“eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,” Moses (Exodus 21:24 NASV)
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus (Mathew 22:39 NASV)
At first glance, the Bible seems a book of extremes. In the rough and tumble Old Testament, you have the law demanding “eye for an eye” compensation if a person was injured. If you gouged out a person’s eye, then your eye was gouged out.
Then in the New Testament you have Jesus who taught “love your neighbour.” Anyone reading these passages would be very confused — “eye for an eye” does not seem very loving.
But have you ever noticed there is something strangely missing in the Old Testament? There is not one account of a person having their hand cut off or their eye gouged out due to a crime they committed — even though the law required it.
Jesus wades into the controversy
Then to make matters worse, Jesus weighs in on the issue. In Mathew 22:36-40, the pharisees asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was. Jesus answers the greatest is to love God with all your heart and adds the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbour as yourself.
It would have been fine if Jesus had just stopped there, but no, the Lord then adds this controversial footnote “On these two commandments depend the whole law and the prophets” (v 40 NASV).
The “whole” law includes “eye for eye.”
How in the world could any edict cruelly demanding equal retribution for injury have any foundation in love?
But I believe “eye for eye” was at the very core of Jesus’ teaching on loving your neighbour as yourself.
How Jewish law worked
To understand what is happening here, we need to recognize the basic differences between Old Testament law and our Western law.
First, while our law focuses primarily on punishing offenders, Jewish law focused on restitution, for example:
- If a man accidentally killed a neighbor’s donkey, he was required to pay financial compensation, but kept the dead donkey (Exodus 21:33, 34).
- If a person stole an ox, he was required to pay restitution double its value, provided it was recovered alive (Exodus 22:4), if not the thief paid five times the value (Exodus 22:1).
- If the offender was unable to provide proper compensation, he was “sold for his theft” (Exodus 22:3). This generally resulted in the individual working for the victim until the debt was repaid to a maximum of six years (Exodus 21:2).
The second element setting Jewish law apart was the responsibility given every Israelite to read and memorize the law (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:1-3). Citizens were supposed to be aware of their rights and obligations, so the tools were in place to work out grievances on their own.
Elders at the gate
But invariably situations arose where individuals refused to pay or disagreed on the circumstances.
In these instances, the victim could take his offense to the “elders at the gate,” who routinely gathered to hear disputes (Deuteronomy 25:7; Joshua 20:4; Ruth 4:1). The “elders at the gates” or “judges” also ruled on the more serious criminal cases. After hearing the dispute, the elders had the authority to force restitution or judgment (Deuteronomy 21: 18-20).
“Eye for an eye” deals with personal Injury
Jewish law was pretty straight forward with property loss, but personal injury complicated matters. If a person accidentally hurt another – even in a fight – he was required to pay for time/income loss and any medical treatment. Provided the injured party recovered, there was no other expectation (Exodus 21:19).
But what happened when there was permanent personal injury such as a loss of an eye, tooth or even a hand? This is where “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” kicked in.
It first ensured punishment equaled the crime. It was an eye for an eye, not two legs for an eye.
Jewish interpretation of “Eye for an eye”
But since there are no cases of “eye of an eye” actually being used in the Old Testament, I checked with some Jewish theologians to find out why Israel never practiced this aspect of the law.
In his article Parshat Mishpatim, Orthodox Rabbi Gil Student says according to the Jewish Talmud the intent of “eye for eye” was for financial compensation not revenge. (The Talmud is a collection of Rabbinical interpretations of the law going back centuries.)
The ancient Rabbis pointed to such verses as Numbers 35:31 and Exodus 21:30 as evidence:
“Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death.” (Num 35:31 NASV)
Student says, “Why would anyone think that a court accept ransom for a murderer’s life? From where would this idea of paying instead of physical punishment come from? This verse is telling us that only in regard to a murder can the court not accept payment. For other bodily harm, the court does accept payment (Talmud Bava Kamma 83b).”
In other words, the law allowed financial compensation for permanent injury — only in the case of first degree murder was it not accepted.
But notice the word ransom. It speaks of a person holding another captive and demanding payment for its release.
Under the law, if the victim was blinded he was literally holding the offender’s eye for ransom. The offender had to pay the ransom (to the victim) to release his eye from similar ‘eye for an eye’ punishment.
“Eye for an eye” determined how much a ransom was paid to the victim. The more serious the physical punishment the larger the fine — a tooth as an example being worth less than an eye.
This is another example of where Israel’s legal system differed dramatically from ours. In our courts, lawyers spend hours arguing the extent of a victim’s injury, pain and suffering, and its affect on his or her ability to earn income before arriving at a compensation package.
In Israel, it was never how much the victim’s eye was worth, it was how much the offender valued his own eye, because if there was insufficient compensation, the offender could potentially have his eye similarly gouged out.
Since only murder was exempt from compensation, this would suggest a wide variety of crimes that had a death penalty — such as rape (Deut 22:24), adultery (Lev 20:10), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), and prostitution (Deut 22:24) — could potentially be dealt with by financial payment to the victim. Since a person’s life was much more valuable than a tooth, the compensation would be much higher.
“Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” was simply a means of determining how much would be paid.
Now it is true there are instances where stoning was used for some of the crimes listed above. In the New Testament, the pharisees dragged a woman caught in adultery to Jesus with the obvious intent of stoning her (John 8:7). Jesus managed to save her from this fate. Though the law allowed for financial compensation and seemed this was the intent, the death penalty proved popular among certain elements of Jewish society.
In Deuteronomy 19:15-21, Moses instructed the “elders at the gate”:
“Thus you shall not show pity; life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
No pity could be shown on punishment, because if there was a breakdown here, the victim would be victimized yet again. This was the basis for the victim’s ransom. If an offender knew the elders would show leniency, it gave him the opportunity to low ball the victim or even refuse to pay any restitution at all.
Eye for an eye requires you to love your neighbour as yourself
So in deciding how much he was willing to pay for his injured neighbor’s eye, the offender needed to ask himself how much his own eye was worth, because if he didn’t pay enough money his eye could potentially be gouged out.
In the act of calculating its value, he was actually loving his neighbour as himself.