What Does “An Eye For An Eye” Mean?

by Jack Wellman · Print Print · Email Email

Many people used to quote, “An eye for an eye,” so what does that mean? Does it mean we can get revenge?

What it Doesn’t Mean

Many people used to quote, “An eye for an eye,” so what does that mean? Does it mean we can get revenge? The often quoted Bible verse you occasionally see in the old westerns is typically, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” so where did this come from? It comes from Exodus 21 but also Deuteronomy 19:21 which says, “Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” To begin with, here’s what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show pity to people, even when they’ve wronged us. It doesn’t give us permission to get revenge or seek to get even, like if they gouged your eye out now you can gouge their eye out. The Apostle Paul commanded believers to “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (Rom 12:17). Is it honorable to seek to get revenge or pay someone back for what they’ve done to you? I hope you know the answer to that. We must react in a way that is “honorable in the sight of all,” including people who have done us wrong or sinned against us.

Text Out of ContextTemper

When people quote that verse and use it as justification to pay someone back, then they’re no better than children who hit back when hit and say, “He hit me first!” Obviously, two wrongs don’t make a right. Now there are two wrongs! And this never solves anything, but rather, getting revenge can escalate into something ugly, where someone gets hurt. An “eye for an eye” suggests that the criminal should be punished with the same crime that he or she inflicted, but is that what it means? When people take texts out of context, they can create a pretext and that pretext can be wrong.

Jesus Quotes It

Reading the entire chapter or even better, the entire book in the Bible will help us understand the proper context. That means there’s a better chance of our not misunderstanding the text and a much better chance of seeing what God is really telling us through His Word. Jesus quoted an eye for an eye, saying, “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” (Matt 5:38-39). Jesus doesn’t want us to slap someone back after they slap us in the face with an insult (the context of suffering from persecution). Jesus never wanted the disciples to persecute the Jews just like the Jews were persecuting them. That certainly wouldn’t solve anything, but in fact, it would likely bring on more persecution.

Old Testament Law

Christians Persecuting Other Christians

The first appearance of an eye for an eye is in Exodus 21:23-25, where it says, “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” This is part of the Old Testament judicial system. There were laws for covering damage or harm done to someone, but these laws (proper restituion) would help prevent generational family feuds from happening; feuds where family members would be killing one another like with the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. This type of feud could last for generations. The laws in Exodus 21:23-25 were not intended for the families to take care of it themselves, but rather were guides by which the judges could make equitable decisions.  Clearly, this law was not meant to have one person pay someone else back for what they did to them. That is not what these verses mean. If fact, it says Israel was to submit to the Jewish authorities  (the judges).  In our day, we report crimes done to us to law enforcement if the crime merits (Rom 13:1-5). It is not meant to advocate our personal vengeance against someone or give us permission to “get even” or get revenge! This is why it is so critically important to read the entire chapter of Exodus 21 so that we can see that verse in its proper context.

Responding to Hurt or Injury

An eye for an eye doesn’t mean we do to others the same thing that they did to us. Jesus taught us to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:44-45). Our response is to “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; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head” (Rom 12:19-20). Clearly, vengeance is not ours. The throne of God is a one-seater! We should never try to overcome evil with doing more evil because it never works and only leads to more evil. Paul put it this way: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21). You overcome evil by doing good, not by doing more evil. Rather, we are to give our enemies what they don’t deserve (Rom 12:19) because God gave us what we didn’t deserve (Rom 5:6-10). Our love for one another is what identifies Jesus’ disciples to the world (John 13:34-35), and we know Scripture teaches us that love does no harm (Rom 13:10).

Great Christian Friendship Quotes


Love doesn’t seek to get even or try to get revenge. Instead, love gives a person what they don’t deserve because this is what God did for us (John 3:16). It’s never wise to quote the Old Testament laws to justify our vigilante justice, but rather the law pointed to Jesus Christ who fulfilled the Law (Matt 22:35-50; Mark 1:44). God’s Word teaches us that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:10), “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14). Before quoting an eye for an eye the next time we get hurt by someone and seek to avenge ourselves, why don’t you and I, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). That works infinitely better than an eye for an eye.

Here is some related reading for you: Is the Old Testament Law Still Important Today?

Resource – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), Crossway Bibles. (2007). ESV: Study Bible: English standard version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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