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Gospel Q&A: Is the Law of Talion (the Law of Moses) Compatible with the Law of “Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself”?

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Gospel Q&A is a series from LDS Daily that strives to answer important gospel questions from readers. Today, we answer the question, “Is the law of talion compatible with the law of loving your neighbor as yourself?”

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When we speak of godly laws, we are generally speaking of eternal things. Notice that there is no scriptural or prophetic mention of a law of abstinence—such a thing does not exist—but we are expected to live the law of chastity. The Lord requires that we live morally chaste lives whether we are single, married, divorced, or widowed. Chastity is the eternal law; abstinence is sometimes the circumstance.

Other laws are preparatory laws eventually replaced by higher laws. The law of tithing is God’s law, but we can expect that someday we will be called upon to live the higher law of consecration. Freely giving ten percent is preparation for freely giving all the Lord asks.

Just as a parent may ask a small child to do the chores he can do–no matter how minimal–to prepare him for contributing more later, sometimes God gives us a law that prepares us for the greater law. First Corinthians 3:2 puts it this way: “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.” Sometimes the Lord gives us spiritual milk because we aren’t yet able to bear the spiritual meat that is coming.

As we develop in the ways of the Lord, we are able to receive more. The Lord has taught that His pattern of teaching His children is “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have” (2 Nephi 28:30). When we understand and practice His preparatory laws, we become worthy and able to receive His greater law.

The law of tithing is one example of a law remaining until it is fulfilled or improved upon, but there are others—including the law of Moses. Like the law of tithing prepares us to eventually live the law of consecration, the law of Moses was the precursor, the preparer, the milk that came before the meatier, higher law that Jesus Christ introduced during His earthly ministry.

The “law of Talion” or “lex talionis” is not a biblical term, but a Roman one. Its biblical equivalent, however, is found in Exodus 21:24. “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” Brittanica describes lex talionis as a “principle developed in early Babylonian law and present in both biblical and early Roman law that criminals should receive as punishment precisely those injuries and damages they had inflicted upon their victims.”

The truth in the “law of Talion” is that justice is required. Justice is an eternal law—a godly law. “The law of justice…demands that a penalty be paid for every sin we commit” (source).  The temporary circumstances for exacting that law included requiring an “eye for an eye.” The law of Moses, while still called the law, was the temporary law in preparation for the higher law Jesus Christ introduced in His earthly ministry. Justice is required, but through Jesus Christ, He can temper our justice with mercy—made possible through His infinite Atonement.

As the giver of all laws, Jesus Christ has the right to modify and elevate the laws He gives to mankind.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus taught, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Matthew 5:38). This was the old law, the old standard. Jesus Christ raised the standard with the next verse: “But I say unto you…whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39).

His new law would include what became known as the Golden Rule: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12, emphasis added).

Treating others the way we would like to be treated became the law. How do we accomplish that? In this way: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

This is the first and great commandment.

And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:37-39).

If we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and then love each other as we love ourselves, we are keeping His law. Jesus taught that these two commandments were “so important that all other laws and commandments rest upon them.”(Found here and Matthew 22:40). This means that ultimately, if we truly love God first, and we love all others second, all of our other behaviors, all of our choices will reflect that love. We will choose righteousness because we will love God enough to put Him first above all other selfish desires. We will love Him enough to choose Him over any of our favorite sins.

So, you ask if the law of retribution and the law of loving your neighbor are compatible. And the answer is no. They don’t have to be. The first law is swallowed up by the second, higher law. Jesus Christ, Creator the Mosaic law, said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Matthew 5:17). The earlier law of Moses is no longer law—it has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Laws are eternal and can’t just be broken, but they can be fulfilled. They can be swallowed up in the higher law.

It is His within His responsibility to judge, to demand (eternal) justice, to condemn. It is our job to love our God and to love our neighbor. As long as we love and choose the Lord above all else, and we love His children like ourselves, we can leave judgments and the rest to Him.

Disclaimer: While all of my answers will use scriptures and/or words of modern prophets, I do not represent The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I don’t believe any of my answers are comprehensive. I’m just one person using the gospel I have been blessed with to bring hope, peace, and answers to other seekers of truth.

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Rebecca Wright
Rebecca Wright
Becca loves audiobooks, dark chocolate, singing, hiking, walking,  going out with her husband, and raising their chickens and children. She still wants to meet her hero Sheri Dew, see flowing lava and a blue whale in person, and uplift others with her words.

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