Was the Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye” a brutal law of revenge, or something very different? – And how can the answer help us understand Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount?
The principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”(Leviticus 24:20, etc.) is one of the most well-known laws in the Bible, but it is seldom fully understood. Known legally as the lex talionis or the “law of retaliation,” and referenced by Jesus himself in his teaching, most people see this law as an ultimately fair, though almost barbarically cruel, principle of revenge and exact restitution. But is this really what this law of “retributive justice“ is all about?
It is often said that the underlying concept of the lex talionis, equal restitution, is the basis of most modern law – that the punishment must fit the crime. But this is something of a misunderstanding. Biblical Israel was not the only culture of the ancient Near East to have such laws, and their purpose is well known. In the ancient Babylonian Law of Hammurabi (c. 1780 BC), for example, we find exactly the same legal principle that individuals should receive as punishment the same injuries and damages they had inflicted upon others:
“If a man has destroyed the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If he has broken another man's bone, they shall break his bone” (Code of Hammurabi, 196-97).
Babylonian law was complicated by the fact that crimes against those of different social classes required different punishments (something Biblical law forbade, Leviticus 19:15), but the legal principle of the talion itself was obviously identical in both cultures.
In the Mosaic law, the principle of an eye for an eye is commanded in three separate and slightly different situations:
Collateral Injury: If a pregnant woman is hurt by others’ struggling –and her child miscarries – the law of an eye for an eye is to be applied (Exodus 21:24).
Crime of Passion Injury: If men fight and one is injured in the struggle, the law of an eye for an eye is to be applied (Leviticus 24:20).
Premeditated Injury: If a witness testifies falsely against someone, the law of an eye for an eye is to be applied and the punishment is the penalty the accused would have received (Deuteronomy 19:21).
Notice that the first example given shows that the law is really intended to indicate an equivalent punishment rather than an exact restitution. A man who caused a woman to miscarry obviously could not be made to miscarry himself as punishment, and the Law of Hammurabi makes it clear that an equivalent is intended: “If a man struck another man’s daughter and caused her to have a miscarriage he shall pay ten shekels of silver for her fetus” (Hammurabi 209). The Jewish Rabbis commenting on the biblical examples always understood that an approximate equivalence was intended, citing, for example, that a blind man who blinded another cannot be punished with exact restitution. So normally, in ancient Babylonia or in Israel, the law was applied in equivalence – financial or other remuneration equivalent to the loss caused by the injury. It is certainly possible that the law was literally upheld in some cases, but this does not seem to have usually been the case.
This much is commonly realized. What is less widely understood is the underlying reason for the existence of the talionis laws and their real application. These laws were actually intended not to exact revenge, but to restrict revenge. They are not encouraging retribution, they are restraining it.
In most ancient Near Eastern cultures, crimes of injury were usually regarded as private matters of family concern and retribution. For serious offenses the retribution might be handled at the tribal level, and this type of vengeful justice frequently led to blood feuds between families and whole tribes which only grew as time went on (there are many biblical examples of this, beginning with Genesis 4:24). It is clear that the various expressions of the lex talionis originated to limit these destructive spirals, and once that is understood it is clear that the purpose of these laws was not to prescribe revenge, but to limit it. Each “eye for an eye” law allowed what we would call government control of what was otherwise usually a private matter, but the consequences of which could affect much greater parts of society through ongoing and uncontrolled blood feuds. The intent of the laws was to “cap” retribution at no more than the level of the original problem.
When we realize that the purpose of these laws was one of restraint rather than revenge, we can better visualize the application of the laws in their original setting and better understand their reference in the New Testament.
Jesus and the Lex Talionis
The importance of proper understanding of the lex talionis becomes apparent when we consider Jesus’ mention of the law: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well” (Matthew 5:38).
Although these words of Christ are frequently cited as being an example of Christian pacifism (the view of Leo Tolstoy and many other writers and theologians), understanding the proper context of the law shows that Jesus’ words may well have intended something different. First, notice that the direct context of what Jesus said here was clearly a legal, not a confrontational context. Not only does Jesus cite the earlier law, but he counters its maximum application with two examples, at least one of which is taken directly from legal proceedings – a situation where someone might want to sue another.
If we presume that the lex talionis was a law allowing full and complete revenge, it is easy to think that is what Jesus is primarily talking about here. But revenge does not really fit the meaning of the law, as we have seen, and it does not really fit the example Christ gives of someone who might want to sue us for something we have done – there is no issue of revenge involved on our part. When we realize that the “eye for an eye” law was intended to restrict the degree of retaliation employed, we see that Jesus was going a step further and restricting retaliation even more.
Remember that Jesus’ statement on this matter occurs as one of several linked and similar statements made within the Sermon on the Mount (specifically Matthew 5). After reminding his hearers that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17), Jesus then gives several examples of this “filling full” the underlying meaning of the law. In each case he shows an earlier instruction in the law, then shows how the principle can be even better fulfilled by exercising even more restraint.
Where the law said “you shall not murder,” Jesus shows we should not even curse others in anger or we would be in danger of legal judgment (vs. 21) – adding another legal context reminder by saying “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court” (vs. 25). He then shows that while the law says we should not commit adultery, we should be yet more restrained, not lusting in our hearts (vss. 27-28), even referring here to “gouging out an eye” (vs. 29). Next he shows that while the law allowed divorce for many reasons, he urges us to more restraint by allowing divorce only for adultery (vs. 31). After showing the same principle of restraint regarding oaths – of saying only a simple “yes” or “no” (vss. 33-37) – Jesus then addresses the lex talionis directly (vss. 38-42). He does this, as we saw, by saying that even though the law allowed for restitution up to “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” he instructs his listeners to be much more restrained.
The first example he gives is that of not resisting or retaliating for evil that has been done to us: “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (vs. 39). A detail here may be important. Jesus specifically mentions being slapped on the right cheek, meaning that this would normally have to be a backhand slap from a right-handed person. The Rabbinic writings show that this kind of slap was a great insult in the world of ancient Palestine, and Jesus uses it not as an example of being attacked (which is rarely done by means of backhanded slaps), but more likely as an example of an insult (as we see in vs. 11 of the same chapter) liable to be later countered in court, just as his next example of someone suing for a person’s garment might also be legally countered – and in both cases he urges us to restraint.
The context throughout this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in which the lex talionis is mentioned is, then, clearly a legal one, with courts, suing, judges, prison, certificate of divorce and other legal terms being mentioned over a dozen times in these few verses. There is actually no direct context or reference to warfare, immediate conflict, or principles of pacifism. Most of the issues Jesus discusses in these verses are in the post-event context of restraint in later legal retribution.
Toward the end of this section of the Sermon, Jesus also urges us to even go beyond restraint to more positive responses such as “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (vs. 41) and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (vs. 44). While these cases can be said to involve restraint, they clearly go even further, actively seeking the best for the person who has harmed or insulted us. This seems to be the ultimate goal to which Christ points us, just as the sermon itself ends with the words “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (vs. 48).
The Biblical lex talionis of “an eye for an eye” was, then, a law of restraint, limiting the amount of reciprocal damage done after (usually) accidental injury, not a law encouraging revenge. Jesus used this law in the Sermon on the Mount as an example of how even when the law allows us to do certain things, the principle of restraint can and should be utilized wherever possible – and even further exceeded by active love for the offending party.