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Turn The Other Cheek

February 28, 2013 in Hebrew Understanding

It is widely accepted that Jesus (Yeshua) taught a higher ethic epitomized in his statement, “Turn the other cheek.” This has led to the belief that when attacked, one should not injure or kill in order to defend self, family, or country. The idea that pacifism (definition – opposition to war and violence) was a part of the teaching of Jesus was popularized in the writings of Tolstoy. Pacifism, however, is not today, nor was it ever, a part of Jewish belief. The Jewish position is summed up in the Talmudic dictum, “If someone comes to kill you, anticipate him and kill him first”(Sanhedrin 72). In other words, it is permissible to kill in order to defend oneself.

Can it be, then, that Jesus was the the first and only Jew to teach pacifism? It is very unlikely. We know that at least some of Jesus’ disciples were armed (Luke 22:38; 22:50). Add to this fact that, at one point, Jesus even suggested to his disciples that they should purchase swords (Luke 22:35-37), and we begin to ask ourselves, Did Jesus really believe or teach pacifism? In reality, pacifism is a theological misunderstanding based on several mistranslations of the sayings of Jesus.

The first of these mistranslations is Matthew 5:21, where most English versions of the bible read, “You shall not kill.” This is a quotation of Exodus 20:13. The Hebrew word used there is “murder” (ratzach), and not kill (harag). In Hebrew there is a clear distinction between these two words. The first (ratzach) means premeditated murder, while the second (harag) encompasses everything from justifiable homicide, manslaughter, and accidental killing, to taking the life of an enemy soldier in war. The commandment very precisely prohibits murder, but not the taking of a life in defense of oneself or others.

It is difficult to explain how English translators made this mistake since the Greek language also has separate words for “murder” and “kill,”and it is the Greek word for “murder” (not “kill”) which is used in Matthew 5:21

Matthew 5:21 – Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:

Even with no knowledge of Hebrew, the English translators of the New testament should here have correctly translated “murder,” and not “kill.” A second saying of Jesus(Yeshua) on which pacifism is based is Matthew 5:39, usually translated, “Do not resist evil,” or “Do not resist one who is evil.” Could Yeshua possibly have said this to his disciples ? If he did, his statement contradicts other scriptures such as, “Hate what is evil” (Romans 12:9), and “Resist the devil” (James 4:7)

Again, Hebrew provides the answer. When we translate this verse back into Hebrew, we see that Jesus was not creating a new saying, but quoting a well known Old Testament proverb. This proverb appears with slight variations, in Psalm 37:1,8, and Proverbs 24:19. In modern English we would translate Jesus statement in Matthew 5:39 to this “Don’t compete with evil doers.” In other words, do not try to rival or vie with a neighbor who has wronged you. Jesus is not teaching that one should lie down in the face of evil or submit to evil; rather, he is teaching that we should forget about trying to “get back at,” or take revenge on a quarrelsome neighbor as stated in the following proverb:

Proverbs 24:29 - “Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me. I will pay the man back for what he has done.’ “

Jesus is expressing an important principle which applies to our relationships with friends and neighbors. It does not apply when we are confronted with a murderer, rapist, or like person of violence; nor when we are facing the enemy on the field of battle. Jesus is not talking about how to deal with violence. He is talking about the fundamentals of brotherly relationships, about how to relate to our neighbor. If, for instance, a neighbor dumps a pail of garbage on our lawn, we are not to retaliate by dumping two pails on his lawn. If someone cuts in front of us in traffic, we are not to catch up and try to run him off the road. Wanting to “get even” is, of course, a natural response; however, it is not our responsibility to punish our neighbor for his action. That responsibility is God’s. We are to respond to our neighbor in a way that will disarm and shame him for his actions.

Proverbs 25:21 -  “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.

In doing so, you heap red-hot coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” Once we discover how to correctly translate Matthew 5:39, we can then correctly understand the verses which follow. Each verse is an illustration of how we should react to a hostile neighbor. If, for example (Matthew 5:39), a friend insults and embarrasses us by slapping us on the cheek, we are not to slap him back, but instead offer our other cheek. This, by the way, is probably the best-known of all the sayings of Yeshua. It also is another of the sayings on which pacifism is based. Properly understood, however, it has nothing to do with battlefield situations, defending oneself against a murderer, or resisting evil. It is an illustration of how to deal with an angry neighbor, a personal “enemy.”

Mistranslation of Matthew 5:39 has created a theological contradiction. But, when this saying is understood Hebraically, rather than contradict, it harmonizes beautifully with the rest of Scripture. Our response to evil has to be resistance! It is morally wrong to tolerate evil. Our response to a “hot-headed” neighbor, on the other hand, must be entirely different. His anger will only be temporary if we respond in a biblical manner:

1 Thessalonians 5:15 - “See that none of you pays back evil with evil; instead, always try to do good to each other and to all people.”

1 Peter 3:9 - “Do not repay evil with evil or curses with curses; but with blessings. Bless in return – that is what you have been called to do – so that you may inherit a blessing”

Romans 12:14, 17-19 - “Bless those who persecute you. Bless them. Do not curse them. Do not pay anyone back with evil for evil….If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with everyone. Beloved, do not take revenge, but leave that to the wrath of God.”

The responsibility of the godly person is to defuse a potentially divisive situation by “turning away wrath.” We are not to seek revenge. If a neighbor or friend has wronged us and is in need of punishment, God is the only one who can administer it properly:

Proverbs 20:22 - “Do not say, ‘I will repay the evil deed in kind.’ Trust in the Lord. He will save you.”[i.e.,"He will take care of it"]

Our responsibility is not to react, not to respond in kind, to be a belligerent (combative ) neighbor. We are not to “be overcome by evil, ” but to ” overcome evil with good.”