ANY YEARS AGO WHILE I WAS participating in the Pathfinder Club of the church my family attended, a young Pathfinder was rebuked by his counselor for retaliating against a member of his unit who had wronged him. Later, during a program to end the day, each Pathfinder was asked to repeat a Bible text. When his turn came, the boy who’d been wronged solemnly intoned: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise,” quoting Exodus 21:24 and 25.
After the meeting, the counselor showed the young Pathfinder Jesus’ comment on the Exodus passage during the Sermon on the Mount. Explaining Jesus’ statement, the counselor seemed to leave the impression that Moses’ admonition was meant for people who lacked the background to appreciate the principle of love as it was taught later by Jesus.
In my mind, both the appeal to Moses by the Pathfinder and the reference to Christ’s statement by his counselor represented unsatisfactory solutions, inferring that the Old Testament encouraged standards of behavior not as elevated as those of the New Testament. I sought and found a resolution that upheld my belief that the Old Testament is just as sublime a revelation of God as is the New, and that the two sections complement each other. And in these times when people tend to justify retaliatory violence, I believe it’s important that this issue be given careful consideration.
Minding the Context
As often happens with popular biblical passages, the expression “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” is frequently quoted by people who have never read or studied the statement as it appears in the Bible itself. Accordingly, they tend to ascribe a meaning to it that may not have been intended by its author. It’s generally used to justify retaliation in kind for physical injuries and other types of social violence.
Moses is the writer, and the expression appears in three passages dealing with judicial procedures in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.
Here are the excerpts:
1. “lf men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes
on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, 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” (Ex. 21:22-25).*
2. “If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him—fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him” (Lev. 24:19, 20).
3. “And the judges shall make careful inquiry, and indeed, if the witness is a false witness, who has testified falsely against his brother, then you shall do to him as he thought to have done to his brother; so you shall put away the evil from among you. And those who remain shall hear and fear, and hereafter they shall not again commit such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity: life shall be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deut. 19:18-21).
In his Gospel, Matthew records the way Jesus interpreted the phrase for His contemporaries during a sermon in Galilee early in His ministry: “‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. lf anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two’” (Matt. 5:38-41).
On the surface, what Christ said seems clearly to contradict what Moses wrote. Christ’s statement opposes retaliation of any sort, while those of Moses seem to support it.
But before He offered His interpretation of this and other teachings from the books of Moses, Christ was careful to assert that the interpretations He would give did not in any way change what the original statements were intended to teach. “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matt. 5:17, 18).
So we face the challenge of studying the Bible carefully to find the basis of Jesus’ teaching—a teaching that comes across as being radically different from what was generally accepted by His hearers and accepted by many today.
Looking at It Another Way
Let me propose two arguments by way of explanation.
The first is that the three passages from Moses represent only one aspect of a number of inducements to repentant behavior found throughout his writings and the rest of the Bible. The second is that the peculiar phrasing is a figure of speech favored by Moses, and meant to emphasize equality in the administration of justice, rather than judicial retaliation in kind.
In a variety of statements the inspired writers of the Bible indicate that their goal in writing is to lead sinners to reconciliation with their Creator. Following are typical examples:
• To foster the knowledge of God and generate love for Him (Deut. 6:4-6)
• To provide a means by which God can re-create holiness in sinners (John 17:17)
• To generate increasing faith in God (Rom. 10:13-17)
• To sustain the holy lifestyle of those who choose to repent (Ps. 119:9-11; 2 Tim. 3:16, 17)
To accomplish the above goals and reach the varied temperaments of people, the biblical authors were inspired to use a range of methods. Their literature includes threats of the dire consequences of continued inappropriate attitudes and actions, as well as appeals that set out the temporary and eternal rewards for living the principle of love. This pattern is found throughout the Bible and was used by Christ Himself. Note the following in the Gospels:
• Inducements to love and faith (Luke 10:25-28; Matt. 5:3-10)
• Promises of reward for accepting repentance and conversion (John 3:16; Luke 2:32-34)
• Threats against intransigent unrepentant living (Matt. 13:41-43; Mark 6:11; Luke 12:47)
Jesus included a threat of consequences when He appealed to the man whose paralysis He had healed at Bethesda to discontinue his sinning (John 5:14). However, when He rescued a woman from the clutches of her own sinfulness and the self-righteous cruelty of her accusers, there was no threat of consequences as He encouraged her to stop her life of sin (John 8:10, 11). Christ was obviously impressed that the two cases were different and called for different approaches.
