My friend Walker posted on his blog something I had written for an online debate with a notorious evangelical anti-Mormon over the context of certain portions of the Sermon on the Mount.
There are five occurences of smiting the cheek in the Old Testament. Six, if you count a duplicate in Chronicles.
The implications of smiting on the cheek are made clear in the following two scriptures.
"They have gaped upon me with their mouth; they have smitten me upon the cheek reproachfully; they have gathered themselves together against me." - Job 16:10.
"He giveth his cheek to him that smiteth him: he is filled full with reproach." -Lam 3:30.
In these verses, smiting on the cheek is linked to insults. This holds true as well for the following three scriptures:
"And the king of Israel said unto Jehoshaphat, There is yet one man, Micaiah the son of Imlah, by whom we may enquire of the LORD: but I hate him; for he doth not prophesy good concerning me, but evil. And Jehoshaphat said, Let not the king say so. Then the king of Israel called an officer, and said, Hasten hither Micaiah the son of Imlah. And the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah sat each on his throne, having put on their robes, in a void place in the entrance of the gate of Samaria; and all the prophets prophesied before them. And Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah made him horns of iron: and he said, Thus saith the LORD, With these shalt thou push the Syrians, until thou have consumed them. And all the prophets prophesied so, saying, Go up to Ramothgilead, and prosper: for the LORD shall deliver it into the king's hand. And the messenger that was gone to call Micaiah spake unto him, saying, Behold now, the words of the prophets declare good unto the king with one mouth: let thy word, I pray thee, be like the word of one of them, and speak that which is good. And Micaiah said, As the LORD liveth, what the LORD saith unto me, that will I speak. So he came to the king. And the king said unto him, Micaiah, shall we go against Ramothgilead to battle, or shall we forbear? And he answered him, Go, and prosper: for the LORD shall deliver it into the hand of the king. And the king said unto him, How many times shall I adjure thee that thou tell me nothing but that which is true in the name of the LORD? And he said, I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd: and the LORD said, These have no master: let them return every man to his house in peace.
And the king of Israel said unto Jehoshaphat, Did I not tell thee that he would prophesy no good concerning me, but evil? And he said, Hear thou therefore the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left. And the LORD said, Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramothgilead? And one said on this manner, and another said on that manner. And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the LORD, and said, I will persuade him. And the LORD said unto him, Wherewith? And he said, I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so. Now therefore, behold, the LORD hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets, and the LORD hath spoken evil concerning thee. But Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah went near, and smote Micaiah on the cheek, and said, Which way went the Spirit of the LORD from me to speak unto thee? And Micaiah said, Behold, thou shalt see in that day, when thou shalt go into an inner chamber to hide thyself. And the king of Israel said, Take Micaiah, and carry him back unto Amon the governor of the city, and to Joash the king's son; And say, Thus saith the king, Put this fellow in the prison, and feed him with bread of affliction and with water of affliction, until I come in peace. And Micaiah said, If thou return at all in peace, the LORD hath not spoken by me. And he said, Hearken, O people, every one of you." - 1 Kgs 22:8-28.
At the city gates (centre of public life), in front of the leaders of the people, Zedekiah slaps Micaiah on the cheek, humiliating him, this for attempting to deceive the kings.
"Now gather thyself in troops, O daughter of troops: he hath laid siege against us: they shall smite the judge of Israel with a rod upon the cheek." - Micah 5:1 (4:14).
The besieging enemy will smite the ruler with a rod (symbol of authority) upon the cheek, an humiliating gesture of subjugation.
"I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about. Arise, O LORD; save me, O my God: for thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone; thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly." - Psalm 3:6-7 (7-8)
The Psalmist calls upon the Lord to inflict a humiliating and crushing defeat on his enemies.
Now on to material from the rest of the ancient Near East:
In the "Descent of Ishtar into the Netherworld," Ereshkigal of the abode of the dead curses a eunuch (or government official) with a great curse and says:
"The food of the gutters of the city shall be your food;
The sewers of the city shall be your drink;
The shadow of the wall shall be your station;
The threshold shall be your habitation;
the besotted and the thirsty shall smite your cheeks."
The eunuch will live in the gutter, and be humiliated by the lowest of the low- the drunks and bums.
An Akkadian maqlu text preserves the following imprecation:
"I strike your cheek, I tear out your tongue." - G. Meier, "Die assyrische Beschworung Maqlu", 50, 8:101.
