Hi my name is Dean Smith and this is Podcast #1, Does eye for an eye mean you love your neighbor as yourself?
My wife and I were unable to have children and we ended up adopting our son from Guatemala and our daughter from Peru. When we adopted our daughter, we had to fly down to Peru to complete the adoption process. We ended up in the very southern end of Peru in the middle of the vast Sechura Desert, considered one of the driest places on the planet.
Part of the adoption process involved going before a judge who would approve the adoption. We had a lawyer and the case was being handled in the judge’s office. As we walked down the corridor of the court building to her office, we noticed a one way Jesus sticker on the judge’s door.
She was a Christian.
The legal proceedings were handled by the judge who asked a series of questions in Spanish to our lawyer, who was the only person in the room who knew both Spanish and English.
I was the one answering the question.
It felt like an interrogation room, peering into bright overhead lights, sweat pouring down my face. Well that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but nevertheless it felt intense.
And then the judge asked one question and my mind went completely blank.
Before I tell you the question, let me give you a bit of background about myself. I am a seminary graduate, I have taught at a Bible school and preached dozens of times.
The judge asked me what was the Bible’s greatest commandment. When she asked that question, my mind went completely blank. I have studied the Bible for years and after she posed that question, I wasn’t even sure at that point if there were any commandments in the Bible.
Through the haze, I could see everyone staring at me as I stood there struggling to find the answer. After what seemed like hours, but was only a couple of minutes, I finally remembered one of the Ten Commandments and blurted it out. I am not joking when I tell you my answer to the judge’s question of what was the greatest commandment. I answered:
“Though shalt not commit adultery.”
You should have seen the shocked look on the lawyer’s face. My wife was horrified. So what happened? The only the person in that room who knew both Spanish and English was our lawyer.
After the brief look of shock, the lawyer provided the interpretation of what I said in Spanish to the judge. The judge smiled, nodded her approval and then spoke a few words in Spanish.
The lawyer then translated what the judge said telling me that I was a “wise man.” To this day, I have no idea what the lawyer said to the judge and wisely I never asked.
A few minutes later we had our daughter.
Now Jesus found Himself in a similar situation in Matthew 22:36-40, when the Pharisees cornered Christ and asked Him exactly the same question. In this case, Jesus answered that the greatest commandment was to love God with all your heart and the second greatest commandment was to love your neighbor as yourself.
This is the answer I should have given. 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” (Matthew 22:40 NASV).
Notice how Christ said the “WHOLE LAW” depended on these two commandments. This is quite a statement, because when we study the Bible we see what appear to be very contradictory verses. In the Old Testament Law, Moses wrote:
“eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,” (Exodus 21:24 NASV)
And then when we move into the New Testament, we have Jesus proclaiming:
“You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” (Mathew 22:39 NASV)
At first glance, the Bible seems a book of extremes. In the Old Testament, Moses seemed to authorize “eye for an eye” retribution as part of the law if a person was injured. If you gouged out a person’s eye, then your eye was gouged out.
Then in the New Testament Jesus taught “love your neighbor.” Anyone reading these passages would be very confused — “eye for an eye” does not seem very loving. When Jesus waded into the controversy and said loving your neighbor depended on the “whole” law, this included “eye for an eye” that was very much part of the Old Testament law.
How in the world could any edict cruelly demanding equal retribution for injury have any foundation in love? But I believe “eye for an eye” was at the very core of Jesus’ teaching on loving your neighbor as yourself.
Let me explain why.
First 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.
Why are there no examples of this?
To understand what is happening here we need to look at how Jewish law worked. It was very, very different from our western law. While Western 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 financial compensation, he was “sold for his theft” as a slave (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). So in what would be our equivalent of imprisonment, the intent was still repaying the victim.
The second element setting Jewish law apart was the responsibility given every Israelite to read and memorize the law (Joshua 1:8). Citizens were supposed to be aware of their rights and obligations, so the tools were in place to work out grievances on their own.
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.
We see references to these elders at the gate in (Deuteronomy 25:7 and Joshua 20:4). 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). Jewish law was pretty straightforward on property loss, such as a stolen donkey, 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:
19 the one who struck the blow will not be held liable if the other can get up and walk around outside with a staff; however, the guilty party must pay the injured person for any loss of time and see that the victim is completely healed. (Exodus 21:19 NASV)
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 was equal to the crime. It was an eye for an eye, not two legs for an eye. But since there are no Biblical examples of an “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 (an ancient Jewish commentary) the intent of “eye for eye” was for financial compensation not retribution. The ancient Rabbis pointed to such verses as Numbers 35:31 and Exodus 21:30 as evidence. In Numbers 35:31, Moses writes:
“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)
Notice carefully what this verse says, Moses stated that the Jews should not accept a ransom payment for a person guilty of first-degree murder. By implication this means that a ransom or payment could be accepted as compensation for all other types of personal injury. In other words, the law allowed financial compensation for every form of personal injury and crime except first-degree murder.
But notice the word ransom.
It’s key here.
It speaks of a person holding another captive and demanding payment for its release.
This meant that under the law, if a person was blinded, he was literally holding the eye of the person who committed the crime for ransom. The offender had to pay a ransom to the victim to release his eye from similar ‘eye for an eye’ punishment.
“Eye for an eye” determined how much ransom was paid to the victim. The more serious the physical punishment the larger the payment — for example, an eye is worth more than a tooth.
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 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 gouged out.
But this verse also tells us something else. Since only murder was exempt from compensation, this would suggest a wide variety of crimes that had a death penalty — such as rape (Deuteronomy 22:24), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), and prostitution (Deuteronomy 22:24) — were to be dealt with by financial payment or ransom.
“Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” was simply a means of determining how much would be paid.
Now it’s true there are instances in the Bible 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). Though they were trying to catch Christ, but Jesus managed to save the woman from this fate by writing some words on the ground and stating that the man without son could cast the first stone.
We are not sure what Christ wrote, but it was enough to cause the men wanting to stone the woman to walk away. Jesus freed the woman because that was never the intent of the law.
Though the law was intended as a way of determining financial compensation, the death penalty proved popular among certain elements of Jewish society, particularly the Pharisees. Then in addition to this, 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.” (Deuteronomy 19:21 NASV)
No pity could be shown on punishment, because if there was a breakdown here, the victim would be victimized yet again. If an offender knew the elders would show leniency, and not actually gouge his eye out, it gave him the opportunity to low-ball the victim or even refuse to pay any restitution at all.
So in deciding how much he was willing to pay for his injured neighbour’s eye, the offender needed to ask himself how much his own eye was worth, because if he didn’t pay enough ransom his eye could be next.
So as the person calculated how much his eye or tooth was worth, what was he actually doing? He was, in fact, loving his neighbor as himself.