What About “An Eye for an Eye”?

This is a supporting page for the Character of God and the Gospel Glossary entry for justice.

How does this quote fit in with justice?

“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,” (Exo 21:24)

The common idea of justice is something close to retribution.  Retribution is expressed when someone says something like “I’ll get you for that.” It implies inflicting equivalent or worse pain (physical, financial, to the reputation or otherwise) because the initial offender “deserves it.”  Anciently, if someone was injured by another and they killed in return that would be retribution. But the second injury (death) was often far more serious than the initial injury. Uncontrolled retributive justice often leads to escalation and things like family feuds that go on for many years such as the famous Hatfield and McCoy feud of the 1800s in Kentucky-West Virginia. Out-of-hand retributive justice is described by this quote:

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” – Ghandi

It was in response to such attitudes that God gave the Israelites at Mount Sinai what amounted to limits on retribution. “An eye for eye” essentially set a limit such that any retribution could not inflict worse injury than the one it was in response to. Retribution was the best God could expect from these people, who had been slaves for many years, at that stage of their moral development.  A look at how they acted in the book of Judges shows what they were like, the book ending by saying that:

“… every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)

When Jesus came He spoke of a higher standard. On the subject of retribution, He said it like this:

You have heard it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person.” (Matt 5:38)

He was saying you have heard it explained this way but I am telling you of a better way. He went on to suggest a different response to injury:

“But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matt 5:39-48)

So why the change? If we view Jesus’ way of dealing with injury as the ideal, we see that man’s idea of justice is almost never in accord with it. So why the “eye for an eye” directive in the Old Testament? It was another case of accommodation. God was not telling them what they should do in retribution; He was putting a limit on how far retribution could go. This accommodation was given about the same time as many others regarding rules of marriage, slavery etc. The reason is given by Jesus:

“Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.” (Matt 19:8)

God often took into account the circumstances and maturity of the people and made allowances for it. He did that like any loving father would.

accommodate one year old

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