Yeshua instructed his followers, “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’” (Matthew 5:39).
Is it a godly thing not to resist one who is evil? Biblical heroes are known for standing up against evil and vanquishing it. Should David have “turned the other cheek” to Goliath? Should Moses have chosen not to resist Pharaoh? Should Queen Esther have refrained from defending her people against Haman?
Some interpret this verse to support the idea of absolute nonviolence. But what did this Scripture mean in a first-century Jewish context? To find out, we must look at some examples from the prophets as well as modern-day Middle Eastern culture.
Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations in response to the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. It is a book describing the horrendous suffering of the Jews as they were taken, in captivity, to Babylon.
In chapter 3, Jeremiah begins to explain how one should react to such suffering. We are counseled that one should “give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults” (Lamentations 3:30). In ancient Jewish culture, striking a person’s cheek was a way to inflict shame, not just pain, on a person.
Ancient Jewish law details the compensation to be rewarded to victims of abuse. Perpetrators of violence were forced to pay the medical bills and see to the recovery of their victims. Remuneration was in order, even in cases in which no doctor visit was necessary but a person had merely been humiliated or insulted.
A slap on the cheek falls into this category. It is discussed in the same section of Jewish law as many other humiliating offenses are:
If someone slaps another person, he must pay two hundred zuzim. If it was backhanded, he must pay four hundred zuzim. If someone flicks a person’s ear, pulls his hair, spits so that it lands on him, strips his cloak off, or pulls off a woman’s headscarf in public, [the perpetrator] must pay four hundred zuzim. (m.Bava Kamma 8:6)
In Middle Eastern culture it is customary to use the right hand for most activities. Striking a person on the right cheek with the right hand would require using a backhanded motion. A backhanded slap is considered twice as offensive as an openhanded slap and thus subject to double the fine.
Filled with Insults
From this we can see that Yeshua was not speaking about physical violence, which required payment, but about insults. He was instructing us to allow ourselves to be insulted without retaliating. This follows the same theme as his other teachings about humbling ourselves, forgiving others, and seeking reconciliation. A similar concept appears in Yeshua’s lesson on humility at a banquet:
When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor … But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher.” Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 14:8-11)
We can see teaching to this effect in Judaism today as well. The famous Chasidic teacher Rebbe Nachman of Breslav said:
If a person flees from honor, minimizing his own honor but maximizing the honor of God, he merits godly honor .... It is impossible to achieve this honor except through repentance. The essence of repentance is that when one hears himself being insulted, he does not react but remains silent. (Likkutei Mohoran 6:1-2)
The broader context of Lamentations teaches us:
It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope. (Lamentations 3:26-29)
Our response to being humiliated should not be to react or take revenge but to wait silently and look forward to vindication from God.
The evil person whom we are not to resist is not a foreign power, an evil dictator, or an armed home intruder. It is a person in our community who has offended or humiliated us. The ancient rabbis identified hatred, disunity, and cycles of vengeance as causes of the Temple’s destruction. It seems that Yeshua also identified this problem in his generation and prompted people to repent.