An Eye for an Eye

an-eye-for-an-eyeAn Eye for an Eye

Part A

Of all the lessons or subjects on God, His character and His law, this post will be by far the longest and so I have broken it down into four separate parts. I really wish it were not so. I really wish I could do it in a single post, but the length, oh my the length would cause few to read it till the end and it is an important post, so will break it into four sections. Posting Today, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday of this week.

May the Lord Bless you as you read the posts in this series.

I think these words by Gandhi pretty much sum up what would happen if we practiced the eye for an eye principle as many of us believe it means.  So, what is means by the statement, “An Eye for an Eye?”

When Christ gave the Sermon on the Mount, people had assembled on the mountain expecting to hear His pronouncement of the nature of the kingdom He had come to establish. At the very outset of the sermon, He warned them that He had not come to do away with the law, instead He said: “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth passes away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:18-20).

Having asserted that He had not come to do away with the law, He then appeared to do just that. In the Old Testament He had said to them, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but now he said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.”

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect’” (Matthew 5:38-48).

In order to understand why Christ spoke this way with regard to the “eye for an eye” expression, we have to understand the original intent that God had in giving the “eye for an eye” principle in the original Mosaic law as well as the circumstances under which He gave it and how we are to understand His “giving” of these laws. A correct understanding of this biblical expression will also establish a foundation that is fundamental to understanding the civil laws that are outlined in the Old Testament. It is vital that we place these laws in a valid historical context.

Most of Christendom holds an incorrect understanding of what was intended in the Hebrew Idiom of “eye for eye” as found in three texts in the Old Testament (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21). The “eye for eye” principle has been interpreted to indicate a retaliatory penal code. It is, in fact commonly referred to as the “lex talionis” or “Law of retaliation.” An understanding of the whole tenor of the Mosaic law, however, shows a much different picture, a picture that does not reveal a vengeful intent or retaliatory nature from the Law-giver. We must examine each of the three uses of the “eye for eye expression in the Old Testament, in their full context, to better grasp how it was used and understood in the Hebrew culture in terms of intent and meaning.

When the “eye for eye” expression, or idiom, is first introduced into the Mosaic law, it is in relation to a situation in which a pregnant woman, as a bystander to a physical fight, gets injured, causing her to lose the baby she is carrying. If the woman is not hurt beyond the loss of her child, the husband is entitled to compensation only for the loss of the child. If ‘mischief follows” and the woman dies, then the statement is made that there should be “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23-25). In the commentary of a Hebrew Bible, The Living Torah, it is footnoted that “these expressions, however, are meant idiomatically and not literally.” Therefore the Hebrew Bible translation reads: “However, if there is a fatal injury (to the woman), then he must pay full compensation for her life. Full compensation must be paid the loss of an eye, a tooth, a hand or a foot. Full compensation must (also) be paid for a burn, a wound, or a bruise.”

We can see this same understanding of the “eye for eye” principle played out in other laws of the bible. For example, in Exodus 21:18, 19 there is a case of bodily injury which could be compared to that in Exodus 21:24.

If men contend with each other and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but is confined to his bed, if he rises again and walks about outside with his staff, then he who struck him shall be acquitted. He shall only pay for the loss of his time, and shall provide for him to be thoroughly healed” (exodus 21:18, 19).

In this case, no injury is to be inflicted on the person who caused the original injury. Instead, provision is made for a fair payment of the medical costs and loss of livelihood of the injured party to be taken care of as compensation. It is reasonable, therefore, to apply this same principle of fair and equal compensation as being awarded in the case of bodily injury to the pregnant woman. Contextually, the culture of the time was governed by a system that put economic value on people. In fact, people were bought and sold as slaves and fixed prices were put on individuals of both genders and various ages. This context must be kept in mind when reviewing the civil laws of the Israelite people.

In Leviticus 24:19, 20 the “eye for eye” idiom is used again. Here, it is in relation to bodily in bodily injury, once again, wherein if a man is maimed, then there is to be “eye for eye” compensation. This example requires a close inspection of the context and original language used in order to gain a clear picture as to how the expression is to be understood. One could interpret these verses to mean that the person who caused the injury should be disfigured, also, as a retaliatory measure, but the contextual evidence doesn’t indicate this because directly surrounding these verses the principle of equal payment is again reiterated, specifically with regard to the loss of animals.

“Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, animal for animal” (Leviticus 24:18). “And whoever kills an animal shall restore it” (Leviticus 24:21).

In addition to this contextual evidence, the Hebrew language in Leviticus also supports the understanding that fair compensation is the primary intent here, also, in this “eye for eye” expression. Leviticus 24:19, 20 states, “If a man causes a disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him – fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him.”

In these verses the verb “done” is used three times, twice in verse 19 and once in verse 20. However, the word used in each of these verses is different. The concise use of each Hebrew word provides the clearly desired meaning of the original text. In verse 19 the Hebrew word is “asah,” which has a primary meaning of “do” or “make.” When used in conjunction with other words, it can also mean “execute (put in execution), govern, bring forth, deal (with), grant, “have the charge of”, among others. Read in this context, verse 19 could be understood to mean “as he hath done, so shall it be executed/governed/ dealt with.’”

