The problem comes when someone reads that same piece or that same letter years down the line, without knowing the back story, or without knowing the writer’s personality and their relationship with the original reader.
And don’t even get me started on how the meanings of words can change over the years…even simple words that we think we know the meanings of. Take for example happiness. Our 21st century minds think of something much different than Thomas Jefferson did when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. When he wrote about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” he was not talking about the pursuit of hedonism or personal gratification. He had something much more lofty in mind than that. But unless you take the time to study the language, as well as what educated people were thinking during the era we call The Enlightenment, you’re going to think that Jefferson was saying that one of our inalienable rights was to be able not only to chase after, but to eventually get, that hot babe or guy that we’ve had our eye on.
And the problem only gets worse the farther back you go, and the further removed you are from the person who said the thing you’re quoting. Often, it doesn’t mean what it appears to at first blush. This is the case with many well known and perhaps overused quotes from the Bible…the most overused of which is “an eye for an eye.”
Now, I have to tell you, that I get just a little worked up whenever I hear people who claim to be Christians stating that they believe in an eye for an eye…”just like the Bible says.” That’s because if they spent as much time in their New Testament as they want you to think they have, they’d know that in Matthew 5 Jesus said:
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. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.With that in mind, it seems that Christians should be the last people calling for an eye for an eye.
But there’s something that most people don’t get, and that I didn’t get until I stumbled across it a few years ago…the lex talionis (as the eye for an eye concept is known) wasn’t about saying, “You took out my eye, so I get to take out yours!” Instead, it was a limitation. It was saying that if someone made you blind, you only got to make him blind too…you couldn't also torch his village. It was saying only an eye for an eye, and no more. And in a culture where long-running vendettas were common, this was an important change. The lex talionis said that you couldn’t slaughter your enemy’s entire family because he had called your mother’s honor into question. The most you were allowed to do was to insult his mother in the same way.
And then it was to stop.
It’s funny…a lot of people think the world would be a much better place if we all followed the rule of an eye for an eye. I guess I could go along with that…
if we followed it the way it was actually meant.