In August 2015, Donald Trump said the Bible was his favorite book, but then he couldn’t name his favorite verse. Eight months later, the Republican front-runner can cite his favorite verse—but, embarrassingly, he has no idea what he’s talking about.
When radio host Bob Lonsberry asked Trump on Thursday if he had a favorite Bible verse that has “informed” his thinking or character, the Presbyterian candidate cited the Old Testament punishment of “an eye for an eye.” He applied the verse to mean that the government should treat in kind those who have taken American jobs, money, and health. Trump’s Bible reference might have been music to the ears of the many evangelicals who question whether he is as religious as he claims—if only he’d understood it. But while Trump may be a winner when it comes to delegates, he is a loser when it comes to Biblical scholarship.
The passage Trump references is Exodus 21:22-25, in which Moses dictates the following law, which he received from God:
If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
In English, the verse seems pretty clear: God demands that penalties be equivalent to the corresponding crime. If you take a dollar from me, I should be able to take a dollar from you. If you cut off my leg, you’ll be swimming in a circle the rest of your life. And if you kill someone else, buh-bye. The law of retaliation, or lex talionis, isn’t “a particularly nice thing” (Trump’s words), but there it is in black ink on white paper. And who are we to argue with the Almighty?
But most Jews and Christians don’t actually believe this verse teaches pure retribution like Trump claims.
Since this passage is taken from the Jewish Scriptures, it is an ancient Israelite law and was written in Hebrew long before it was translated into English. So it seems appropriate to give Judaism first consideration. According to Orthodox Rabbinic tradition, this passage “never intended to mandate physical punishment in personal injury cases” and instead “means the perpetrator must pay the monetary value commensurate with the victim’s injury.”
But even if Trump’s eye-gouging interpretation were correct, how does he determine which Hebrew laws to observe and which ones to toss aside. Flip a few pages forward to the book of Leviticus, and you’ll find a penalty of death by stoning for sleeping with married women. Certainly Trump, a serial adulterer, doesn’t read that one quite as literally.
But back to the Scripture passage at hand. Trump finds just as little support for his interpretation from his Christian brethren as he does from the Jews. Theologians in the Christian tradition interpret Old Testament laws through the lens of Jesus and the New Testament. Sometimes this is a difficult task because these sources do not directly address every Old Testament law. This is not this case with Trump’s “favorite verse,” however.
In Jesus’s famed Sermon on the Mount—something any serious Christian Bible-lover is surely familiar with—he speaks directly to the lex talionis:
You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
More liberal Christian theologians interpret this teaching as a repudiation of the Old Testament by Jesus. More conservative ones emphasize that Jesus is not outright disagreeing with Hebrew law, but he is asking his followers to live in a different way. As evangelical New Testament scholar Craig Keener writes regarding this passage, “Jesus is not so much revoking a standard for justice as calling his followers not to make use of it; they qualify justice with mercy because they do not need to avenge their honor.”
It goes without saying that waving a Bible around isn’t the same as understanding its contents. But when it comes to Trump, the distance between the two is such a gaping chasm it would make the Grand Canyon jealous. No matter which interpretation of Trump’s favorite verse you prefer—Rabbinic, liberal Christian, or the more predominant conservative Christian—the Republican candidate’s is just not correct.
Trump ended his comment to Lonsberry by saying, “We can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.” Trump is right, we can learn from the Bible. And an awful lot of us would appreciate it if he would, too.