tachas is used for a substitution, the replacement is always more like the physical waters below than the spiritual waters above.  Here are the most prominent examples in the text:

Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, meaning, “God hasprovided me with another offspring tachas Abel,” for Cain had killed him.

 When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering tachas his son.

Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, “Am I tachas for God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?”

But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I tachas for God?

I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites tachas all the first-born, the first issue of the womb among the Israelites: the Levites shall be Mine.

One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it: life tachas life. .. One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it.

For they are formally assigned to Me from among the Israelites: I have taken them for Myself tachas all the first issue of the womb, of all the first-born of the Israelites.

Now I take the Levites tachas every first-born of the Israelites;

And now you, a breed of sinful men, are tachas your fathers, to add still further to the LORD’s wrath against Israel.

How can we be sure that tachas always means an inferior replacement instead of a like-for-like swap? Because the word tachas is not found when the punishment is actually meant to be carried out!

וְאִ֕ישׁ כִּ֥י יַכֶּ֖ה כָּל־נֶ֣פֶשׁ אָדָ֑ם מ֖וֹת יוּמָֽת׃

If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death.

Murder comes with a death sentence; there is no substitution, no tachas.

Thus, we can answer our original question. Tachas means a more physical and tangible substitution, not a carbon-copy replacement.  

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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