The passages in which the “eye for an eye” phrase occurs use the threat of judicial action on the part of the community as a deterrent to violence for those who would respond positively to such inducement. Those who may want to be violent are warned that the community will punish them with severity appropriate to their actions. It should be noted also that the response is judicial
(involving the whole community). It was not personal retaliation.
But in the attempt to eradicate violence from the society, the writings of Moses contain just as many passages that would be appealing to other personality types. In Exodus 23:1-8, for example, the people are admonished (among other things) to “not follow a crowd to do evil”; to rescue the straying animals of one’s neighbor; and to not pervert justice for the poor. In Numbers 5:5-8 they are encouraged to seek reconciliation through admission of faults and interpersonal forgiveness, rather than appealing to judicial arbitration. In Exodus 23:1-9, they are encouraged to respond to the hostility of others with kindness.
A careful review of Jesus’ words reveals that He used a comprehensive knowledge of the writings of Moses to establish that Moses did not teach that vengeful retaliation was acceptable to God.
Mercy Abundant Everywhere
Abundant mercy is promised to the repentant throughout the Bible. The Lord’s mercy toward humans and that of His children to one another is the theme of numerous biblical accounts. God revealed Himself to Moses as one who abounds in mercy to the penitent (Ex. 34:6-8).
Mercy is at the zenith of the system of confession and sacrifices by which the Israelites were taught to worship. The tablets with the Ten Commandments that God Himself wrote in stone were covered in an ark and placed under the mercy seat in the sanctuary, thus symbolizing their muted jurisdiction over the penitent.
At times these commandments are displayed and promoted in contemporary society in a manner that suggests that some do not appreciate the fact that no human but Christ can stand their divine scrutiny—apart from God’s mercy. Moses was teaching that those who ignored repentance and reconciliation at the personal level exposed themselves to the same unmitigated response of the law on earth as in heaven. Personal reconciliation was recommended over judicial arbitration.
Said Jesus: “‘Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny’” (Matt. 5:25, 26).
One More Look at Moses’ Three Statements
When the three passages from Moses are carefully studied, the “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” statement (and similar references) may be seen as forceful figures of speech used by him to express the idea of equality in the administration of justice. The punishment must fit the crime. There must be equal protection and exposure for everyone under the law, regardless of status.
The reference in Exodus comes in a situation where fighting causes contact with a pregnant woman that results in a premature birth or a miscarriage. Clearly the emphasis is on appropriate restitution. “Tooth for tooth” and “burn for burn” are quite unlikely issues under those circumstances.
In Leviticus the issue is whether the punishment for blasphemy within the community is applicable to one who is not fully Israelite. The matter was taken to the highest level of appeal and the Lord directed Moses to include the concept of appropriate punishment for all who dwelt in the community.
Everyone was to be protected by, and exposed to, the jurisdiction of the law. “‘You shall have the same law for the stranger and for one from your own country; for I am the Lord your God’” (Lev. 24:22).
The wording used in Deuteronomy comes in the context of the attempt to hurt someone by false criminal accusations. It states that the punishment should be whatever was intended for the one falsely accused. Again, the emphasis is on matching the punishment to the crime.
One more thing. Even though the Bible should not be expected to record all the deeds of the community during the long period of history it covers, the fact that it contains no examples of justice applied by gouging out eyes, knocking out teeth, and hacking off limbs constitutes strong evidence that the words of Moses were understood as figurative, rather than literal.
Christ asserted that the “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” statements should not be construed as meaning that retaliation and revenge are acceptable. And in so doing, He was in perfect harmony with the teaching of Moses and the prophets.
*All Scripture quotations in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Maxwell Blakeney is an associate director for General Conference Auditng Service in Silver Spring, Maryland.