An “Eye For Eye…”, What Does It Mean?


Center for Tanakh Based Studies

By: William J Jackson

When we read the Tanakh, we stumble over this seemingly barbaric phrase an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…” and so forth.  This extreme statement is mentioned no fewer than three times in the Torah(Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:19-20, Deuteronomy 19:21).  It seems to speak of a rigid God that gives no quarter.  Even the Christian messiah tried to rewrite this maxim in his New Testament. But; as we know, isolating a phrase off a page from the Torah, gives leeway for misinterpretation.  Although this statement appears to be straightforward, we owe it to God to not take it out of context.  Let us delve into His Word and determine what this controversial phrase is truly saying.

Firstly, after we read the phrase “An eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:24) two verses later (Exodus 21:26), we see an example of someone having their eye put out.  However, here the ruling was not for the offender to have his eye poked out in retaliation.  Instead the offender gave restitution to his victim.  In this case, which dealt with slavery, the injured slaves were given their freedom as a consequence to their misfortune. So, did God contradict Himself in just three verses?  No, it is that God’s justice is both perfect and complex, so it cannot be summed up in a single verse.

When we read Exodus 20, we of course have God’s Ten Commandments.  This, however, was just the top ten lists.  After the tablets were introduced, Exodus 21 through 23 gives a more comprehensive series of laws that are amazing and astute. Many of the concepts have even been turned into our own laws (The Torah Inspires America’s Laws). In these laws that were introduced to the Israelites over three millenniums ago, offenders were classified into three categories.  The best modern day example would be vehicular homicide.  For example, not every roadside death possesses the same level of culpability.  Pretend you are driving, observing all the rules of the road, when somebody darts into traffic from a blind corner and you kill them.  This would be an accidental or unintentional death.  Whereas, if you killed somebody because you were drunk or texting.  Granted you didn’t mean to kill them, but you did it from recklessness, thus this would be a killing from neglect.  Finally, let’s say you intentionally killed somebody with your car, maybe for revenge or money.  Regardless, the penalty for this intentional killing should be more severe than the previous two.

The Torah was written with these same precepts in mind. As we read through these articles we will find that God catalogs crimes into three areas:

  1.    Unintentional Crimes: Where do I stand? Pertaining to God’s Civil Laws – Part 3
  2.    Neglect Crimes: Where do I stand? Pertaining to God’s Civil Laws – Part 2
  3.    Intentional Crimes: Where do I stand? Pertaining to God’s Civil Laws – Part 1

So, as explained, if the eye or a limb was maimed do to an accident, the offender would have to compensate the victim.  Likewise, a penalty for neglect would of course be higher than that for an honest mistake, hence a recompense and sometimes punishment would be paid . Additionally, in the cases of intentional crime, the penalty was at its severest. For example, first degree manslaughter would earn the death sentence (Exodus 21:12). Thus, if somebody intentionally destroyed a limb or someone’s site, they would withstand the same consequences. Conversely, we need to ask ourselves; who would intentionally disfigure another person knowing they would face the same charge.  Chances are that if you harm somebody they are going to see you do it and take you to trial!  I would have to image, if somebody was that desperate to make another person a cripple, they would go for homicide.  In short, I believe that the eye for an eye was only for premeditated mutilations, not for mistakes.

Another part that isn’t talked about is that the “an eye for an eye”, as severe as it sounds, puts a cap on a punishment.  Thus, if the judicial system exacts justice, it cannot go over the top, like we see in our own Country, i.e. is a hot cup of coffee burning someone worth $2.86 million?  Even when my wife Danielle and I worked prison ministry we saw prisoners who embezzled money receive longer sentences than murderers. Sometimes punishments can be too excessive being motivated more from vengeance than justice.

As should be noted, this “eye for an eye” maxim in Torah didn’t always mean the same thing in each passage.  In Deuteronomy 19:21 this expression (life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot) is used to express that no pity will be given to a false witness.  If we read on,   it explains that a false witness will receive the punishment of the man he is testifying against.  Wouldn’t that truly clear out our own court system?

This is why when the Christian messiah challenged God’s law, he shows his ignorance of the Torah.  In Matthew 5:38-39 he tells Christians, in response to the Torah’s “eye for an eye”, to “turn the other cheek”.  This certainly flies in the face of accountability that the Torah teaches.  Likewise, when we go down to verse 40, he says if you are sued to pay more than the penalty.  What sense does that make?  So when Stella Liebeck sued McDonald’s over a cup of coffee McDonald’s should have rounded up the $2.86 million to an even $3 mil? This would contradict Torah’s need for justice and consequences. Likewise, it would inspire more people to challenge the system motivated by greed.

So after we ferreted it out, we now know what “an eye for an eye…” truly means.  In essence, it means to make sure the punishment fits the crime, especially if the crime was intentional. Likewise, it means that the punishment should not be in excess to the crime.  The New Testaments spin on this is problematic because by removing God’s ordinance one removes justice and accountability.  Let us remember “Do not add to the word which I command you, nor diminish from it, to observe the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you”Deuteronomy 4:2.


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