What Does an “Eye for an Eye” Really Mean? – Jennifer Slattery

What Does an “Eye for an Eye” Really Mean? – Jennifer Slattery

When we understand the context within which “an eye for an eye” appears and the compassionate nature of our God, the words take on a much richer meaning. We see in them not anger or vengeance but rather a Father’s loving care.

When most people hear the phrase “an eye for an eye,” they immediately think of vengeance. Many become confused when they read Jesus’ seemingly contradictory words calling for self-sacrificing love in His famous sermon on the mount. Still others cite this Levitical law of an eye for an eye and tooth for tooth as evidence of God’s brutality.

Upon first glance, God’s words, transcribed by Moses, certainly appear exacting:

“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. 18 Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. 19 If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. 21 Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. 22 You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 24:17-22, ESV).

But what if we’ve misunderstood God’s intent? What if, in fact, this seemingly harsh endorsement for revenge was actually an act of mercy?

Historical and Literary Context of “An Eye for an Eye”

As with all biblical text, God’s statement regarding “life for life,” “fracture for fracture,” “eye for eye,” and “tooth for tooth,” must be read in its historical and literary context. He gave Moses what scholars refer to as the Levitical law shortly after their escape from Egypt. After living under such oppression in a pagan land, the Israelites hadn’t a clue how to relate to God or govern themselves. And so, two months into their journey to the Promised Land, God called Moses, their leader up to Mount Sinai to receive what’s known as the Ten Commandments. These guidelines for living were never meant to confine. Rather, in teaching Israel how to relate to God and one another, they pointed them to freedom.


Jesus summarized and simplified God’s rules when He said the most important one was to love the Lord as the One true God with all that we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31, NIV).

God’s original directives, then, guided the people in their relationships with God and one another and clarified what loving interactions don’t look like. The people were to honor, obey, and worship God and treat one another with the same kindness and respect with which they wanted to be treated. With these rules for living established, God then gave the priests, ancient Israel’s governing body, what scholars refer to as the Levitical laws.

How Cultures Enforced “An Eye for an Eye”

Leviticus 24, which speaks of “an eye for an eye” coincides with Exodus 21; both detail laws for governing the nation. These ordinances were not meant to encourage revenge or to be used in interpersonal relationships. In fact, many scholars suggest Rabbis of the Talmud never took the phrase “an eye for an eye” literally but rather viewed it as a guideline for appropriate monetary compensation. In other words, the one at fault needed to compensate the victim for all damages incurred. Our courts operate in a similar manner today when one makes restitution for medical bills, lost wages, and any physical and emotional suffering experienced.

An eye for an eye demonstrated that all life had inherent and irreplaceable value. This would’ve been a revolutionary concept during Bible times when neighboring nations enforced varying penalties based on one’s status. For example, ancient Babylon’s Hammurabi Law Code treated slaves, commoners, men, women, and the nobility differently. This occurred in ancient Egypt as well. For example, a child who murdered their mother or father was tortured in horrific ways, laid on a bed of thorns, then burned alive, while a parent who killed a child merely had to hold the dead body for three days and nights. Such practices were unacceptable to God. Scripture made it clear by including the sojourner and native-born alike that all mankind has equal value and therefore must be treated equally.

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Revolutionary Mercy in Just Punishment

In many parts of the ancient world, the accused often experienced cruel and severe punishments. In ancient Egypt, those who stole a substantial amount could lose a nose, their hands, or feet, or face execution. God’s legal system, however, elevated reasonable and fair justice. The phrase, “an eye for an eye,” could also be stated as, “One’s punishment must be equal to but not greater than the crime.”

David Guzik from the Enduring Word suggests God’s statement actually reveals God’s mercy. “Many people have taken ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth” as a command,” he wrote. “Instead, God intended it as a limit—so no man or judge would be able to make up His own judgement.”

Did Jesus Contradict the Law?

Some people find Jesus’ quotation of Leviticus 24 confusing and contradictory (Matthew 5). His statement came at the conclusion of His discussion on how to live in a way that honors God. He told the people, “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 anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also,” (Matthew 5:38-39, NIV). He continued in verses 43-44: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate you’re your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Was He refuting the law? According to scholars, no. Jesus was speaking against the Pharisees’ legalistic misappropriation of God’s rules. As popular theologian David Jeremiah states, “The sermon on the Mount put the spirit” —or intent— “back into the letter of the law.”

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Bible commentator Joseph Benson agreed. Speaking of the Levitical passage, he suggested that, beginning in Matthew 5:38, Jesus “intended to counteract and correct” abuses of the law, “which was common among the Jews, who carried their resentments to the utmost lengths.”

This was never God’s intent. He gave us the law to create an orderly and fair governing system among the ancient Jews. These rules were designed to protect and unite, not harm and divide. Seeing the gross and selfish abuse of God’s commands, Jesus pointed all who would listen to a truth revealed within the very first pages of Scripture: God’s heart and instructions are driven by love from beginning to end.

When we understand the context within which “an eye for an eye” appears and the compassionate nature of our God, the words take on a much richer meaning. We see in them not anger or vengeance but rather a Father’s loving care.

Jennifer Slattery is a writer and speaker who hosts the Faith Over Fear podcast. She’s addressed women’s groups, Bible studies, and writers across the nation. She’s the author of Building a Family and numerous other titles and maintains a devotional blog at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.com.

As the founder of Wholly Loved Ministries, she’s passionate about helping women experience Christ’s freedom in all areas of their lives. Visit her online to learn more about her speaking or to book her for your next women’s event  and sign up for her free quarterly newsletter HERE  and make sure to connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.

Source: iBelieve


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