Monday, September 7, 2015

"Turn the other cheek" Doesn't Mean What You Think

Let's look at the famous "turn the other cheek" verse. What does it really mean? Does it forbid self-defence? Let's examine the context in which the verse appears in the Bible. This  verse is a part of the famous Sermon on the Mount where Jesus presents the new Christian doctrine:

Two things are addressed over here. First, an eye for an eye was meant as a legal principle, meaning that punishment had to be proportional to the crime committed (not an eye for a tooth or a life for an eye), it was not meant to be taken literally neither was it to be used as a license to personal revenge, yet that's exactly how it had been interpreted by some people in those times.

Second, slapping some on his cheek is an insult, not an assault, though nowadays it's viewed as one. After all, the Scriptures don't say: "And whosoever rapeth thine wife, give him thine daughter also", do they?  Another unfortunate tendency of those times was to start law suits at the slightest provocation including small personal insults which could best be forgotten. The very next verse deals with it, warning against litigiousness.

Since our society is increasingly pacifistic, feminised and liberal it's probably difficult for us to understand that not so very long ago, it was normal in some cultures to start feuds about most trivial things. While I'm sure that this verse is not to be taken literally (after all, Jesus himself didn't turn the other cheek but rather confronted the one who hit him, cf. John 18: 22, 23) I'd like to give an example involving exactly the same situation described in the verse.

In Njals saga  beautiful Hallgerðr refuses to help her husband when his life is at stake, because he had once slapped her (after being thoroughly provoked, as far as I can remember), which leads to his death. In fact, it becomes extremely difficult to maintain a form of civilisation when all the citizens are either busy running to the courts because someone somewhere may have hurt their feelings, or cutting each other's throats for the slightest offence. And that, imho, is the real meaning of the verse.

For more info, check this.


  1. Housewife from FinlandSeptember 8, 2015 at 3:40 AM

    I could bet that most finnish priests or religion teatchers do not know what you just wrote. At least I have never, ever heard them speak like that.

    So Jesus kind of ment, that we should choose our "battles" wisely? And he did not mean, that we should avoid "battle" in all costs? Does that mean that some of the martyrs were doing wrong when they died for relatively small reasons? Like those martyr women who rather died virgin than married a man their parents had chosen for them?

    These are propably very silly question, feel free not to answer them If you are busy. I am just starting to realize how terrifyingly little I understand the Scripture -and how very wrong those little parts I thought I understood.

  2. Housewife, I think the mainstream churches have become rather liberal in recent times, but as far as I know it has been a traditional Protestant understanding of the verse (as proven by my link).

    Those rules were meant as rules for every day life, they were not meant as rules for war or politics or justice system. Something about not burning your neighbour's house to the ground because three days ago he called you a dastard. Forgiving small insults, not holding grudges, not seeking revenge for the smallest of offences, this sort of thing.

    As for the martyrs, there were so many of them, it's difficult to say, and anywhere, they often paid with their life for their beliefs, which is something to respect, even if we disagree with their motives.

    You are of a Protestant persuasion, aren't you? You could try reading old-fashioned Bible commentaries, like those of Matthew Henry I linked to.

  3. Housewife from FinlandSeptember 9, 2015 at 5:22 AM

    Yes, I am a protestant. And when I was younger and more involved with our Lutheran church, we actually were told that for example when Jesus said that we should forgive 77 times (Matthew 18:22), that means that if somebody crashes our car when we have borrowed it to him, we must a) forgive and b) when he wants to borrow our car again, we must let him, because forgiving means that we should behave like nothing ever happened!

    Disclaimer: this happened in rather small community, it is possible that this is not what Lutheran church teaches "officially". But I am getting more and more disappointed with our Lutheran church. It tolerates everything and judges nothing. It has no intention whatsoever to set our values or any guideluines. Everything goes. And if church itself does not believe that they, and they only, have the right religion, why would anybody choose that church? If it makes no difference wether you are atheist, gay, muslim, murderer or pedophile. God loves you and hell does not exist.

    Here I am, ranting again. :) Sorry. Something positive: I visited Orthodox Church today and it was lovely. There was no service, I just lid some candles and prayed a little, but it was very calming moment. And most beautiful church, I have never been there before.

    I'll give a look to that Matthew Henry link.

  4. Housewife from FinlandSeptember 9, 2015 at 5:26 AM

    Oh, and please do not be worried about me even if I sound like that I am in the middle of a cricis in my religious life. :) I just have to study more, that's all. I haven't really studied Bible or thought about religion in many, many years. I have just lived like religion is something like your eye color; part of you, but something you really do not need to pay attention to.

  5. Well, Housewife, obviously it all depends. If one is a millionaire and has 30 cars standing in the garage, it's one thing, but if it's a poor family and the car is the only means of transportation, that neighbour better pay and quick:)

    Lutheran church, unfortunately, is very liberal, though I heard that in the USA they have Orthodox Lutheran which are quite traditional. I know it's not good of me but sometimes when I see what nonsense mainstream churches are promoting I think that's it's probably for the best that not many Europeans attend. However, one can always believe in his heart.

  6. So interesting reading the commentaries. Turning the other cheek is not literal but a word picture. If we are insulted or even hurt by someone; we don't retaliate but instead show kindness. That doesn't mean that we don't address what happened but when we do address the wrong, it isn't to get even but to work towards a reconciliation. We hate to turn the other cheek and that is even in the little things. Honking horns, butting in line, being rude - those are examples of not wanting to turn the other cheek. Biblically, the Bible teaches us to put others ahead of ourselves. If I have ruined the neighbour's car; then I want to make sure that this is quickly resolved so that he is not inconvenienced. As far as churches go, discipline should be practised - not to punish but as a means to bring the offender to repentance.