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 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 shows 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, Unsplash and Patrick Feller

Honoring Others

by Lois Tverberg

When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 14:7-11

Woman Anoints Jesus Feet

In the passage above, Jesus notices how competitive the guests are being at a feast, where seating indicates ones’ social status. He charges his followers to take the lowest position until being asked to move up. Is he teaching us social etiquette? A cynic might say that Jesus wants us to adopt a mock-humility and self-abasement just so others will deem us worthy.

A rabbinic comment concurrent with Jesus’ command in Luke 14 offers a better perspective. It was said,

Who is worthy of honor? The one who treats other human beings with honor. As it I said: “For those who honor Me, I will honor, and those who scorn Me, I will scorn.” (1 Sam. 2:30) 1

This principle is called kavod habriyot —“honoring others”—and it means to respect others with a knowledge that all people are precious in God’s eyes. Simple examples of this respect range from not keeping others waiting or not taking all of something because you are first, to not being obnoxious in a group to get attention. When we view all as equally important in God’s eyes, respecting others in these ways is an obvious response. In bestowing this respect, you are humbling yourself.

When we examine Jesus’ command to take the lowest position we are convinced to look at it not as false humility but as kavod habriyot —honoring all others. A person with this attitude would arrive at a banquet and recognize the value and contributions of all the people around him. He would forget about himself, happily taking the lowest place, wanting all to receive some recognition for their presence there. In doing so he would be Christ-like in his humility, and in God’s eyes, worthy of the most honor.

1 Rabbi Ben Zoma, Pirke Avot 4:1

Photo: Ermitage, Sankt Petersburg