An Eye for an Eye and a Tooth for a Tooth

by Steve Dewhurst

Such is modern man's ignorance of God's word, as well as His justice and mercy, that we often misunderstand the simplest Bible expressions and concepts. For example, the age old principle of justice contained in the phrase "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is frequently seen as a statement advocating revenge and cruelty. Originally, however, it meant nothing of the sort. Several years ago, I read a magazine article in which a clergyman from New York stated that the "eye for an eye" approach "is not reflective of the Divine Spirit." Say, What! Where does he think the expression came from in the first place?

Despite the ignorance of highfalutin theology, the principle of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is an expression of God's righteous judgment and mercy. Justice demands punishment, but punishment in proportion to the crime.

"If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman's husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise" (Exodus 21:24).

The "Divine Spirit," being righteous, does indeed demand punishment, but is also insistent that the punishment not exceed the crime. The penalty for causing a premature birth with no permanent damage to the child is much less severe than if the child should die or be maimed. Such is the nature of true justice. In fact, our own system of jurisprudence follows this same model. Prison sentences and punitive damages are based (theoretically, at least) on the nature of the crime, damage inflicted upon the victim, and any extenuating circumstances that need to be factored in.

We've all heard tales of "justice" in Muslim nations, in which a man steals a loaf of bread to feed his family, and has his hand cut off as punishment. Where is the justice or equity in that? Surely his hand was of infinitely greater value than the bread. Under such a system of "justice," the man is now rendered incapable of working to support his family, which will make the temptation to steal bread even greater than before! God's justice is designed to correct the offense, not to create a worse offender.

It is not surprising that folks don't understand the principle of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Very few people have actually read the statement in its biblical context.

Instead, as with other statements taken out of context, men have assumed that it means the very opposite of what it teaches. Men assume that Israel's citizens were given license to take the law into their own hands in exacting vengeance. In truth, the nation had judges in place to execute judgments in a lawful manner. They were governed by the rule of law. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" guaranteed that the guilty party could not be punished any more severely than the crime warranted.

In today's non-moral, non-judgmental, non-thinking society, men often reject God's righteous justice for the very reason that it demands the determination that one is GUILTY of something. We've foolishly been told, "It's not right to judge," when in fact we must "judge righteous judgment" based on sound biblical principles, John 7:24. But whatever the notions of men, facing the consequences of our actions is inherently just. Yet God's justice and mercy dictate that we should not exact any punishment that outstrips the crime in its excessiveness. Let's not denigrate the principle of"an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Rather, let's rejoice that we serve a God of justice, mercy, and fairness.