Too many people, when they hear the phrase, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, immediately associate it with revenge. They believe that its message is, “whatever they did to you, you are justified in doing to them”. However, this is not the intended meaning of this phrase as found in Scripture. Let us take a closer look, so next time you hear it used, you will know what it really means.
Old Testament Source
When God set about to create a special people to represent Him, He gave them laws to live by. He also specified the punishments for anyone who broke those laws. These punishments were for the purpose of deterring anyone thinking about doing harm to another (Deuteronomy 19:20-21). The “eye for an eye” saying appeared in the section where God was laying out punishment for one who injures another person in a physical way. These rules for punishment were also meant to be carried out by the nation of Israel, not by individuals. Israel was God’s chosen people, and God intended them to live according to His standards.
“If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him” (Leviticus 24:19-20 ESV; see also Exodus 21:23-25). A second purpose for delineating these punishments was to limit the perpetrator’s punishment. The punishment should fit the crime; ‘an eye’ for an ‘eye’ not a ‘head’ for an ‘eye’. By God’s clearly setting out the limits of the punishment, He prevented any gross over-punishment that might come from human’s having the right to set their own punishment for crimes. The ‘cities of refuge’, which God set up to protect those who accidentally killed someone else, carries the same idea (Numbers 35). God wanted to insure justice was done, but He also wanted to make sure that it was an appropriate justice, not simply revenge.
Jesus’ Clarifies The Meaning
When Jesus was teaching His followers, He said this, “You have 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 one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:38-40, 43-44 ESV).
Jesus was telling them that the mandate of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ was not the standard by which the Christian life is lived. The follower of Christ lives by the law of forgiveness. Not only are we to avoid seeking revenge on our enemies, but we are to show them love (Luke 6:27). This is the exact opposite of the reaction we have as humans when someone does us wrong. We want to get even with them; make them pay for what they did. However, Jesus says that this vengeful attitude is not the attitude of His followers.
Further New Testament Passages
The apostle Paul revisited this concept in the New Testament book of Romans, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…” (Romans 12:18-20 ESV). This passage gives us several truths: first, it tells us that we are to try to live at peace with everyone. Secondly, it indicates that we will not be a hundred percent successful at this; there will be those who simply will not get along with us. Thirdly, we are to leave justice and vengeance for God to handle; He really is the only One worthy of applying justice. Lastly, we are to treat our enemies with the love, just as we are to treat everyone. If the Holy Spirit is not in control of our lives it is impossible for us to live in this loving manner. Only when the love of God is filling us and motivating our every action can we live out the love of which these passages speak.
The biblical phrase “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is not a license for us to take revenge on someone who has wronged us. In the Old Testament, it was God’s way of making sure justice was served in the manner that He wanted it served. The New Testament teaching instructs us to love our enemies, not to seek revenge against them.
The only way we can love like this is if we have the love of God within us. We must be followers of Jesus; forgiven and empowered by the Holy Spirit to live as He guides us to live. May we each evaluate our relationship with God to see what changes we need to make to live our lives as God would have us.
Take a look at this related article about revenge
Resources – The Holy Bible, English Standard Version “Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”