As part of the Akitu, or Babylonian New Year ritual, the urgallu, or priest, would do the following on day five:
"After reciting this, he shall remove the table; he shall summon the craftsmen together, he shall deliver the table with all that is on it to the craftsmen, and shall cause them to carry it to Nabu; the craftsmen shall take it, they shall go in the…to the bank of the canal; when Nabu arrives at ….they shall set it up for Nabu; when they have placed the table before Nabu, while Nabu is getting out of the ship Id-da-he-du, they shall offer the loaves of the table; then they shall place on the table water to wash the hands of the king. Then they shall conduct the king into Esagila; the craftsmen shall go out of the gate. When the king has come in before Bel, the urigallu shall come out of the chapel; then he shall receive from the hands of the king, the scepter, the ring, and the harpe, or ceremonial weapon; he shall take his royal crown; he shall bring these things in before Bel, and shall place them on a seat before Bel. He shall come out of the chapel; he shall strike the king's cheek; he shall place…behind him; he shall bring him before Bel; he shall pull his ears; he shall make him kneel on the ground; the king shall repeat the following once:
I have not sinned, lord of the countries; I have not despised thy divinity;
I have not destroyed Babel; I have not caused it to be scattered;
I have not shaken Esagila; I have not forgotten its rituals;
I have not smitten suppliants on the cheek;
I have not humiliated them;
I care for Babel; I have not broken down its walls."
- James Pritchard, "Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament", pg. 334.
Around 750 BC, the Aramaeans Mattiel, king of Arpad, and Bargayah, king of KTK entered into a parity treaty. On stela I from Sefire the following curses are recorded, to be heaped upon the violator of said treaty:
40. [Just as] this calf is cut in two, so may Mattiel be cut in two, and may his nobles be cut in two!
[And just as]
41. a [har]lot is stripped naked], so may the wives of Mattiel be stripped naked, and the wives of his offspring, and the wives of [his] no[bles!
42. And just as this wax woman is taken] and one strikes her on the face, so may the [wives of Mattiel] be taken [and…
The laws of eshnunna and the laws of Hammurabi both treat knocking out eyes, teeth, and slaps on the face as severe offences, for which large fines are levied.
A little after Christ’s time, we read in the Mishnah, t. Baba Kama 8:6 that, “If one boxes another man's ear, he has to pay him a sela. Rabbi Yehudah in the name of Rabbi Yosei HaGalili says, [He has to pay him] a maneh [i.e., one hundred dinar;]. If he slapped him he has to pay him two hundred zuz; [if he did it] with the back of his hand, he has to pay him four hundred zuz. If he pulled his ear, plucked his hair, spat so that the spittle reached him, removed his garment from upon him, uncovered the head of a woman in the marketplace, he must pay four hundred zuz.”
The Tosefta Baba Kama 9:31 expands the ruling:
"If one struck someone with the back of his hand… he must pay four hundred zuz, not because it is a painful blow but because it is a humiliating blow."
Smiting the cheek was part of the humliations Christ was subjected to after his arrest.
“And the men that held Jesus mocked him, and smote him. And when they had blindfolded him, they struck him on the face, and asked him, saying, Prophesy, who is it that smote thee? And many other things blasphemously spake they against him.” - Luke 22:63-65.
Nahum Sarna, in his article "Legal Terminology in Psalm 3:8," relates an account from the life of Abraham Shapira:
“In modern times, Abraham Shapira (1870-1965), head watchman of Petah Tikvah and a keen student of the ways and customs of the Bedouin, once observed the trial of two members of a tribe. One had been accused of stabbing someone with a sword, the other of having smacked someone on the face. The presiding sheikh dealt leniently with the stabber but severely with the other one. In explaining his verdict, he stated: ‘The striking of the cheek is a graver offence than stabbing with a sword, for the latter enhances the dignity of a man, while striking him on the cheek humiliates him.’"
Earlier in the same study, Sarna comments that “the various contexts make it absolutely clear , beyond the peradventure of a doubt, that to be struck on the cheek was an intolerable insult, a deep humiliation, not a mere slight to be soon forgotten.”
From personal experience growing up in Israel, I remember that fights, both among Jewish kids and Arab ones, did not get truly nasty until someone spat on another, or slapped him on the face. If that happened, knifings or severe beatings would immediately follow. Things could be patched up at any moment BEFORE such insults. After them, impossible without third-party intervention and serious peace-making efforts.
Back to the Sermon on the Mount, we saw that eye, tooth and smote cheek are mentioned together. The context could not be any clearer: Christ talked of not returning the ultimate personal insults. Nowhere does he say that man must not defend himself, family and friends. Nowhere does he say that if one does not follow that one is not a Christian.