Answer: Many people think the phrase "an eye for an eye" means we can punish, or even take revenge upon, someone in the exact same manner they used to harm us. What would happen if we operated our lives, and even our criminal justice system, based upon a literal interpretation of this phrase found in the Old Testament?
There are only four places in the King James Bible where this phrase (or slight variation) occurs (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, Deuteronomy 19:21 and Matthew 5:38). Its first appearance, in Exodus 21, references the compensation a pregnant woman was to receive if she accidently lost her baby due to men fighting.
If a pregnant woman accidently lost her unborn baby due to men fighting, 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, then the "eye for eye" principal of justice is stated.
And if any injury occurs, then you shall give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth . . . (Exodus 21: 23 - 24, HBFV).
In context, the meaning of the above verse is that justice should not be meted out 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, also in Exodus 21, it 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?
The Bible prohibits people from taking an "eye" as 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.
New Testament teaching
Some people wonder about Jesus' meaning, 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.' 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.
Paul states, in his letter to the Christians in Rome, that authorities have the right and responsibility to retaliate against evil (Romans 13:1, 3 - 4). He also repeated Christ's words that we should not avenge ourselves.
Do not render to anyone evil for evil, but be prepared to do what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, as much as is your part, be at peace with all men.
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 'eye for eye' is clear. 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. We should not seek vengeance or seek to repay someone in the same way or magnitude they harmed us (Romans 12:21).