EYE for an EYE
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Question: What does the phrase "eye for an eye" MEAN?
Answer: Some, when they read the phrase you mention, think it has to do with carrying out punishment, or even revenge, on someone else in exactly the same way they caused harm. Let us take a look, however, at this type of reasoning. What would you do if your neighbor's child climbed the fence around your backyard and accidently drowned 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? Let us take a look at the Bible verses in question:
“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." (Exodus 21:22-25)
This is one of those sections in the Bible that is easy, on the surface, to misunderstand. In context, these verses are not laying out a rule that individuals should personally use when they suffer loss by someone else. They delineate, however, a principle on how the nation of Israel (or any government) should administer justice for its people. A few verses before these, in the same chapter, state:
"And he who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death. And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 21:15-17)
Who is to carry out these penalties? Individuals? No. The Bible 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.
“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. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also . . ." (Matthew 5:38-40)
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.
"Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. . . For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good . . . For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. " (Romans 13:1, 3-4)
Paul, in the chapter before Romans 13, parallels Jesus' words about not avenging ourselves:
"Repay no one evil for evil . . . Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." (Romans 12:17, 19)
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. 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.
"Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:21)