Real meaning of “Eye for an Eye”: God’s lessons in peace-making

JeffLast time, we discussed lashon ha-ra (evil tongue, i.e., gossip, slander and divisiveness) and how it is one of the latter-day plagues among God’s people. 

In this excursus, we will explore a related principle taught in Torah by Yeshua and His apostles: proportionality. A number of Christians often consider “eye for an eye and tooth for tooth” an example of the “old covenant” not to live by anymore and cite one Yeshua’s supposed “six antitheses” — Matt. 5:38-39 — as proof that Yeshua did away with “eye for an eye” altogether. And cultural knowledge of Bible phrases has made this understanding common, even cliché.

This was reflected in comments by such esteemed leaders as Canadian MP George Perry Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. entered the popular culture in 1971’s Fiddler on the Roof. The idea is out there that “eye for an eye” is not an enlightened path of mercy and justice.

George Perry Graham, during a debate on capital punishment before the Canadian House of Commons: “If in this present age we were to go back to the old time of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ there would be very few honourable gentlemen in this House who would not, metaphorically speaking, be blind and toothless.” (Official Report of the Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, Third Session, 12th Parliament, Vol. CXIII, p. 496, Feb. 5, 1914. This quote is misattributed to Mahatma Ghandi but was put in his mouth in the 1982 film Ghandi.)

Martin Luther King Jr.: “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an ‘eye for an eye’ leaves everyone blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding….” (Martin Luther King Jr. Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. 1958.)

Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof: [After a villager exclaims, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth!”] “Very good. That way the whole world will be blind and toothless.” (“Fiddler on the Roof (1971) quotes.” Internet Movie Database)

In truth, Bible calls for neither “mirror punishment,” i.e., “tit for tat,” nor vigilante justice. We are not to give a reflexive response or “lash out.” Rather, “eye for an eye” is a Bible parabolic idiom teaching proportionality.

An idiom is a figure of speech, and the Bible has a number of them (e.g., “weeping and gnashing of teeth”). The words are not to be taken literally, but the meaning is culturally understood. Someone in another culture, another language may not understand. So, let’s explore where “eye for an eye” is used in the Bible to glean what’s being communicated.

And a parable transforms a story or a figure of speech into a lesson that’s more than the words on the page.

Consider the Torah passages that quote “eye for an eye” (Ex. 21:22–26; Lev. 24:18–22; Dt. 19:15–21). Look at the last verse. Strictly speaking, how can a loss of an eye equal freedom? Or how can a fine remedy the loss of human life? It shows us that even the phrase “eye for an eye” is not a mandate for mirror or knee-jerk justice. 

Today, we have different levels of manslaughter and murder, depending on factors like “malice aforethought,” etc. In Ex. 21:22–26, since the combatants did not conspire to kill the child, the death of the child is not treated in the same manner as a cold-blooded, planned murder.

There isn’t just proportionality in Lev. 24:18–22 but also “colorblindness” in justice. The native-born and the stranger are judged the same way. Status and class are irrelevant. Conflicts in the community must not be ignored but adjudicated and resolved.

An exception in the Torah for proportionality is judgment of a false witness in a trial (Deut. 19:15–21). 

We’ll look at some Hebrew words that are commonly found together in legal matters. 

The first one is חוּס khoos (Strong’s lexicon No. H2347), often translated to pity. That is distinguished from חָמַל khamal (H2550), or to spare, be patient with or become responsible for. A third word is רָחַם rakham (H7355), which is to love, have mercy upon. Its root meaning is womb, the place where the growing child finds comfort and life. 

The basic meaning of khoos is found in Ezek. 24:14, where the word is between “turn back” or “relent” and “repent” or “be sorry”:

“I, the LORD, have spoken; it is coming and I will act. I will not relent, and I will not pity and I will not be sorry; according to your ways and according to your deeds I will judge you,” declares the Lord GOD.” (Ezek. 24:14)

In that passage, God refused to cancel the judgment because of God’s compassion on the people who have suffered at their hands. We can not shrink back from judgment from a misplaced sense of compassion, sentimentality. We cannot skew our judgements because the person is rich or poor, if they are important and powerful or they are homeless with nothing. If you know what is right and don’t do it, it is sin (Jas. 4:17). 

