When I was in high school I remember some students putting up a poster board which read: “An eye for an eye only makes the world blind.” The implication is that the saying “eye for an eye” is a horrible principle for punishing crimes. When many people think of the phrase “eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” they will usually think of a barbaric practice such as cutting off the hand of someone who has stolen something. It is also usually associated with revenge. “You did this to me so I’m going to do it to you.” Since “eye for an eye” is found in the Bible (Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:17-22; Deuteronomy 19:16-21), Bible critics will accuse the Bible for being barbaric and evil.
Is the phrase “eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” ruthless and does it imply that God is evil and enjoys punishing people with horrible mutilations such as cutting off someone’s hands? Like many other things in the Bible this is something that is usually misunderstood, not only by skeptics, but by Christians as well. Let me start by looking at the above three passages.
“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.
“Anyone who takes the life of a human being is to be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution—life for life. Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a human being is to be put to death. You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the Lord your God” Leviticus 24:17-22.
“If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse someone of a crime, the two people involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the Lord before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite, then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” Deuteronomy 19:16-21.
The Meaning of “Eye for an Eye”
Like I mentioned the implication is that the Bible is barbaric since it teaches “eye for an eye.” Many even believe that Scripture teaches us to cut off someone’s hands for theft. However, this is completely false. First off, what is very interesting about the passages above is that “eye for an eye” is never taken literally. In the examples, the context usually demands another form of punishment rather than body mutilation, such as monetary compensation.
For example, Exodus 21:26-27 (the verses immediately after the first passage above), says, “An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.” Notice that in this passage we do not have a literal “eye for an eye” in view here, only compensation for the harm that was done. Is it not interesting that in verses 23-25 God tells the Israelites to take “eye for an eye” but in the very next verses (26 and 27) he tells them not to literally gouge out someone’s eyes or pull out their teeth? Did God forget what he just said in the previous verses? This shows us that God and the Israelites did not take “eye for an eye” as literally as one can possibly take it. The only time (as I will show below) that this principle was taken literally was “life for life” in regards to murder.
Fitting the Crime
So what does “eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” actually mean? It was a principle that, when followed correctly, taught that the punishment should fit the crime. A punishment for any crime should never be too lenient or too harsh. Even Jesus did not take “eye for an eye” literally. In his day, many people took the phrase so literally that they applied it to personal revenge (Matthew 5:38-39). Jesus took “eye for an eye” no more literally than he took the language of plucking out one’s eye and cutting off one’s hands to avoid hell literally (Matthew 5:29-30).
Understanding the true meaning of “eye for an eye” helps us understand how great the law really was. First, it was fair to all people. It protected the more vulnerable in society such as the poor and alienated. Even the rich and powerful were subject to the law. As I already mentioned, it also made each punishment appropriate to the crime committed. Second, it helped curb blood feuds and disproportionate retaliation and revenge (think about the Mafia). Third, the law made crimes punishable only for those who deserved them. For example, a child could not receive punishment for a crime that their parents did (Deuteronomy 24:16).
Fourth, the law distinguished between intentional and accidental killing (Exodus 21:12-13). What is very interesting about the law is that there are some sixteen crimes in the Old Testament that called for the death penalty. However, fifteen of these could be commuted and another punishment would be allowed (for example, monetary punishment). The only crime that demanded the death penalty (“life for life”) in Ancient Israel was premeditated murder.
“Eye for an Eye” in Other Cultures
The principle of “eye for an eye” in the Bible is also completely different than other ancient Middle Eastern societies (and other societies today). Some examples come from the Code of Hammurabi. Hammurabi (died c. 1750 BC) was an ancient king of Babylon (modern Iraq). In his law, he speaks about “bone for bone” and “tooth for tooth.” However, in contrast to the Bible, Hammurabi’s code only applied to people in the higher part of society, not the commoners like the poor. Hammurabi also called for body mutilations such as the cutting off of hands, noses, ears, and breasts. Also, children could be punished for the crimes of their parents.
When people think of “eye for an eye” they are usually thinking of laws such as the Code of Hammurabi or other societies where punishments include mutilating people for crimes. “Since these societies did this, then the Bible must be the same” is the reasoning by most. However, as I have shown in this article, the Bible did not take “eye for an eye” literally. It is the principle of having proper and fair punishments in society.
 Paul Copan. Is God a Moral Monster? Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011. Pg. 94.
 Copan, 94.
 Ibid. 94-96.
 Ibid. 94-95.