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

The Other Cheek

by Lois Tverberg

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. Matthew 5:38-40

Many of us struggle with Jesus’ saying about turning the other cheek, and how it fits with the phrase “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” Although to us it sounds barbaric, in Jesus’ time this law was always interpreted as a monetary fine for bodily injury – never injuring the offender in return.1 They understood the idea of “eye for eye” as meaning that the fine for injuring another exactly compensated the victim for all of his or her losses. The rabbis had set up a system of five kinds of monetary damages for injuring others: for permanent impairment, for temporary incapacity, for healing expenses, for pain and for shaming.

Ashamed Man

One scholar believes that Jesus is referring to this system of fines in the passage above, and the laws about shaming a person by slapping him on the face.2 The offense of slapping someone was often a subject of discussion of the “eye for eye” laws because it did not actually cause any lasting injury – just momentary pain and embarrassment. But nevertheless, the shame that it caused was a major offense in that culture, because one’s honor was extremely important in that time. So there was a fine that could be demanded of another for being shamed in this way:

If a man slapped his fellow, he gives him 200 zuz; if with the back of his hand, 400 zuz. (Mishnah, Baba Qamma 8.6)

The fact that a fine is involved makes the idea of “turning the other cheek” fit with the next statement about letting someone sue you too. It appears then, that Jesus was saying that rather than insisting on compensation down to the last penny for every insult, his followers should be ready to suffer persecution yet again. It also fits with Jesus’ many teachings about not seeking one’s own honor.

Regarding the idea of demanding compensation for shaming, Paul says something very similar:

The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. 1 Cor. 6:7-8

In looking past sin and forgiving others, we are showing people the love of Christ through our own actions. We are being true disciples when we imitate our rabbi Jesus, who died for the sins of those who hated him.

See an “An Eye for an Eye.”

David Daube, “Appeasement or Resistance” And Other Essays on New Testament Judaism, (University of California Press, 1987), pp. 19-23. Also available online.