To know for certain that this is what is meant, we only need to compare it with the following verse. In verse 20 the Hebrew word for “done” is a totally different word, “nathan,” which means “to give,” The Strong’s Concordance says this word is “used with great latitude of application.” It can be used to mean “put” or “make,” but it is commonly expressed as “add, apply, appoint, ascribe, assign, bring forth, charge, commit, consider, grant, lay unto charge, recompense, render, requite, restore, set (forth).” The common connotation that all of these words have is one implying a judgment, not an executed action. The Hebrew mind would have understood it that way, and a scholarly examination of biblical language will render the same understanding.

One issue that can confuse our thinking about the “eye for eye” expression is an incorrect understanding of the difference between what this expression was intended to mean within the Hebrew language and mind-set as unrelated to the use of capital punishment as one of the sentences used in civil Mosaic laws. In Leviticus 24:21, in the second half of the verse, capital punishment is mandated. It states, “and whoever kills an animal shall restore it; but whoever kills a man shall be put to death” (Leviticus 24:21).

Since this verse is in proximity to the “eye for an eye” expression, given in verse 20, it can create a misunderstanding about the meaning of the expression. In reality, we must simply differentiate between the expression and the unrelated punitive sentence of death, which comes afterwards. There are many crimes in the civil law for which the death sentence was given. Some of these crimes included kidnapping for slavery, murder, cursing or hitting parents, adultery, incest, bestiality, Sabbath breaking, human sacrifice, witchcraft, false prophets, defiling the priesthood/sanctuary, and blasphemy. The fact that all of the crimes which result in the death sentence are not given with any reference at all to the “eye for an eye” expression, is actually further confirmation that the original intent of the use of this expression was not one of retaliation, vengeance, or physical violence.

In Deuteronomy 19:16-21 we have the last incidence where the “eye for eye” principle is mentioned. In this case it is in regard to false witness. It does not concern any kind of injury or loss of life at all. The law states that if a man bears false witness and it is discovered he is to receive the penalty, or fine, that he wished to have brought upon the person against whom he acted as a false witness. This is described as a directive, not to show pity but rather to give equal punitive judgment on the false witness, and it is described using the language “life shall be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (verse 21).

From this examination of the three instances where the “eye for eye” figure is used, it can be seen that the original intent was to administer justice according to the principle that fair and equal compensation was to be granted to those that received any kind of loss.

This, of course, was the directive given within the framework of humanity’s decision to be ruled by human laws and systems. Do not miss this point, as it is the crux of understanding. This is God working in the mode of “permissive will,” which is the term we apply in reference to allowance made “for the hardness of people’s hearts.” Confusion arises when we read permissive will as the actual (perfect) will of God. Such confusion will bring us to distorted views of God’s character. So when God is forced to work with people that insist on functioning by using their own methods and ways, He is still merciful and continues to guide them toward the best actions that can be used within their chosen systems. As they respond to His leading and fully surrender their wills to Him, He will lead them out of their own erroneous ways and choices and will redirect them toward His ways, truth, laws and principles.

When Jesus came He contrasted humanity’s principles with the principles of the kingdom of God. He took the minds of the people to a higher standard of righteousness than they had chosen to live under in the Old Testament time. His expansion on God’s ideal principles of righteousness challenged the people to live under a system where His perfect will, rather than permissive will of man could be understood and lived out. In actual fact, the ultimate goal of salvation must see redeemed human beings entirely cleansed of all that pertains to the ways of the carnal heart; therefore, self-rule in any particular must be rooted out at last, for anything less than God’s perfection of character and conduct leads to death, for anything not of God is sin.

In our next post we will examine “The Education of Israel.” Christ wanted to direct the thoughts of the people of God toward God’s perfect will as he preached the sermon on the mount. We will look at the differences in Christ’s teaching on the mount and that of the Mosaic law.

If you have not had a change to read the other posts in this series, I invite you to click on the links below.

01 He Wanted to Teach Respect 05 Approaching the Study of God
02 Why a Tree to Teach Respect 06 The Constitution of the Government of God
03 The End of the Great Controversy 07 A Perfect Law07 A Perfect Law
04 Isaiah’s Wonderful Prophecy04 Isaiah’s Wonderful Prophecy 08 God’s Principles Tested
09 A Summary of God’s Constitution 13 The Supreme Revelation
10 Contrasting Statements 14 Urged to Destroy
11 Statements and Principles 15 Magnifying the Law
12 Does God Destroy – But How 16 Go the Second Mile
17a An Eye for an Eye 18 The Mystery of Iniquity
17b An Eye for an Eye 19 The Mystery-Unfolding Cross
17c An Eye for an Eye 20 The Way of the Cross
17d An Eye for an Eye 21 Rods and Serpents

Published by The Bible In Your Hand

Hi, I am Pastor Lester Bentley, a devoted husband, father, and Pastor for the Northeastern Wyoming District of the Rocky Mountain Conference of Seventh-day Adventist. I am committed to the great gospel commission as stated in Matthew 28:19, 20.

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