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Eye for Eye

Updated: Feb 18

“But if there is injury, 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, lash for lash.” (Exodus 21:23-25)

The term “eye for an eye and tooth for tooth”, has often been used by Christians to show how barbaric the “old laws” were back in the day. Followed then by quoting what Yeshua said in the Brit Hadashah (New Testament), to turn the other cheek. When presented out of context it does make the Torah seem rather brutal and depicts a Messiah who taught against keeping the Father’s instructions. Yet, when given the entire context of the phrase “eye for an eye” it is plain to see (no pun intended) that the correct way of interpreting this is in view of a judicial system, that operates within the punishment fitting the crime. In fact, this is quite obvious given the examples that are laid out immediately following Exodus 21:25.

A Judicial System of Equal Measure

“And when a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant, and destroys it, he is to let him go free for the sake of his eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he is to let him go free for the sake of his tooth.” (Exodus 21:26-27)

If we were to take a literal interpretation of “eye for an eye” as it is given in Exodus 21, we can already see problems arising. Such as why wasn’t the man who destroyed the eye of his servant, in turn, had his eye destroyed? Or when he knocked out a tooth why didn’t he have a tooth removed? Did Moses forget what he wrote just 2 seconds earlier? Did the Bible just contradict itself? Of course not, these are two examples of how “eye for an eye” was to be implemented, not in a literal sense, as the examples demonstrated, but in a judicial way. Because the master permanently damaged the servant, the proper action was to release said servant from their obligation.

“And when a man opens a pit, or if a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls in it, the owner of the pit is to repay, he is to give silver to their owner, and the dead beast is his.” (Exodus 21:33-34)

Again, we see that if the typical understanding of an “eye for an eye” was applied here, then the person who dug the pit should have one of his animals killed. But, as we can see, that the punishment befitting the crime was to pay the price of the dead beast so the owner who just lost livestock could have it replaced. The idea of “eye for an eye” was not meant to come off as cruel but was a way to make sure the person in trouble did not receive a punishment worse than the offense. Take the judicial system today, people are always attempting to sue someone else for more than the damages owed. They don’t just want reconciliation, they want retribution. If the Bible was advocating for taking revenge, as some have equated “eye for an eye” to mean, then the Bible would be contradicting itself, for it is a sin to seek vengeance.

“Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your people. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am יהוה.” (Leviticus 19:18)

Yeshua vs the Pharisees for the Proper Interpretation

Then what was Yeshua talking about when he presumably condemned the perfect Torah? Well, the Messiah was not being critical of the Father’s instructions but was challenging how it was being applied under the leadership of the Pharisees.

You heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, do not resist the wicked. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)

Notice how Yeshua states, “you heard it was said”, not “It is written”, this may seem of little significance upon first glance but understanding the difference is key to unlocking what the Master was talking about. By saying you have heard it said, immediately we can know Yeshua was not attacking the Father’s instructions but was critiquing how it was both understood and practiced. During this time, the phrase “eye for an eye” (still widely used today to convey a vengeful attitude) was used to justify personal vendettas, which as we have already covered is a sin. If this is the case, then what do we make of turn the other cheek? Exodus 21:23-25 speaks of permanent damage or actions that warrant serious consequences, such as losing an eye, tooth, or receiving scars or burns. These are lasting changes and will remain with a person for the rest of their lives. Even more so, the idiom starts with, “if there is injury”, a slap on the cheek is nothing compared to losing a limb or enduring a perpetual alteration. The Messiah is essentially saying to toughen up, a measly slap on the face or its equivalent is nothing to get overly upset about. I imagine Elohim looking down on us, seeing a bunch of children running around crying about everything. We must learn to endure hardship or risk falling by the wayside when things really get serious. Furthermore, why would Yeshua denounce a judicial system that allows for reconciliation and applies equal weight and measures? Given the whole scope of what “eye for an eye” means it is easy to see the absurdity brought forth by lawless people, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Taking scripture out of context to fit man-made doctrines is vile, especially when suggesting that Yeshua taught against the Torah.

Building Understanding of the Word

I hope this brings understanding and a way to combat the accusations of lawless people, for we must be ready to give a defense for what we believe.

“But set apart יהוה Elohim in your hearts, and always be ready to give an answer to everyone asking you a reason concerning the expectation that is in you, with meekness and fear, having a good conscience, so that when they speak against you as doers of evil, those who falsely accuse your good behavior in Messiah, shall be ashamed. For it is better, if it is the desire of Elohim, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:15- 17)

Continue to test all things, including this, and may the Ruach Hakodesh lead you into all truth.


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