What Does An Eye for an Eye and a Tooth for a Tooth Really Mean?

The expression “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” has been widely used to justify vengeful feelings. Since it is in the Bible, many people claim that it is our duty not to let anyone take advantage of us. It is taught that we should do our best to get even with those who have wronged us.

However, is this what the Bible really teaches? Does the eye-for-an-eye principle promotes the merciless execution of justice? What does the Bible really teach about “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth?”

A misguided interpretation of a Biblical passage

We first read of this popular from Exodus 21:22-25:

“If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But 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.”

To set the record straight, let us be clear here. This passage is NOT generally meant to be a literal requirement of executing judgment. We don’t see any verse in the Bible that shows this principle to be literally carried out. Yes, a judge in Israel may demand a life for a life, stripes for stripes or wound for wound for certain crimes, but we don’t see any indication that the eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth principle have been carried out.

In fact, if we read in Exodus 21:26-27, we read that if a man struck the eye of his servant or knocked his tooth, that man should let go of this servant. We don’t see that a literal eye was paid for an eye or a tooth for a tooth.

The KEY to understanding this passage is to learn its INTENT. The eye-for-an-eye principle and other aspects of this verse were meant to ensure that the punishment would fit the crime and most especially to make sure that the penalty should NOT GO BEYOND the crime.

The natural tendency of people is not just to get even, but to never be cheated. If you cost me my hand, then you will pay your hand and foot for it. If you killed my brother, then I will kill your whole family. That’s just how human nature operates.

Now, in most cases, the judges don’t carry out these punishments literally, but rather they use it as a guide. Imagine if someone who destroyed another person’s hand and be compelled for his hand to be cut off as well. It would be irrational to think that way. How can the offender make amends or help the injured if his hand would also be cut off? Obviously, one of the ways to recompense for the damage done was for the offender to work with his hands (maybe for the rest of his life) and help the injured party earn a living.

The judges are wise enough to make a judgment that would result in better compensation for the offended party rather than make things even worse for both sides.

What does Jesus Christ teach about the eye for an eye principle?

While Jesus was giving the Sermon on the Mount, He noticed how the Jews in His day was misapplying this verse in the Old Testament. He said in Matthew 5:38-42:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.”

Apparently, the Pharisees were teaching the Jews that it was acceptable to seek personal revenge. If someone punched you in the face, it is okay that you punched him back. If a person stole your property, then it is okay to take their property as well.

Christ corrected this teaching. Since Christ is the God of the Old Testament, He was not in any way nullifying this principle or the rest of the Old Testament teaching. On the contrary, Jesus was MAGNIFYING THE LAW and showing its spiritual intent (Matthew 5:17-20).

Jesus was telling His audience that it was the job of the magistrates or the judges to apply the eye-for-an-eye principle in their judgment and it is our job to forgive those who have wronged us.

Christ went on to say that we must be willing to endure harm and offense for the sake of maintaining peace. We must be peace-loving, merciful, and kind to both our friends and enemies.

Final Words

The eye-for-an-eye expression or principle is NOT there to encourage vengeful feelings, nor it justifies seeking unjust personal retribution for a slight offense. This principle is rather built on the God’s sense of justice and mercy. Eye for an eye ensures that the punishment should not go beyond the crime committed.

Jesus Christ explained that we must be patient and loving with one another. Instead of harboring an unforgiving and hateful spirit, we must overlook offenses and let God handle the situation. Of course, this does not mean that we let evil to triumph and let criminals hurt or kill us. That’s not the intention of Christ.

To close this blog about the eye-for-an-eye expression, let me leave you with this instruction from the Apostle Paul:

Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, LIVE PEACEABLY WITH ALL MEN. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore

“If your enemy is hungry, FEED HIM;
If he is thirsty, GIVE HIM A DRINK;
For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17-21).


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