The Tilted Balance: Early Rabbinic Perceptions of God’s Justice -- By: Elaine A. Phillips

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 14:2 (NA 2004)
Article: The Tilted Balance: Early Rabbinic Perceptions of God’s Justice
Author: Elaine A. Phillips

The Tilted Balance: Early Rabbinic Perceptions of God’s Justice

Elaine A. Phillips

Gordon College

The fundamental biblical and rabbinic principle for the application of justice is lex talionis or “measure for measure” (מדה כנגד מדה). The balance represented in this formulation is a requirement for human judicial proceedings. Beyond this, it serves in early rabbinic texts as the basis for both singular statements and complex literary structures that demonstrate that God Himself acts according to the principle. Retribution for enemies is מדה כנגד מדה and reward for those who are obedient is likewise measure for measure. Even so, while the principle is explicitly cited with regard to God’s actions, the actual מדה כנגד מדה punishments and rewards that the rabbis discovered in the biblical text are measure for measure in kind but not in intensity. There is frequently a greater degree of punishment than the crime objectively warranted for sins of offenders who are enemies of God and His people. On the other hand, measure-for-measure rewards for those who are beloved of God also match in kind but, in fact, are greatly increased over the “just desert.” The very process of constructing the complex literary schemata, spanning biblical history, taught a profoundly necessary lesson about faithfulness and continuity in God’s dealing with His people. This background illuminates the instances in which this expression is used in the Gospels.

Key Words: justice, measure for measure, lex talionis


In the world defined by Torah, the court system was to practice justice that was explicitly balanced. The biblical text articulates the expectation that justice was to be effected in terms that were “measure for measure”; the measure of the punishment had to fit the extent of the crime. The expression itself conveys a fundamental symmetry

that recurs through the multiple prescriptions for the judicial system of Israel.1 Furthermore, this principle transcends cultural boundaries.2

In the early rabbinic community, this essential judicial principle (מדה כנגד מדה) was not only carefully defined and given boundaries within the human court system; it was significantly a reflection in this world of the comprehensive balance that is woven into the very fabric of the metaphysical realms. The Sages developed extensive networks of circumstances in the biblical...

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