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The biblical measure of justice is equivalence, stated as a maxim by Moses in the law “eye for eye” (Ex. 21:24). The ancient Roman jurists recognized that the principle of equivalence is the purest standard of justice. They named this rule the talion, from whichwe get our derived English word “retaliation.” But the justice underlying retaliation is to be measured. It must be neither excessive nor deficient. It is a rebalancing of the scales simply. Dante took this biblical theory of justice, with examples from the classical world, to express what he called the contrapasso, the theory of punishments he described in the infernal realm of his Divine Comedy. In short, “an eye for an eye” is the purest standard of justice revealed to man. In modernity, however, Mahatma Gandhi mocked this standard with the sophistic quip, “an eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind.” In his own spiritual blindness he was unable to see that without justice there can be no mercy. It is only in the cross that God vindicates justice while He demonstrates mercy.

In Genesis 27 we have an account of the wrong done by Jacob in a very great deception against his covenant family. Let’s consider Jacob’s trickery from the perspective of the ones he wronged, namely, his brother Esau and his father Isaac. Isaac clearly had wanted to favor his elder son Esau in the blessing, but Jacob took advantage of his father’s blindness to disadvantage his elder brother. How did God vindicate justice for so great a wrong? Jacob had won the blessing, for God had ordained he should have that blessing (Gen. 25:23). But God does not countenance evil means even for good ends, and so He must vindicate justice on behalf of a disadvantaged brother and a deceived father. How did He do this?

Let’s begin by considering the wrong done against Esau, Jacob’s brother. Jacob fled to Haran where he met and fell in love with Rachel. Jacob gave her all his heart, and agreed to work seven years for her father Laban in order to have her as his wife. But at the end of those years, when it was time for Jacob to marry Rachel, Jacob’s father-in-law deceived him by substituting his elder daughter for his younger daughter on the wedding night. Jacob’s father-in-law took advantage of Jacob’s own blindness in the darkness of night to deceive the deceiver. And so when Jacob discovered he had been tricked, he was greatly troubled (29:21-30). But he had been made to understand the heart of one who has been disadvantaged by substituting the elder for the younger, even as the younger had been substituted for the elder to his own advantage. Seven more years of hard labor would be required of Jacob to win the one he loved.

But there is yet another aspect to God’s vindication of justice against Jacob, this time to requite the wrong done to Isaac, Jacob’s father. Esau, the favorite son whom Isaac wanted to bless, was remarkably hairy, unlike Jacob, Isaac’s less- regarded son, who was smooth skinned. The Scripture tells us that Jacob took the “hairy” skin of a goat to strap onto his arms and neck in order to make his father believe he was the elder son. Thus a son used the skin of a goat to deceive a father. Now that deception troubled Isaac greatly. But many years later there would be strife among the sons of Jacob, too. Jacob’s younger son Joseph would be hated by his older brothers because he was the favorite of their father. So they killed a goat and dipped Joseph’s clothing into its blood in order to deceive their father into thinking that their younger brother was dead. And so Jacob, who had deceived his father by the hair of a goat, was shown the blood of a goat by his sons, all that a deceiver might again be deceived (37:18-35). And so Jacob learned the heart of a father whose sons grievously deceived him. Twenty-two years Jacob mourned for his son Joseph, suffering the sorrow of believing that his son was dead.

The Scripture warns us not to be deceived. God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man sows, that shall he likewise reap (Gal. 6:7). Jacob sowed deceit and disadvantage, and a most precise justice was exacted against him. But God is rich in mercy as well as justice. By Leah, Jacob’s wife through Laban’s deception, was born Judah, through whom Christ was to come (Gen. 29:35). And by Joseph, who was at last restored to Jacob, God delivered the world from a famine (41:57). So in all of this we see that God is rich in mercy as well as justice. In wisdom He works to accomplish His sovereign ends even through the just punishments He visits upon His errant covenant people for their evil means. 

The Bible clearly states the iron law of justice. God perfectly vindicates truth. Nowhere is that standard of justice expressed more clearly than in the cross of Christ. But there is a divine alchemy in the cross, where justice is made most evident. For there the iron law of justice is made into a golden scepter of mercy. In Christ, God’s justice is perfectly satisfied, and mercy is made to praise Him.  

Isaac and Esau

A Lesser Benediction

Keep Reading The Wisdom Books of the Old Testament

From the February 2007 Issue
Feb 2007 Issue