ANSWER: Does the Biblical phrase "eye for an eye" mean we can punish, or even take revenge upon, someone in the exact same manner they used to harm us? Although some feel this reciprocity is justified, is that what our Creator teaches? What would happen if we operated our lives, and even our criminal justice system, based upon a literal interpretation of the "eye for eye" verses found in the pages of the Old Testament law?
There are only FOUR places in the King James Bible where the phrase "eye for eye" (or slight variation) occurs (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, Deuteronomy 19:21 and Matthew 5:38). Its first appearance, in the context of Exodus 21, references the compensation a pregnant woman was entitled to receive if she accidently lost her baby due to men fighting. If she lost her baby, but she herself was unharmed, the men would be liable to pay her an amount determined by the husband and the nation's judges. If she not only loses her unborn child, but is also injured by such men, then the "eye for eye" principal of justice is stated.
23. And if any injury occurs, then you shall give life for life, 24. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth . . . (Exodus 21: 23 - 24, HBFV)
In context, the above verses are giving a principle of an "eye for eye" system of justice that was NOT meant to be used by individuals based solely on their own authority. These and other verses delineate a principle on how the nation of Israel (or any government) should administer justice for its people as a whole. For example, in the same chapter, just before the phrase "eye for eye" occurs, Scripture states, "Whoever hits his father or his mother is to be put to death" (Exodus 21:15). Verse 16 of Exodus 21 states that whoever kidnaps a person should also be killed. Can you imagine the chaos in society that would occur if we allowed people to carry out such penalties based on their own will?
God's word prohibits people from taking "eye for eye" personal vengeance upon another human (Psalm 94:1, Romans 12:19). It is the responsibility of the governing authorities, not individual citizens, to carry out penalties for criminal offenses. God's law delineates principles of fairness and a limitation of punishment that should be used by nations to govern their people.
In regard to this topic, it is sometime wondered what Jesus meant when, in his well-known Sermon on the Mount, he stated, "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 he 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 also reinterated Christ's words that we should not avenge ourselves (Romans 12:17 - 19).
The ultimate Biblical meaning of 'eye for 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. Believers are instructed to forgive and to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).