It is unfortunate that many if not most Christians have a flawed understanding of the phrase “Eye for an eye”. It is common to hear people use this phrase to justify their wrath & hatred or even to justify personal vengeance as the Jews of Jesus’ day were so frequent of doing. It seems that most people do not understand the context of this phrase as found in Exodus 21:22-25, Leviticus 24:19-21, and Deuteronomy 19:21. Nor do they recognize the purpose of Jesus’ teaching on it as found in the Gospel of Matthew 5:38-42.
Allow me to briefly examine the passage as it is found in Exodus 21:22-25.
22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:22-25, ESV)
The immediate context of this phrase is part of the law referring to Laws of Liability and Restitution, which as Rushdoony points out are “case laws giving us examples which embody a general premise. These are also mainly unintentional crimes, committed in anger or in a fight.” If we are to understand the correct interpretation of this passage we must first understand the purpose of these laws of liability. Rushdoony states:
“Basic to all these liability laws is restitution. It is commonplace among scholars to refer to vv. 23-25 as the lex talionis, the law of retaliation. This radically warps the perspective. The concern of the law here is not retaliation, but restitution, and the difference between the two is a very serious one. Retaliation means getting even; it’s framework is personal, and it involves returning evil for evil, according to Webster’s Dictionary. Restitution is radically different: it’s purpose is restorative, to further justice, not to inflict harm. The word “retaliation” has “talionis” as it’s root; it does not belong in this context.”
The purpose of these laws is restitution to the victim of the crime. Joe Morecraft, III says the following in Exodus The Redemption of God’s Covenant People:
“Restitution is the principal goal of the penal sanctions in the Bible. This restitution principle is basic to biblical law. The ‘eye for an eye’ principle speaks not of retaliation, but of restitution.”
Rushdoony correctly assesses the importance of what is at stake if we misapply the phrase “Eye for an eye”:
“The moral confusion over retaliation is not a trifling matter. At stake is the fact of Justice. Without restitution there can be no justice in society.”
“Because restitution is no longer the essential part of justice, we see increasingly the decline of justice in society.”
“Restitution is fundamental to Christianity, and it is the essence of God’s Justice. To deny restitution in human affairs is to deny justice, and, implicitly, our faith.”
It is very evident why Jesus criticized the teachers of his day who were promoting personal vengeance, along with strife and hatred. This retaliatory attitude towards others who have acted unjustly is discredited by Jesus as being contrary to the very teachings of Scripture. Calvin is quite concise in his assessment of this point:
“The Murderer is to be punished, or he who has maimed a member of his brother; but it is not therefore lawful, if you have unjustly suffered violence, to indulge in wrath or hatred, so as to render evil for evil. Since this error was rife among the Jews, our Lord refutes it, and teaches that the punishment, which is publicly awarded to the wrong-doer, is not subservient to every man’s private passions, so that he who is offended should make haste to retaliate. (Matt. v. 38) Nor indeed are these words addressed to them in order to inflame or excite the desire of vengeance, but all violence is restrained by the fear of punishment.”
Hence we conclude by recognizing that the proper use of the phrase “Eye for an eye” is in context with Restitution and Retribution, not personal vengeance or hatred toward those who have wronged us.