An Eye For An Eye In The Bible: What It Means An Why God Said It

These days, in my study of the book of Exodus, I found again one of the famous verses that says: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

The famous Talion law.

By quickly reading those verses with the mindset of a twenty-first-century Westerner, one cannot help but to question that philosophy.

However, it is worth asking what did God mean when he said: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Why did God say that?

Here is one of the Bible texts in question:

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: 23-25‭

Was God saying that it was a persons’ right to take revenge equivalent to the harm received?

Was he saying something else?

Indeed, despite the fact that the phrase is often used to instigate or justify revenge.

What the Bible expresses here is something very different.

I invite you to read the full text with me in context from the Current Language Translation:

If several men quarrel with each other, and in their struggle beat a pregnant woman, the following shall be done: If nothing happens to the woman, but the child she was carrying in her womb dies, the one found guilty must pay the woman’s husband what he asks for, provided that the judges consider that what he is asking for is just.

But if something happens to her, the culprit will be punished by doing the same harm he did to the woman.

That is, if he kills the woman, he will be sentenced to death; if he takes out an eye, he too will have an eye removed; if you break a tooth, it will break yours.

In each case will be charged hand by hand, foot by foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, blow for blow.” ‭‭

Exodo‬ ‭21:22-25‬

This text was presented in a specific scenario: a married man whose pregnant wife was beaten in some quarrel between men, and she lost her baby or died.

The original idea of this text is to put limits on revenge.

Not to promote it.

In a primitive honor-shame tribal society, such an event was not viewed lightly.

This was a grave offense to the honor of the lady’s husband.

The husband, in his anger at the grievance and harm, could easily seek revenge by killing the aggressor, regardless of what the harm would have been and the circumstances of the event.

To prevent such acts, God limits the sanctions that could be imposed on people.

He does so in order that there is no excessive retaliation for offenses.

It is worth repeating that this text is not about promoting revenge, it even talks about a judge mediating between the parties.

The text is about restricting and controlling vengeful actions in a primitive society that was just forming as an autonomous community.

A society that had spent four hundred years living with a pagan people where human rights were not yet fully practiced.

God takes an element from the laws of the time, which is familiar to them, and reuses it by giving it a better purpose.

It is about not allowing someone to be killed or violent actions being committed without there being a just reason, and about the retaliation being measured.

In fact, Jesus himself clarifies this point when he says:

You heard it said: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.

But I say unto you, Do not resist with evil; before anyone who hurts you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.

Matthew 5:38-39

What Jesus is saying here is that revenge is not the way.

He is saying that this idea was not a justification for revenge, but a social norm for mediating between complex lawsuits.

Forgiveness is the way to peace and freedom.

Not revenge.

What do you think? Are you going through a situation where you want to take revenge? What is your experience? Share in the comments.

A hug, God bless you.

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