ANSWER: Does the Biblical phrase "eye for an eye" mean 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 the Bible teaches? This phrase, like others, is often misunderstood and misapplied by those who know little if anything about God's law.
The place where this phrase is used is in the book of Exodus. Leading up to it, the Bible discusses in verse 22 of chapter 21 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 God states what the punishment should be.
the punishment shall be life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth . . . (verses 23 - 24)
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, Exodus 21:23 and 24 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 "eye for an eye" is used, the Bible states the following.
15 Whoever hits his father or his mother is to be put to death.
Exodus 21:16 also states that whoever kidnaps a person should receive the death penalty. 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.
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 (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 or seek to repay "eye for eye." 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).