The expression “an eye for an eye” comes from the Old Testament and expresses a legal rule aimed at limiting retaliation and replacing it with punishment determined by a court of law based on the principle of equal retribution. In jurisprudence, this rule is known as “Lex talionis” or retributive justice.
Thousands of years ago, human vengeance knew no bounds. In primitive times, a crime against a member of a clan was avenged by his kin, and it was not only the perpetrator who suffered, but also his relatives. Punishment was often worse than the crime. It triggered the next round of revenge, often causing a petty conflict to escalate into a long bloody feud. These customs were also characteristic of the ancient Jews. To change this, the Lord, acting through the prophet Moses, established a new judicial system based on the principle of equal, symmetrical retribution. For its time it was a significant step forward in understanding what true justice is.
We first find the expression “an eye for an eye” in Exodus, the second of the five legislative books of Prophet Moses:
When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. 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).
This law is repeated in Leviticus, the third book of Moses.
Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered. One who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. (Lev. 24:17-21).
In Deuteronomy, the fifth book of Moses, this legal norm is applied not only to direct perpetrators of harm, but also to false witnesses:
If a malicious witness comes forward to accuse someone of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days, and the judges shall make a thorough inquiry. If the witness is a false witness, having testified falsely against another, then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (Deut 19:16-21).
Finally, in the New Testament, Jesus Christ affirms the highest moral standard:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, and if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give your coat as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” (Mt 5:38-41).
The principle of equal retribution is now regarded as obsolete. Some, like Mahatma Gandhi, argue that if the “eye for an eye” principle were applied, the whole world would go blind. However, as mentioned above, it was a step forward in the moral development of society of its time. St John Chrysostom wrote, ”The lawgiver ordained an eye for an eye, not for us to pluck out one another’s eyes, but to keep our hands from causing offence; for the threat that makes one fear punishment restrains one’s will to engage in criminal acts.”
Here is an example from the Old Testament to illustrate what forms blood feuds took before the introduction of the talion law: One day Shechem, son of the ruler of the Canaanite city, raped Dinah, daughter of Jacob. It was a serious crime, which in ancient times was punishable by death. To make amends, Shechem promised to take Dinah as his wife and give her rich gifts. But it did not help. Simeon and Levi, the brothers of Dinah, punished with death not only Shechem and his father, but all the men in their city, plundering their possessions and leading their wives and children into captivity (see Genesis 34). It was such cruelty that the law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was intended to curb.
Examples of following this new principle are also found in the books of the Old Testament. For example, the Jews, having captured King Adoni-Bezek, did not kill him, but cut off his thumbs, treating him as he treated his own vanquished enemies (Judges 1:6-7). On the same principle, the prophet Samuel sentenced King Haggah: “As your sword has made women childless, so your mother shall be childless among women” (1 Samuel 15:33). The Bible also tells the story of Susanna, a woman unjustly accused of adultery by wicked elders. When the prophet Daniel found out that they had perjured themselves, they were given the same punishment that Susanna would have faced (Dan 13).
Note that the law of Moses differs from a number of other ancient laws based on the same principle. It establishes the personal liability of the offender and prohibits the punishment of parties not involved in the crime: “Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death” (Deut. 24:16). In comparison, the law of the ancient Babylonian ruler Hammurabi stated that if a man beat a pregnant woman to death, his daughter should be executed.
In the New Testament, Christ commands us to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees. The Old Testament limited revenge and replaced it with judicial punishment, whereas the Gospel calls for uprooting all vengeance and doing good to the offender in spite of his expectations. This does not, however, invalidate the secular courts which have the power to punish offenders (Rom 13:4). Even St. Paul once exercised his right as a Roman citizen by demanding that his case be heard before an imperial court (Acts 25:12).
So, the expression “an eye for an eye” in the Bible does not call for vengeance. It is a judicial principle that suggests an adequate balance between punishment and crime where the penalty should not exceed the gravity of the offence but be proportionate and symmetrical.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds