Why the right eye? (Matthew 5:29)

Faith is allegiance to Jesus as king. And once you see him as king, the stories of Israel’s previous kings take on fresh meaning.

Open 1 Samuel 10:26 – 11:15 and Matthew 5:29.

Matthew Bates releases a new book next week: Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King. What an intriguing title! The faith that saves is not believing doctrines about how salvation works. The faith that saves is giving allegiance to King Jesus, recognizing the person who saves the world from evil and brings us back under God’s reign. Wow!

People who don’t understand Jesus’ kingship are often puzzled by how the New Testament writers used the Old (e.g. Jesus fulfils what?). The puzzle is resolved into a clear picture when you see Jesus as the king who finally brings Israel’s stalled kingdom to fulfilment, restoring God’s kingship over Israel and over the nations. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfil them. Nothing God decreed would disappear from the story until he fulfilled it all (5:17-18).

This perspective gives you fresh eyes on the kingdom stories of the Old Testament. Though they had YHWH as king, Israel was constantly pummelled in the time of the judges. They asked for a human king to save them from their enemies. God gave them Saul, though some did not give him their allegiance (1 Samuel 10:27). They didn’t trust a mere farmer like Saul to save them.

The Ammonites besieged Jabesh, a town east of the Jordan, far from Saul’s base. Jabesh surrendered, but the Ammonite king wanted to humiliate them:

1 Samuel 11:2 (ESV)
But Nahash the Ammonite said to them, “On this condition I will make a treaty with you, that I gouge out all your right eyes, and thus bring disgrace on all Israel.”

Which is worse? For the whole town to die resisting evil? Or for the people to live on under foreign rule, dismembered and in disgrace?

Saul collected an army and sent word, “Tomorrow, by the time the sun is hot, you shall have salvation” (1 Samuel 11:9). Israel’s new king saved them from humiliation and defeat.

This victory established Saul’s kingship. So, what about those who had refused to give Saul their allegiance? The Hebrew phrase applied to them in 10:27 was sons of belial. Belial means wickedness, especially resistance to authority, insubordination. Since they resist correction, sons of belial deserved the harshest penalty. Should Saul therefore make a public example of those who would not trust him to save Israel? That’s the advice Saul is given (11:12).

But at this early stage, power has not yet corrupted Saul. He still sees himself as the servant of YHWH, called to save his people:

1 Samuel 11:13 (ESV)
But Saul said, “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the Lord has worked salvation in Israel.”

What grace! Samuel calls everyone, including the rebellious sons of belial, to give allegiance to YHWH’s anointed ruler:

1 Samuel 11:14–15 (ESV)
14 Then Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingdom.” 15 So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal.

By New Testament times, belial was personified as Belial, a synonym for Satan. In the Pseudepigrapha, Belial was the tempter. In the Qumran community, Belial would lead the children of darkness in battle against the children of light. In Jesus’ thinking, Israel’s enemy was Satan (4:10).

Like Saul, Jesus has been proclaimed by a prophet, anointed with the Spirit, and declared by God to be the Son reigning on earth on his behalf. But there are some in Israel who don’t trust him to save his people. How should he treat these sons of belial?

Should he announce the death penalty on them because their hearts betray their murderous attitudes towards him (5:21-22)? Should he call them to stop offering sacrifices, to reconcile with him before they sacrifice their king (5:23-26)? Should he call them to judge themselves so they won’t be judged (5:27-30)?

If Israel’s rulers keep resisting him, the people will suffer. How many bodies were thrown into Gehenna when Babylon invaded? Not only leaders but the people were humiliated and crushed. So perhaps Jesus views these sons of belial as driven by the same evil that drove the Ammonite king to humiliate God’s people by putting out their right eye. Under their current rulers, the people will suffer this kind of humiliation if they refuse to give allegiance to the anointed king sent to save his people.

There is no direct evidence that Jesus had 1 Samuel 11 in mind when he talked about gouging out an eye, specifically the right eye. Perhaps it’s just coincidence that when Saul first established Israel as a kingdom, he had to deal with sons of belial who refused to give him their allegiance, and that when Jesus re-established the kingdom he had to face ensconced rulers who kept the people oppressed so the kingdom could not be established (5:20).

But I wonder if some of these stories of the kingdom being established did encourage and inspire Jesus. He certainly confronted the existing leaders who refused to give him allegiance. And he certainly held out grace to his enemies: “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the Lord has worked salvation in Israel.”


What others are saying

David Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 313 (emphasis original):

Thus the purpose of this occasion at Gilgal seems to be to confirm Saul’s kingship … It was necessary for all the people to acknowledge Saul as the king of Israel before the Lord.

Benedikt Otzen, “Belial” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), Volume 2, 136:

The personified use of beliyyaʿal in the other Qumran texts and in the Pseudepigrapha is more typical for this period. Here “Belial” or “Beliar” (so outside the Qumran texts) is identical with Satan (cf. 2 Cor. 6:15). In the dualistic Qumran theology, he is the prince of this world, the leader of the children of darkness in the war against the children of light, and the tempter. In the Pseudepigrapha (esp. in the Martyrdom of Isa. and XII P.), Beliar is primarily the tempter who lures man into sin by his spirits and rules over sinful man.

The NRSV inserts the following paragraph above 1 Samuel 11:1, based on 4QSam (Dead Sea Scroll) and Josephus (Antiquities 6.68–71). While this move is unjustified, it does illustrate the currency of this story in the first century:

Now Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had been grievously oppressing the Gadites and the Reubenites. He would gouge out the right eye of each of them and would not grant Israel a deliverer. No one was left of the Israelites across the Jordan whose right eye Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had not gouged out. But there were seven thousand men who had escaped from the Ammonites and had entered Jabesh-gilead.

[previous: Ripping out an eye?]

[next: Divorce]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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