by Doug Ward

Recently I watched a television program portraying a feud between two rival gangs in a certain neighborhood. When the first gang set fire to a building owned by the second, the leader of the second gang vowed to retaliate in kind. "`An eye for an eye,' just like it says in the Bible," he declared.


The gang leader's rallying cry shows an all-too-common misunderstanding of scripture. For him, "an eye for an eye" was a call to exact vengeance upon those who had wronged him. However, the Torah clearly forbids seeking personal revenge (Lev 19:18) and states that vengeance is God's sole prerogative (Deut 32:35).


A Judicial Formula

To understand the biblical meaning of "eye for eye," it is important to note that the Bible introduces this phrase in a judicial context. In Exodus 21:12-35, a passage giving sentencing guidelines for various injury cases in Israelite courts, one case involves a pregnant woman who suffers trauma that causes her to give birth prematurely. Verses 23-25 specify that if either the mother or baby suffers permanent harm, the perpetrator "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."


In context, the "eye for eye" formula is a graphic way of saying that the punishment should fit the crime. By bringing injury cases under the authority of a public court, the Torah's intention is to prevent escalating cycles of private vengeance from occurring.


The examples in Exodus 21 imply that the sentences were meant to entail financial compensation rather than literal eye-gouging or dental extraction. If a master caused a slave to lose an eye or a tooth (vv. 26-27), he was not given a corresponding injury. Instead, the slave was to be set free. The one exception was first-degree murder (v. 12), where the seriousness of taking a human life warranted a "life for life" punishment (Gen 9:5-6; Num 35:31). 


Based largely on Exodus 21, later Jewish law came to identify five categories of injuries calling for financial compensation: (a) actual damages to a person; (b) pain caused; (c) loss of time due to incapacity to work; (d) the cost of healing; (e) personal insult.1 Categories (c) and (d) are grounded in Exod 21:19, while (e) is considered to be an attack on a person's dignity and thus an affront to God, since humans are created in the image of God. In the Mishnah (c. 200 A.D.), the fine for hitting someone with the back of the hand-an act that causes humiliation without physical injury-is set at 400 zuz, about four months' pay (Baba Qamma 8:6).

Jesus and `Eye for Eye'

With this background in mind, we are in a position to better understand Jesus' teaching on the "eye for eye" principle from the Sermon on the Mount: "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. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well" (Matt 5:38-40).


In quoting the judicial formula from Exodus 21, Jesus does not mention "life for life." This omission seems to be intentional, since the examples he discusses in verses 39-40 are not criminal cases. Instead, he is talking about civil cases in which one person sues another for damages.


The case in Matt 5:39, where one person slaps another on the cheek, is cited in both Jewish and ancient Roman law as an example of category (e), a personal insult that does not cause serious physical damage.2 In such a case, the offended party has every right to take the offender to court and try to collect 400 zuz. However, Jesus teaches that it would be better not to defend one's honor by launching a lawsuit. Similarly in verse 40, he instructs a person who is sued not to retaliate.


Jesus states in v. 17 that he has not come to "abolish" the Torah-that is, he is not going to weaken the Torah or make it ineffectual by misinterpreting it. Instead, his goal is to "fulfill" the Torah, which means that he will sustain or preserve it by interpreting it correctly.3 His teaching in vv. 38-40 provides one example. The purpose of the "eye for eye" principle is to promote peace and true justice in society, and this purpose is accomplished best when people are quick to forgive and slow to sue and countersue.


These words of Jesus are especially powerful because of his own example. By voluntarily submitting to a sacrificial death, he filled the phrase "turn the other cheek" with meaning and carried out the prophecy of Isaiah 50:6: "I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting."


The early Christians followed the Master's example and instruction. The apostle Paul, in I Cor 13:4-7, taught that love "does not insist on its own way" and "bears all things." It should also be noted that later rabbinic teaching is consistent with Matt 5:38-40. We read in the Babylonian Talmud, "He who overlooks insult done to him has the insult he has done overlooked" (Yoma 23a).


The words of Exodus 21 and Matt 5:38-40 are more relevant today than ever. Today personal injury lawyers advertise on television, urging viewers to take advantage of any possible opportunity to sue and promising payoffs far exceeding 400 zuz. Large amounts of time and resources are spent in trying to protect institutions and individuals from potential litigation, at great cost to society. To our ultralitigious culture the Torah, as amplified in the Sermon on the Mount, points to a better way.


1See The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism by David Daube, University of London, Athlone Press, 1956, p. 261.


2Daube, p. 257.


3See David Bivin's New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from his Jewish Context, Lois Tverberg, Editor, En-Gedi Resource Center, Holland, Michigan, 2005, pp. 93-94.

Issue 31


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 27 Jan 2016, 23:12.