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What Does The Bible Really Say About Self Defense?

When most people think about the Bible’s directives on self-defense, they begin and end with the verses in Matthew about turning the other cheek. You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. Matthew 5: 38 – 39 ESV The phrase that Jesus quotes here from the Old Testament about “an eye for an eye” is found in a few different places. Specifically, Exodus 21: 22 – 25, Leviticus 24: 17 – 20 and Deuteronomy 19: 18 – 21. None of these original verses are dealing with self-defense. They are all establishing the legal pattern for Israel that punishment should be commensurate with the crime committed, not too lenient but not too harsh. And Jesus is not dealing specifically with self-defense either. The word in Matthew chapter 5 translated as slap (or in some versions as strike or smite) is the word for backhanding someone as a social insult. William Barclay in his commentary on Matthew says that to backhand someone with your right hand on their right cheek was “the most calculated of social insults” in the culture in which Jesus lived. Therefore, Jesus appears to be saying “I know you have heard it said that from a purely legal standpoint the punishment needs to fit the crime but I am telling you that when it comes to social insults and general mistreatment, you just need to move on and let it go.” It should be mentioned there is a Bible verse that deals directly with self-defense. If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. Exodus 22: 2 – 3a ESV In other words, if a thief is breaking in, one has the moral and legal right to defend themselves up to and including the use of lethal force. The person does not have the moral and legal right, however to track the person down after the immediate threat is over (signified here by the sun rising after a nighttime crime) to seek revenge. If Jesus had wanted to rule out the use of self-defense in the Christian era, it seems likely He would have quoted this verse about self-defense rather than the eye for an eye verse. I do not believe Jesus ruled out the use of true self-defense and, therefore, it should not be considered unchristian or immoral. Though seeking personal revenge after the fact is always wrong. Andy’s book, Clear Vision: How The Bible Teaches Us To View The World, can be purchased here .

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