Would you please explain the meaning of the Old Testament law, requiring "an eye for an eye" and "a tooth for a tooth"?


This well-known law has been grossly misunderstood by some, thinking
that God actually required the maiming of an offender who was guilty of
injuring another person. However, this is clearly not the intended
meaning of the “an eye for an eye” principle, and the Church of God has
never taught otherwise.

The “an eye for an eye” principle is
commonly known as the “lex talionis,” which is Latin for the “law of
retaliation.” It is mentioned in the Old Testament in Exodus 21:23-27;
Leviticus 24:18-20; and Deuteronomy 19:21.

Rather than
requiring the literal maiming of a guilty person, this law has been
correctly understood as requiring equivalent monetary compensation. The
law made it also clear that victims were to be compensated fairly, as
determined by judges and magistrates. Victims were not to resort to

The Wikipedia Encyclopedia states the following about the “an eye for an eye” principle:

basis of this form of law is the principle of proportionate punishment,
often expressed under the motto ‘Let the punishment fit the crime’…
The Torah’s first mention of the phrase ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for
a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot’ appears in Exodus
(21:22-27). The Talmud… based upon a critical interpretation of the
original Hebrew text, explains that this biblical concept entails
monetary compensation in tort cases. The same interpretation applies to
this phrase as it appears in Leviticus (24:18-20). Personal retribution
is explicitly forbidden by the Torah (Leviticus 19:18), such reciprocal
justice being strictly reserved for the social magistrate (usually in
the form of regional judges)… The Oral Law explains, based upon the
biblical verses, that the Bible mandates a sophisticated five-part
monetary form of compensation, consisting of payment for ‘Damages,
Pain, Medical Expenses, Incapacitation, and Mental Anguish’…

the Torah also discusses a form of direct reciprocal justice, where the
phrase ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a
foot for a foot’ makes another appearance (Deuteronomy 19:16-21). Here,
the Torah discusses false witnesses who conspire to testify against
another person. The Torah requires the court to ‘do to him as he had
conspired to do to his brother’ (ibid. 19:19)… the court carries out
this direct reciprocal justice (including when the punishment
constitutes the death penalty). Otherwise, the offenders receive
lashes… it is impossible to read ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth
for a tooth’ literally in the context of a conspiratorial witness…
the phrase is never meant literally in the Torah.”

In a related
article, the Wikipedia Encyclopedia, in quoting from the website of the
Union of Orthodox Congregations, points out:

“The oral law of
Judaism holds that this verse [Exodus 21:24] was, from the beginning,
never meant to be followed literally… to follow the spirit of this
law, it must be interpreted as applying to financial damages that are
commensurate with the severity of the crime… Ah, you ask, how do you
know the Torah means that, and is not to be taken literally? Because
the Torah says, ‘Do not take a ransom for the life of a Murderer, who
is wicked to the extent that he must die’; for the murderer, there is
no monetary amount that is sufficient to grant him atonement in the
eyes of God! Only payment with his life will secure that atonement! But
for other forms of injury, we will [inflict monetary damages on] the

In addition, Jamieson, Fausset and Brown state in
their Commentary on the Whole Bible, pertaining to Exodus 21: “The law
which authorized retaliation… 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.”

The Soncino
Commentary states the following in regard to Exodus 21:24-25: “In all
these cases monetary compensation is intended. Strict justice demanded
the principle of measure for measure…”

The NIV Study Bible,
1985, points out to Leviticus 24:19: “This represents a statement of
principle. The penalty is to fit the crime, not exceed it. An actual
eye or tooth was not to be required, nor is there evidence that such a
penalty was ever exacted.”

As mentioned, the Church of God has
taught consistently that the “an eye for an eye principle” was not
meant to be applied literally in the sense of maiming a person. A
careful analysis of the Scriptures clearly confirms the accuracy of
this conclusion.

For instance, we read in Exodus 21:22-25: “If
men fight, and hurt a woman with [an unborn] child, so that she gives
birth prematurely, yet no harm [to the woman] follows, he shall surely
be punished accordingly [this shows, by the way, that in God’s eyes, it
is wrong to hurt or kill an unborn child] as the woman’s husband
imposes on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any
harm follows [to the woman], then you shall give life for life, eye for
eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn,
wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” In other words, the
specific, determined value of the life, the eye, the tooth, etc. had to
be paid. The whole context of this passage in Exodus 21 is addressing
COMPENSATION, not REVENGE or literal MAIMING. This can also be seen,
when continuing in verses 26 and 27:

“If a man strikes the eye
of his male or female servant, and destroys it, he shall let him go
free for the sake of the eye [freedom from slavery compensated for the
eye–that was the value of the eye in such a case]. And if he knocks
out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free
for the sake of his tooth [again, in such a case, the value of the
tooth was freedom from slavery].”

