Eye for Eye, Tooth for Tooth
This is not a license for do-it-yourself surgery!

Paul asks: What does 'eye for eye' mean in the Bible? I am in a class at school that talks about the beginnings of British law, and the teacher says 'eye for eye' comes from the bible
Question about Right and Wrong in the Bible: God's laws
Motivation - Curiosity: General interest; Student: Class discussion
Bible view - Ancient literature - [question 4, Friday, 20-May-2011]

... thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
- Exodus 21:23ff [KJV]

In The Mikado, the famous comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, the imperial Japanese lawmaker sings this clever lyric:

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time
To let the punishment fit the crime

He is striving for the Lex Talionis, or the law of talion (punishment identical to offense), or the law of retribution. The well known biblical passage 'an eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth' first appears in Exodus, but also elsewhere in the Bible, including the New Testament, where it applies to the entire range of personal injury, including murder, but it never gives anyone the right to poke an eye out.

Physical Only in One Case

Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.
- Genesis 9:6 [KJV]

The Lex Talionis existed among several ancient cultures and was taken literally in many of them, including the Babylonians. For the nation of Israel, however, it was tempered by the Bible so that it was taken literally only in one case, the case of capital offense. In all other cases, the biblical mandate of 'an eye for eye, a tooth for tooth' is a matter of monetary compensation, not physical infliction, as explained in the next section below.

The Ten Commandments in Exodus chapter 20 establishes the Sanctity of Human Life in its sixth component: Thou shalt not murder. The infinite worth of human life is based on the fact that man is created 'in the image of God' (Genesis 1:27), and is so sacred that its intentional taking by another is compensated only by a literal application of Lex Talionis. God makes this perfectly clear in His Covenant with Noah in Genesis 9, shown in the box above. He also makes it clear that monetary compensation will not do for premeditated murder:

Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death.
- Numbers 35:31 [KJV]

Manslaughter and Other Offenses

And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death. And he that killeth a beast shall make it good; beast for beast.
- Leviticus 24:17ff [KJV]

The Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) draws a distinction between first degree murder and other forms of homicide. Exodus 21 lays this out as follows:

He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death. And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee. But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die. [Exodus 21:12ff, KJV]

The ideas of lieing in wait and slaying with guile point to first degree murder. Other forms do not warrant the death penalty and, in fact, are outlined here as Acts of God with God delivering the victim into the slayer's hand.

After stating the Ten Commandments in summary form, the book of Exodus goes on to develop the Commandments using a series of refined laws and specific examples. The 'eye for eye' principle appears in the context of a scuffle between two men wherein a pregnant woman is injured. If the woman loses her baby, a fine is paid. If the woman loses her baby and is also hurt herself, the monetary retribution is to be proportional to her injury, i.e., life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, and so forth.

There is a parallel passage in Leviticus 24 (box above) which explains what terms like 'eye for eye' mean. This passage deals with the question of a man killing an animal. Hence terms like beast for beast, life for life, and eye for eye are legal terms meaning 'fair compensation.'

Just to be sure we do not miss the distinction between literal and monetary application of Lex Talionis, Leviticus repeats the distinction a few verses down the page:

And he that killeth a beast, he shall restore it: and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death.
- Leviticus 24:21 [KJV]

Jesus on 'An Eye for an Eye'

Turn the other cheek!
- Matthew 5:39 [paraphrase]

There is a widespread idea that somehow the New Testament eliminates the Old Testament or replaces it. This is certainly not the case and you will not find this concept espoused in either one. Instead, the New Testament continues and expands the Old Testament. A good place to see this is Jesus' discourse on 'an eye for an eye' when He taught:

You have heard that it was said 'An eye for and eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too. And if someone takes your to court to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry is pack one mile, carry it two miles. [Matthew 5:38ff, GNB]

Simply put, Jesus is telling us to be overly fair when compensating wrongdoing, even to the point of over-compensating. If you accidentally kill your neighbor's cow, give him two cows to compensate, not just one.

By the way, turn the other cheek does not mean be a whimp, as many would have us believe. Jesus Himself was far from a whimp, His disciples were all bold men (some were downright feisty), and the Apostle Paul makes it clear that, while peace is desirable, there are circumstances where peace is not completely achievable:

If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. [Romans 12:18, NASB]

The Apostle Paul also makes it clear, in the next verse, that there is no place for revenge in interpersonal relationships:

Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
- Romans 12:19 [KJV]

Revenge is reserved for God and, by extension, state governments (see Romans chapter 13).

Jews and Christians Agree

On these points Jews and Christians agree. Dr. J. H. Hertz, Chief Rabbi of the British Empire and editor of The Pentateuch and Haftorahs (1962) sees it fitting to quote Church father Augustine who 'was one of the first to declare that taliation was a law of justice, not of hatred; one eye, not two, for an eye; one tooth, not ten, for a tooth; one life, not a whole family, for a life.' Dr. Hertz goes on to say 'the enunciation of this principle is today recognized as one of the most far-reaching steps in human progress. It means the substitution of legal punishment, and as far as possible the exact equivalent of the injury, in place of wild revenge.'

by Paul Richards

Mon, 26-Jun-2017 03:44:30 GMT, unknown: 642320 ABGrSgYmIAGK6
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