ANSWER: Does the Biblical phrase "eye for an eye" convey the meaning that we can punish, or even take revenge upon, someone in the exact same manner they used to cause harm? Although some feel this reciprocity is justified, is that what our Creator teaches? This phrase, like others, is often misunderstood and misapplied by those who know little if anything about Old Testament law.
The place where this phrase is used is in the twenty-first chapter of Exodus. Leading up to it, the Bible discusses the compensation a woman who was pregnant was to receive if she accidently lost her baby due to men fighting (but she herself was not otherwise harmed). If a woman who is pregnant, however, not only miscarries but is also injured, then the punishment was stated to be the following.
|22. If men strive and strike a pregnant woman, so that there is a miscarriage, and no harm follows, he shall surely be punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him. And he shall pay as the judges determine. 23. And if any injury occurs, then you shall give life for life, 24. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25. Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (Exodus 21: 22 - 25, HBFV)|
Let us assume for a moment that the literal meaning of the above verses is applied when YOU are the one responsible for someone harming themselves. What should you do if the neighbor's child climbs your fence around your backyard and accidently drowns in your pool? Would or should you allow your neighbor to take one of YOUR children and drown him or her? What would you do if some financial advice you gave someone (whether as a professional or just a friend) was wrong and caused them to lose money? Would you allow them to withdraw the same amount of the loss from your bank account?
In context, verses 23 and 24 of Exodus 21 are NOT laying out a rule that individuals should personally use when they either cause or suffer loss. They delineate a principle on how the nation of Israel (or any government) should administer justice for its people as a whole. In the same chapter, just before the phrase we are studying is used, the Bible states, "Whoever hits his father or his mother is to be put to death" (verse 15).
Exodus 21:16 also states that whoever kidnaps a person should receive the death penalty. Who is to carry out these penalties? Individuals? No. God's word prohibits taking personal vengeance (Psalm 94:1, Romans 12:19). It is the responsibility of the government ruling the land to administer justice. These verses, as stated previously, refers to a principle of fairness and a limitation of punishment that should be used by nations to govern their people.
38 You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' 39 But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you . . . (Matthew 5:38 - 39)
Was Jesus teaching that the government of a nation had no right to punish evil? The Apostle Paul did not think so. In his letter to the Christians in Rome he states that authorities have the right and responsibility to retaliate against evil (Romans 13:1, 3 - 4). Paul, in the chapter before Romans 13, parallels Jesus' words about not avenging ourselves.
17. Do not render to anyone evil for evil, but be prepared to do what is right in the sight of all men. 18. If possible, as much as is your part, be at peace with all men. 19. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves; rather, leave this to God's wrath; for it is written, " 'Vengeance is Mine! I will recompense,' says the Lord" (Romans 12:17 - 19)
The ultimate Biblical meaning of the phrase 'eye for an eye' is straightforward. God will repay those who do wrong using the same principle of fairness expressed in his law (Matthew 7:2, Luke 6:38, Colossians 3:25, etc.). Governments, if they want to administer fair and just punishment, should also follow God's laws. In our daily, personal lives however we should not seek vengeance or seek to repay someone in the same way or magnitude they harmed us. As believers and children of God we are instructed to forgive and to follow the advice Paul wrote at the very end of Romans 12 to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).