An Eye for an Eye?

by Lois Tverberg

But if there is serious injury, you are to take 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 21:23-25

Many people quote this line in the the Hebrew Bible about “eye for an eye” and “tooth for tooth” as showing the barbaric nature of the laws of in the Bible. Grasping its context is important and sheds light.

The laws of the Torah were far more humane than in other ancient cultures, and even this law, in its context, actually was an effort at reasonable punishment at an offense rather than cruel vengeance. Without any laws, the typical response to a crime where one had injured another would be revenge by the victim’s clan, escalating into feuds. This law of “like for like” was actually intended to limit the punishment for an injury to no more than the injury itself.

No Littering SignIn fact, most scholars think that in ancient Israel this law wasn’t followed literally, but was interpreted as allowing for monetary fines for injuries (1). Evidence for that is in Numbers 35:31 which says, “Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death.” The existence of this law shoes that usually a monetary fine was the penalty for a crime. Yet it was not allowed for murder.

Surprisingly, this seemingly harsh law is actually evidence of an ethical difference between the laws of Israel and surrounding nations. The reason for not allowing a life to be paid off by money was because of the precious nature of life itself — that a human life was so valuable, the only fitting punishment for taking a life was death to the offender.

This emphasis on the sacredness of life was a key difference between the laws of Israel and surrounding peoples. In other nations, minor crimes like stealing might be punished by death. In Israel, however, no property crime ever demanded the life of the offender.

KnooseOn the other hand, in Israel, murder always called for capital punishment rather than monetary fines, as in other cultures. Other nations also demanded brutal punishments for people of lower classes for minor offenses against the rich. Israel, in contrast, treated all criminals alike. Their punishment was far more humane, usually demanding restitution to the victim rather than bodily damage to the offender.

When seen in the light of the Ancient Near Eastern world, you see God teaching his people the need to be fair and just to all levels of humanity, and we see the preciousness of life itself.


SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 11, “Touching the Rabbi’s Fringe” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 145-162.

(1) N. Sarna, Exploring Exodus, Shocken Books, pp 182-189

Photo: Pbalson8204 and Patrick Feller

Keepers of the Word

by Lois Tverberg

Now go, write it on a tablet before them, and inscribe it on a scroll,
That it may serve in the time to come, as a witness forever. –  Isaiah 30:8

Judaism from ancient times until today contains many practices that display great reverence for the written text of the Bible. The centerpiece of every synagogue is the “Torah Ark” – the cabinet that contains handwritten Torah scrolls covered in embroidered cloths, with a silver “crown” decorating each scroll. A silver pointer called a “yad” is used to keep place during the reading to avoid touching the text on the scroll with one’s hands.

The name of God is especially sacred, and never uttered allowed. Any paper that it is written on must not be destroyed, but must respectfully buried in a receptacle called a genizah (gen-nee-ZAH). As a result, all Jewish Torah scrolls and other scriptures are carefully buried and not simply thrown away with other waste, even if they are very warn out and need to be replaced.

CaveAll this extreme care may strike us as excessive. We may wonder how pen marks and paper can be so holy. But interestingly, it is this very practice that preserved the most important copies of the Bible ever found.

In the 1940s, many copies of the text of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) were found near the Essene settlement at Qumran, near the Dead Sea. The scrolls had been carefully buried in caves used as “genizahs” around the time of Christ, and were over 1000 years older than the oldest known text of the Bible. Archaeologists were amazed at the fact that the biblical text had been preserved nearly flawlessly over 1000 years.

Though the ancient people did these things simply to revere God’s word, they were actually insuring that people could know its truth and reliability over two millennia later. Their dedication to the Lord even in the way they treated the manuscripts of the Bible had a wonderful outcome that they never could have foreseen. We should also know that what we do to bring honor to God, even if we don’t know why, can be used by God at a time and place later that we never would have dreamed.