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What Does 'An Eye for an Eye' Mean?

As Christians, we are to hold ourselves to a higher rule than the law. We must hold ourselves to the standard of love that Jesus gave us. However, Jesus’ command, “turn them the other cheek should not be used to excuse abuse, extortion, or breaking the law.

What Does 'An Eye for an Eye' Mean?

An eye for an eye seems to be a simplistic form of justice that is focused on retribution. Yet this phrase is found three times in the Old Testament and is quoted by Jesus in the New Testament. Many people wonder if “eye for eye” was used literally in carrying out biblical judgments. Both Jewish and Christian scholars believe that “eye for eye” was used by judges to create proportionate penalties for harm caused to other people or animals, and that people were not maimed in the application of this law.

An Eye for an Eye in the Old Testament - Exodus 21:24

The first time the expression “an eye for an eye” is used in the Bible is in Exodus 21:24. It is in a series of commands regarding assault and injury. The previous chapter of Exodus contains the Ten Commandments. God gave Moses these commands only three months after the Hebrews escaped slavery in Egypt (Exodus 19:1). Over 600,000 men, not including women and children, left Egypt, and scholars estimate about 2.5 million people were in the Exodus (Exodus 12:37).

Imagine a three-month camping trip with almost everyone who lives in the city of Chicago!

Successfully traveling across the desert with 2.5 million relatives meant having a common set of rules and standards for everyone in the community. In Egypt, the Israelites had been slaves of Pharaoh. The Egyptian rulers were arbitrary and unjust. The expression, “Might makes right” summarizes the rule of law in ancient times.

The people of Israel were different than the nations around them. They didn't have a king or a pharaoh. The law was to be their guide and standard. The weakest or poorest person among them had the same rights as the wealthiest or strongest. Moses had spent significant time during the first three months of the Exodus settling disputes among the people by informing them of God's decrees and instructions (Exodus 18:13-23). Bible scholars believe that Exodus 21 contains the summary of judgments in specific situations that form a type of case law for making future decisions.

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 (Exodus 21:22-25).

An Eye for an Eye Misunderstood

In context, this verse is in response to a particular situation where a woman gives birth prematurely after being hit by someone who is fighting with another person. If the baby or the pregnant woman was injured or even killed due to the carelessness of the people around her, her husband had a right to seek restitution for the harm done to his family.  

The judge took into account the husband's demands, but the final judgment was to be made by a judge as the court allows. The law was to prevent arbitrary vigilante justice that could quickly escalate into a never-ending cycle of retaliation.

Many people wonder if the phrase, “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” was applied literally. In Jewish Oral Tradition, called the Talmud and among Christian scholars, the consensus is no; this was not taken literally but instead used as a standard by judges to set the fine and appropriately punish the perpetrator for the harm he caused.

In the ancient Jewish commentary, “Targum of Jonathan paraphrases it; ‘the price of an eye for an eye,’ Rashi, a 12th-century Jewish Rabbi also known as Jarchi wrote, ‘he that puts out his neighbour's eye must pay him the price of his eye, according to the price of a servant sold in the market, and so of all the rest; for not taking away of members strictly is meant, as our doctors here interpret it.’”

The ESV Study Bible explains “as the preceding and following laws show (vv.26-37) ‘eye for eye’ was not taken literally. It was simply a formula for proportionate punishment or compensation. One implication, however, is that the death of the baby seems to be judged according to the same principle that applies to the taking of other human life (e.g. the death of the mother.)”

The penalty from shedding blood or taking the mother's life and the baby's life comes from all people being made in the image of God.

Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind (Genesis 9:6).

Every Person Has Value - Leviticus 24

This verse was to ensure a proportionate penalty for the loss of life, limb, and future lost benefits. Jewish tradition explains, “One who injures another' is liable to pay five kinds of penalties: for damage, for pain, for medical costs, for loss of livelihood, and for humiliation.”

The concept of restitution is also found in Leviticus 24:18, “Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution — life for life. Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury.”

Not only does the biblical law address punishment for physical harm to people and animals, but it also applies to the potential damage caused by a false witness. 

Then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot (Deuteronomy 19:19-21).

This law had a dual purpose of punishing the person who intended to harm someone by falsely testifying against them with the same punishment and warning the community against using the courts as a pawn to carry out false justice.

An Eye for an Eye in the New Testament - Matthew 5:38

The application of “an eye for eye” had changed during the 1,300 years between the law given to Moses and Jesus’ time on earth. In Jesus’ time, it had become a means of justifying petty retaliation between individuals and an obligation not to overlook an insult or harm, rather than a standard by which judges award damages after a loss.

“The law which authorized retaliation (a principle acted upon by all primitive people) was a civil one. It was given to regulate the procedure of the public magistrate in determining the amount of compensation in every case of injury but did not encourage feelings of private revenge. The later Jews, however, mistook it for a moral precept, and were corrected by our Lord.”

“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” (Matthew 5:38-42).

Jesus is calling his followers to resist seeking revenge for petty and temporal insults. This passage is followed by Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:44, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus’ examples of being slapped on the cheek, being sued for a shirt, or walking a mile are relatively minor compared to the original context of “eye for eye” found in Exodus. Jesus was calling his followers to rise above their desire for revenge in these minor and temporary situations.

What Does This Mean?

As Christians, we are to hold ourselves to a higher rule than the law. We must hold ourselves to the standard of love that Jesus gave us. However, Jesus’ command, “turn them the other cheek also” or “hand over your coat as well” should not be used to excuse abuse, extortion, or breaking the law.

Under Jewish law, legal standards of proportionate justice found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy for crimes such as murder, physical abuse, harming an infant, or framing someone for a crime would still apply in a court. However, the death penalty was carried out by the Romans during Jesus’ time, not by the Jewish courts (John 18:31). Many of our modern expectations for equal justice and reparation, find a basis in ancient Jewish law.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/kwasny221


Penny Noyes, M.Ed. is the author of Embracing Change - Learning to Trust God from the Women of the Bible and two books about Hezekiah. You can follow Penny on her blog and on Instagram @pennynoyes.