The same intent of having to pay just compensation can be seen, when analyzing Leviticus 24:17-21:

kills any man [intentionally and deliberately, with foresight and
malice] shall surely be put to death. Whoever kills an animal shall
make it good [or, make restitution, pay for the value], animal for
animal. If a man causes disfiguration of his neighbor, as he has done,
so shall it be done to him [The Soncino Commentary points out that in
the Hebrew, the words for “done unto him” literally mean “given unto
him”; “he must pay the value of the damage in money that passes from
hand to hand”]– fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth;
as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done
[lit. given] unto him [that is, monetary compensation shall be given to
the disfigured person]. And whoever kills an animal shall restore it
[pay for its value]; but whoever kills a man shall be put to death [in
the case of a deliberate malicious murder, no monetary compensation was
allowed in lieu of capital punishment].”

In the New Testament,
Jesus Christ sometimes used figures of speech to stress a point, but He
did not mean a literal application in those cases. For instance, He
said in Matthew 5:29-30: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it
out and cast it from you… And if your right hand causes you to sin,
cut it off and cast it from you…” Christ did not mean, of course, to
apply this literally; rather, as the Lamsa Bible explains, these are
Aramaic idioms, meaning that we are to stop envying [with our eyes] or
stealing [with our hands].

In the same chapter, Jesus also addressed the “an eye for an eye” principle. He stated, in Matthew 5:38-39:

have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a
tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist [forcefully, by resorting to
violence and thereby injuring or killing] an evil person. But whoever
slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”

to the Lamsa Bible, the concept of “turning the other cheek” is another
Aramaic idiom, meaning, “Do not start a quarrel or a fight.”

The Wikipedia Encyclopedia explains Christ’s saying in Matthew 5:38-39 as follows:

passage continues with the importance of showing forgiveness to enemies
and those who harm you. This saying of Jesus is… interpreted [by
some] as criticism of the Old Testament teaching, and often taken as
implying that ‘an eye for an eye’ encourages excessive vengeance rather
than an attempt to limit it… Most Christian scholars and commentators
have agreed that such an interpretation is a misunderstanding of this
section of Matthew. The ‘Expounding of the Law’ includes a series of
six sayings in similar format, known as the ‘antitheses’. In each of
them Jesus quotes the provisions of the… Law without
criticism–indeed, the passage is prefaced by a ringing endorsement of
the Law as [a] whole. However he then calls on his followers to go
further than the [letter of the] Law demands, in order to ‘be perfect’.
It seems clear Jesus was not criticising the Law, but calling on his
followers not only to refrain from the abuses the Law condemns, but to
go to the opposite extreme by exercising forgiveness and love–even
when one has a just claim…”

Jamieson, Fausset and Brown clarify
in their Commentary on the Whole Bible, that Jesus was not stating, in
any way, that under Old Testament Law, offenders had to be maimed.
Christ was addressing quite a different issue: “An eye for an eye, and
a tooth for a tooth, i.e., whatever penalty was regarded as a proper
equivalent for these. This law of retribution–designed to take
vengeance out of the hands of a private person, and commit it to the
magistrate–was abused in the opposite way… [justifying in the minds
of the people] a warrant for taking redress into their own hands,
contrary to the injunctions of the Old Testament… (Prov. 20:22).”

order to prevent personal vengeance, as well as an unwillingness to
forgive, to reconcile, and to live peaceably with all men, Christ
continued to encourage His followers, in Matthew 5:40, to settle a
claim with their adversaries out of court, without insisting on their

Paul cautioned us in the same way in 1 Corinthians
6:1-7, especially when lawsuits before worldly courts involve spiritual
brethren. He said, in verse 7: “… it is already an utter failure for
you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather
accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated?”

in Matthew 5:41, when encouraging His followers to go the “extra mile,”
Jesus referred to the Roman practice that “obliged the people not only
to furnish horses and carriages [for government dispatches], but to
give personal attendance, often at great inconvenience, when required.
But the thing here demanded is a readiness to submit to unreasonable
demands of whatever kind, rather than raise quarrels, with all the
evils resulting from them” (Jamiesson, Fausset and Brown, Commentary on
the Whole Bible).

In conclusion, the Old Testament “lex
talionis” of an eye for an eye principle was never meant to be applied
literally by actually maiming an offender. It was meant to outlaw
personal vindictive “self-help” and to allow, instead, a magistrate or
a judge to consider the case and render righteous judgment by ordering
the offender to pay just compensation to the victim. Jesus Christ
addressed a wrong understanding of His listeners who thought that they
could avenge themselves. He cautioned all of us to be forgiving and
kind, and He encouraged us to avoid fights and especially violence,
even, if need be, at the price of foregoing our legal rights.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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