Let’s look at Deuteronomy 25:

“If there is a dispute between men and they go to court, and the judges decide their case, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked, then it shall be if the wicked man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall then make him lie down and be beaten in his presence with the number of stripes according to his guilt. He may beat him forty times but no more, so that he does not beat him with many more stripes than these and your brother is not degraded in your eyes.” (Deut. 25:1–3) 

If 41 lashes “degrades” the person who wronged in the eyes of the victim, then the perpetrator not degraded at 40 lashes, 39, 20 or even 10? This punishment is severe to convince the wicked person to settle the matter before going to court, but it’s also more for those who would be watching the punishment to push for resolution beforehand. 

This brings us back at what Martin Luther King Jr.’s cautioning that “eye for an eye” can create “a descending spiral ending in destruction for all” and “seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding.”

What should give us pause that there is something deeper that God is teaching in Deuteronomy 25 than proper flogging of convicts is Deut. 25:4. Why is there this line about muzzling an ox so it can’t eat the grain it’s working to process amid this legal discussion? Apostle Paul noted that this judgment has more than a pashat, or literal, meaning: A worker is worth his wages and should be able to sustain himself from what he produces (1st Cor. 9:9; 1st Tim. 5:18). In other words, Deut. 25:4 isn’t about cattle but justice for people.

With parables, the point is the final comment, the “punchline.” The same is true in Deut. 25:3. The one considering judgment has to consider the defendant a person, not inhuman. Yeshua confirmed this interpretation:

“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 an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. f anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:38–48)

Yeshua distilled the proportionality of judgment and the need for reconciliation and restoration. This brings us to the Torah instructions for restitution of wrongs:

“‘Speak to the sons of Israel, “When a man or woman commits any of the sins of mankind, acting unfaithfully against the LORD, and that person is guilty, then he shall confess his sins which he has committed, and he shall make restitution in full for his wrong and add to it one-fifth of it, and give it to him whom he has wronged.”‘” (Num. 5:6–7)

This was not done to make one person wealthy. The word translated restitution comes from שׁוּב shoob (H7725), a root verb that means to turn back, return, and is understood to mean repentance. A derivative word is תְּשׁוּבָה t’shuwbah/teshuvah (H8666), often used for repentance, means a return. Part of that turning back to God and to fellow members of Israel involves a premium on top of the value of the wrong committed. A 20 percent premium is a frequent figure used for restitution.

“ ‘If a person acts unfaithfully and sins unintentionally against the Lord’s holy things, then he shall bring his guilt offering to the Lord: a ram without defect from the flock, according to your valuation in silver by shekels, in terms of the shekel of the sanctuary, for a guilt offering. He shall make restitution for that which he has sinned against the holy thing, and shall add to it a fifth part of it and give it to the priest. The priest shall then make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering, and it will be forgiven him. Now if a person sins and does any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, though he was unaware, still he is guilty and shall bear his punishment.” (Lev. 5:15–17)

The word for restitution here is שָׁלֵם shalem (H7999a), a root verb that means to be complete or sound. It’s where the word שלום shalom — often translated peace — comes from.

The point of justice is to bring back and restore — make whole — the person to the community. Peace-making in matters big and small is training for now and for the age to come, according to Yeshua Messiah (Matt. 18:15–18; Luke 12:57–59) and His apostle Paul (1st Cor. 6:1–11).

Do we just become doormats? No, I submit to you that matters should be settled quickly when the matters are small and easily remedied. We are to deal with matters internally in so far as possible. 

“If any case is too difficult for you to decide, between one kind of homicide or another, between one kind of lawsuit or another, and between one kind of assault or another, being cases of dispute in your courts, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the LORD your God chooses.” (Deut. 17:8)

The “school” of Hillel defined proportionality in “eye for an eye” as seeking resolution and reconciliation. Adherents to that approach to Torah interpretation may have went overboard on some matters, particularly on divorce. But one rabbi taught that “eye for an eye” communicates that breaking shalom in the community is so serious that one should have lost an eye because of it. But in Torah, these issues are taken to the judges instead.

If your neighbor sins against you and deserves 40 lashes, do you want to watch it? Behind behavior is character, and behind character is the condition of the heart.

Speaker: Jeff. Summary: Tammy.

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