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There is something strangely missing in the Old Testament!

How come there are no examples of a people's teeth being knocked out to fulfill the law a tooth for a tooth. Photo Wikipedia/David Shankbone

How come there are no examples of a people’s teeth being knocked out to fulfill the law a “tooth for a tooth?” Photo Wikipedia/David Shankbone

A judge from Saudi Arabia, Turki Al Qarni, recently ordered a man’s tooth broken.

The problem started when the man’s mother contacted the police saying her son had attacked her, breaking a tooth. The elderly woman who was battered and bruised by the assault received hospital treatment.

The unnamed man in his 30s pleaded guilty and the judge ordered his same tooth broken as his mother’s. The judge’s ruling was based on a verse in the Koran that reads “And we ordained therein for them; A life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth.” 

As well, many Arabs countries have much harsher treatment for attacks on parents. Because the man had attacked his mother, the judge additionally sentenced him to five years in prison and 2,400 lashes.

The latter punishment will be done publicly in the market place — 40 lashes every ten days.

The mysterious absence

Many people point out the Old Testament law has a similar provision:

“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Exodus 21:24 NASV).

Simply stated, if you knocked out a tooth, your tooth would similarly be knocked.out. You broke a person’s hand, your hand was broken.

But when you read the Old Testament there is something strangely absent. As you read through scripture, you can’t find accounts of a person’s hand being cut off for retribution, or an eye gouged out because someone knocked out another person’s eye.

In a nation the size of Israel, you would think these incidents would be happening regularly and certainly mentioned from time to time.

Why the absence?

Well there is actually a very reasonable explanation for this. There are two verses planted in the law that explain the intent for the “eye for an eye” and “tooth for tooth” provision.

We read in Numbers:

“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.” (Numbers 35:31 NASV see also Exodus 21:30)

In this verse, Moses says you shall not allow a murderer to pay a ransom to avoid punishment — a murderer must be put to death.

Here is how ancient Jewish rabbis interpreted this verse. When Moses said a ransom could not be paid for murder, this meant a ransom could be paid for every other offence. Instead of having his tooth knocked out, the offender paid a ransom or fine to the victim.

So in fact, “eye for an eye” was not the basis of punishment but rather a way of determining compensation.  How much were you willing to pay to avoid having your eye gouged out or your tooth broken?

This changes many of the laws in the Old Testament. Adultery (Leviticus 20:10), hitting your parents (Exodus 21:15) and even breaking the sabbath (Exodus 31:14), as examples, were punishable with death, but since only first degree murder was exempt from a ransom payment, you could pay a fine for those crimes as well.

Of course, the bigger the potential punishment, the more you would be willing to pay to avoid the physical punishment.

This is not to say that some didn’t demand retribution versus payment, but this was not the law’s intent.

We see a group of Pharisees (no surprise here) in the New Testament dragging a woman caught in adultery demanding she be stoned (John 8:1-12). Of course, Jesus handled the situation in such a way that the woman was freed.

In a more comprehensive article I wrote on the topic, Eye for an eye means you love your neighbour as yourself, I show how Jesus’ teaching on loving your neighbour as yourself is in fact based on “eye for an eye” and “tooth for a tooth.”

Read more:

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