An Eye for an Eye. . . Biblical Justice?

Posted on May 3, 2011


WOW! In the wake of Bin Laden’s death, I have seen many people run off on two different tangents. The first one I cover in my previous article “Solemn Justice.” These are the ones who are rejoicing over Bin Laden’s death. The other group has run to the opposite end of the spectrum, and are denouncing the “eye for eye” model of justice. Several times recently I have seen the quote “our eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth methodology will leave the world blind and toothless.” The first time I saw it, I simply chose to ignore it, but its been repeatedly rearing its head, and now needs to be addressed. Amazingly, the source of this quote, as far as i can tell, is from a leader of the “American Baptists,” a group I know little about, so I won’t comment on them any farther.

Like it or not an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. . . is the Biblical model for justice. Although that’s the only portion you usually hear quoted, it’s not the entire quote. Those who would denounce this methodology are actually arguing against God. By now, someone is saying “but wait, Jesus abolished that law.” Well. . . not exactly, but we’ll get to that in due time. First we need to lay the groundwork. This law is mentioned three times in the Old Testament and partially mentioned once in the New Testament.

The first of the Old Testament mentions is in Exodus, then Leviticus, and finally Deuteronomy.

Exodus 21:22-25 NKJV

“If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges  determine.   But if  any  harm follows, then you shall give life for life,  eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,  burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

Leviticus 24:19-21 NKJV

‘If a man causes 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.  And whoever kills an animal shall restore it; but whoever kills a man shall be put to death.”

Deuteronomy 19:15-21 NKJV

“One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established.  If a false witness rises against any man to testify against him of wrongdoing,  then both men in the controversy shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who serve in those days.  And the judges shall make careful inquiry, and indeed,  if  the witness  is  a false witness, who has testified falsely against his brother,  then you shall do to him as he thought to have done to his brother; so you shall put away the evil from among you.  And those who remain shall hear and fear, and hereafter they shall not again commit such evil among you.  Your eye shall not pity: life  shall be  for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

First, we need to identify why the law was given. The law was given as the judicial system of the government. This is very important, in that it was not given for individual use. You will see in Deuteronomy that the execution of the punishment came only after the presentation of witnesses and careful inquiry by the judges. It was an orderly and structered process, that was carried out by the government. If the requirements were not met, there would be no punishment.

So, what did Jesus say about this law? We see it recorded in Matthew.

Matthew 5:38-39 NKJV

“You have heard that it was said,  ‘An eye for an 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.

There are several points to be made here, but first we need to identify Jesus’ audience. He was speaking to the multitude, they were a group of individuals, rather than a government entity. That’s important, because the law did not authorize personal vengeance or mob justice. Remember the judicial process in Deuteronomy? So, in this case, the audience sets the context of Jesus’ words. He said nothing that would change the role of the government.

Secondly, the example that Jesus gives is that of someone who slaps you. He did not address the scenario of someone who is continually harming you. His example is a single slap. Never does Jesus say that a person can’t defend himself if someone poses a legitimate physical threat.

Third, by way of examples that He cites, Jesus tells us that mercy and forgiveness are the best options, on an individual basis. Still, this does nothing to change the role of government. In fact, according to Peter, one of the roles of government is to punish evildoers.

1 Peter 2:13-14 NKJV

Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme,  or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and  for the  praise of those who do good.

So. . . Is an eye for an eye still valid? Absolutely, when properly executed by the proper authorities. It simply dictates that the punishment must fit the crime. This is the very reason why the death penalty is Biblically justified. Will the eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth methodology leave the world blind and toothless, abosutely not, when properly executed by the proper authorities. We certainly don’t need to gloat when these punishments are applied, but we do need to recognize that sometimes they are necessary and just. It is God’s law, let us not begin to think that we can improve on it.

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