The other night Emily and I were watching a police television show. In it there was a man who was caught committing murder and who sought to justify his actions. He argued he had the right to kill this individual because her actions led to the death of his daughter. It was at this point the man further defended his actions by pointing to the Bible, more specifically the teaching of an eye for an eye. I was not surprised by this plot twist because it is an overused tactic in Hollywood to mock Christianity. The pervasiveness of this strawman tells us more about how little people know about the Bible than it tells us about the Bible itself.
We find this phrase, an eye for an eye, in several parts of the Bible. Its first appearance is found in Exodus 21.23-25, “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” What does this text mean and why is it so commonly misunderstood?
The Common Misunderstanding
Like how its use in the above TV show, people often twist this text by suggesting it endorses personal vengeance. The misunderstanding is so widespread even Gandhi is attributed as saying, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” In this way, it is suggested the Bible is backward, out-of-date, and even barbaric. Now it is easy to see why people who know little of the Bible would misunderstand this teaching, but nonetheless the Bible does not promote personal vengeance. In fact, it condemns in multiple places.
It appears in Jesus’s day people the same misunderstanding existed, ““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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt 5.38-39). The twisting of this text was so prevalent Jesus decided to hit it head-on. Yet it is the very fact Jesus did this which makes it more troubling that so many people mistakenly think the Bible promotes personal vengeance.
Since this passage isn’t about personal vengeance, what is it about? Is an eye for an eye a good thing or a bad thing?
What an Eye for an Eye Actually Means
The passages of Scripture which command an eye for an eye must be understood in their context. What most people miss is that these commands are not addressed to individuals, but to the government. It is a guideline for proper punishment in the legal system. This is the farthest thing from personal vengeance. To put it plainly, the command for an eye for an eye is not a license for the individual to seek vengeance but it is a guide for the juridical system when punishing crimes. This is what the Israelites, and many people today, get wrong about this passage. Individuals are not to seek justice on their own, rather we are to trust God to punish evildoers and one way he does that is through the government (Romans 12:14 -13:12).
Not only is this command not given to individuals it is also not about exacting an exact pound of flesh from criminals. An eye for an eye is about the limiting punishments given by the government to criminals. It means the punishment must fit the crime. The severity of the crime dictates what a just punishment would be. Essentially this command outlaws cruel and unusual punishment from the government toward its citizens. For example, a government should not punish speeding by amputating the driver’s lead foot. Why? It would be an unbalanced punishment for the crime. Such a punishment would not serve justice but it would rather be an act of injustice.
Why is such a command important? Because our hearts, both as individuals and as governments, often seek out retaliation by increasing the pain done to us on those who did it to us. You put one of us in the hospital, we put one of yours in the morgue. The government is just as prone to seek vengeance as individuals are. Exodus 21, and passages like it, command judges, courts, and governments to seek equitable punishments for individual crimes. In this way justice is accomplished. Justice cannot be accomplished if the punishment does not fit the crime. An eye for an eye leads us to justice, not vengeance. In this way, an eye for an eye is a good thing and it is a cornerstone of a just society.
Justice is important as it flows out of the very character of God. It is why he has established governments who are to punish evil doers and reward the righteous. In that capacity governments are told not to over, or under, punish crimes. When they do either of these the people suffer. God in his grace has given us commands on how to seek justice, but we must seek to understand his word in its context. In today’s world it far too easy, and popular to twist what God has said. An eye for an eye is not something to be embarrassed about or something to dismiss. Rather, it promotes justice and limits the punishment of crimes so that they do not become cruel and unusual. With all due respect to Gandhi, without the command of an eye for an eye governments will inevitably moves toward either anarchy or tyranny. In this way, an eye for an eye is a good thing and it is a cornerstone of a just society. Without it we stand to encounter worse problems than worldwide blindness.