An Eye for an Eye

And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him; Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again. And he that killeth a beast, he shall restore it: and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death. Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for one of your own country: for I am the LORD your God.
(Leviticus 24:19-22 KJV)

This piece of legislation sounds barbaric and inhumane to many modern people. And until rather recently scholars tended to interpret it in terms of the practice reflecting a very early stage in the development of the Hebrew legal system.

Fortunately, archaeological discoveries have unearthed legal materials from the ancient Near East that have facilitated a better understanding of this piece of legislation than can be found in more recent commentaries on the Tanakh and Torah.

The meaning of the principle, an eye for an eye, is that a person who has injured another person is similarly injured in retribution, or according to other interpretations receives the value of the injury in compensation.

The phrase, “an eye for an eye” is a quotation from several passages of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) which means that a person who has injured the eye of another, either literally has his own eye injured as punishment, or according to other interpretations is instructed to pay the monetary value of an eye as compensation. It defined and restricted the extent of retribution in the laws of the Torah.

The English word “talion” means a punishment identical to the offense, from the Latin “talio”. The principle of “an eye for an eye” is often referred to using the Latin phrase “lex talionis, the law of talion.

The principal of lex talionis is found in three passages of the Tanakh, all of which occur inside the Torah.

  • If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
    (Exodus 21:22-25 KJV)
  • And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him; Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again. And he that killeth a beast, he shall restore it: and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death. Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for one of your own country: for I am the LORD your God.
    (Leviticus 24:19-22 KJV)
  • And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you. And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you. And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
    (Deuteronomy 19:18-21 KJV)

A similar law is found in the ancient Mesopotamian “Code of Hammurabi.” Earlier codes legislated financial compensation for bodily injuries, but Hammurabi seems to have been the first to require physical injury for physical injury. This has led some historians to conclude that there was a time when monetary compensation redressed personal injuries because the state did not consider them to be crimes against society.

This law of equivalency was a significant development in the history of jurisprudence in the sense that what used to be a private matter between two families was now taken over by the state and considered to be criminal behavior. This fits very well with the Tanakh understanding of offenses against others as offenses against the covenant community and against the God (YHWH) of the covenant.

The term lex talionis does not always and only refer to literal eye-for-an-eye codes of justice but applies to the broader class of legal systems that specify formulaic penalties for specific crimes, which are thought to be fitting in their severity. Some propose that this was at least in part intended to prevent excessive punishment at the hands of either an avenging private party or the state. The most common expression of lex talionis is “an eye for an eye”, but other interpretations have been given as well. Legal codes following the principle of lex talionis have one thing in common: prescribed ‘fitting’ counter punishment for an offence. In the famous legal code written by Hammurabi, the principle of exact reciprocity is very clearly used. For example, if a person caused the death of another person, the killer would be put to death (Hammurabi’s code, §230).

Under the right conditions, such as the ability for all actors to participate in an iterative fashion, the “eye for an eye” punishment system has a mathematical basis in the tit for tat game theory strategy.

The simplest example is the “eye for an eye” principle. In that case, the rule was that punishment must be exactly equal to the crime. Conversely, the twelve tables of Rome merely prescribed particular penalties for particular crimes. The Anglo-Saxon legal code substituted payment of wergild for direct retribution: a particular person’s life had a fixed value, derived from his social position; any homicide was compensated by paying the appropriate wergild, regardless of intent. Under the British Common Law, successful plaintiffs were entitled to repayment equal to their loss (in monetary terms). In the modern tort law system, this has been extended to translate non-economic losses into money as well. The meaning of the principle Eye for an Eye is that a person who has been injured by another person returns the offending action to the originator in compensation, or that an authority does so on behalf of the injured person. The exact Latin (lex talionis) to English translation of this phrase is actually “The law of retaliation.” At the root of this principle is that one of the purposes of the law is to provide equitable retribution for an offended party.

It’s difficult to determine to what extent this legislation was strictly enforced. We do know that in the case of murder the life of the murderer was taken (life for life). But apart from this, the formulation “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” etc., seems to have been a technical phrase used to express the idea of equivalency, leaving the court to determine the nature and extent of the equivalence.

Since there is no form of punishment in the Torah that calls for the maiming of an offender, there is no case where a conspiratorial false witness could possibly be punished by the court injuring to his eye, tooth, hand, or foot. There is no verse that even appears to mandate injury to the eye, tooth, or foot. Thus, it is impossible to read “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” literally in the context of a conspiratorial witness.

The Union of Orthodox Congregations says, “The Oral Law explains, based upon the biblical verses, that the Bible mandates a sophisticated five-part monetary form of compensation, consisting of payment for “Damages, Pain, Medical Expenses, Incapacitation, and Mental Anguish” — which underlies many modern legal codes. Some rabbinic literature explains, moreover, that the expression, “An eye for an eye, etc.” suggests that the perpetrator deserves to lose his own eye, but that biblical law treats him leniently.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. had dissented from the actual practice of reciprocal justice. He stated, “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” Likewise, Mahatma Gandhi had stated, “An-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye ends in making everybody blind.”

Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus Christ) said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away” (Matthew 5:38-42 KJV).

The intent of the law of retribution was to ensure that the punishment corresponded to the crime in order to control the punishment inflicted on the guilty one. Yeshua was not abrogating this important legal principle, but was rather inviting the Corpus Christianum in their daily lives to go beyond the letter of the law. The implicit intention of the law, to eliminate personal revenge, was stated explicitly by Yeshua; and He, in His own person and ministry, modeled it for us.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:17-19 KJV).

The biblical principal of lex talionis was to teach us to punish criminals equivalent to the degree of crime they had committed against a victim. The principals of lex talionis are still relied upon by any fair modern jurisprudence system throughout the world today. It teaches us to punish the crime accordingly, but not necessarily with literal equality in retaliation. Those convicted of murder are subject to the death penalty, this is biblical and fair and just. Amputation of the hand of a thief is not warranted under modern jurisprudence or the biblical passages that support and teach lex talionis. Many Muslim nations that implement and practice Islamic Sharia Law apply the the “eye for an eye” rule quite literally. These Muslim countries do not use or understand the concept of lex talionis appropriately (e.g., stoning to death is the penalty for married men and women who commit adultery, homosexuals (LGBT) are routinely executed, and thieves are punished by the amputation of both hands).