Exodus 21:23, 24

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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez

Could you explain the meaning of the law that requires “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand” (Ex. 21:23, 24)?

This piece of legislation sounds barbaric and inhumane to many modern people. And until rather recently scholars tended to interpret it in terms of the practice reflecting a very early stage in the development of the Israelite legal system.

Fortunately, archaeological discoveries have unearthed legal materials from the ancient Near East that have facilitated a better understanding of this piece of legislation than can be found in more recent commentaries on the book of Exodus.

The law of “an eye for an eye” is usually called the law of retribution, or “lex talionis” (Latin, lex [law] and talio [like]; the punishment is like the injury), or the law of equivalency.

1. History of the legislation. The lex talionis is found in three passages in the Old Testament (Ex. 21:23, 24; Lev. 24:19, 20; and Deut. 19:21). A similar law is found in the ancient Mesopotamian code of Hammurabi. Earlier codes legislated financial compensation for bodily injuries, but Hammurabi seems to have been the first to require physical injury for physical injury. This has led some historians to conclude that there was a time when monetary compensation redressed personal injuries because the state did not consider them to be crimes against society.

The law of equivalency was a significant development in the history of jurisprudence in the sense that what used to be a private matter between two families was now taken over by the state and considered to be criminal behavior. This fits very well with the Old Testament understanding of offenses against others as offenses against the covenant community and against the God of the covenant.

2. The principle involved. The law of equivalency was an attempt to limit the extent of a punishment and to discourage cruelty. The principle of this legislation is one of equivalency; that is to say, the punishment should correspond to the crime and should be limited to the one involved in the injury (Deut. 19:18-21).

This law was a rejection of family feuds and the spirit of revenge that led the injured party to uncontrolled attacks against the culprit and the members of his or her family (cf. Gen. 4:23). The punishment was required to fit the crime, a principle still used in modern jurisprudence. I must add that in the Bible this law was applied equally to all members of society (Lev. 24:22), while in Mesopotamia it was limited to crimes against society’s “important” people.

3. The enforcement of the law. It’s difficult to determine to what extent this legislation was strictly enforced. We do know that in the case of murder the life of the murderer was taken—life for life (Num. 35:31). But apart from this, the formulation “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” etc., seems to have been a technical phrase used to express the idea of equivalency, leaving the court to determine the nature and extent of the equivalence.

“Whatever he has done must be done to him” (Lev. 24:19, NIV) is used to indicate that the culprit should get what he deserves (cf. Judges 15:6-8, 11). The restitution could be monetary or in kind, as indicated in Leviticus 24:18: “Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution—life for life.” Obviously, in this case “life for life” does not mean that the individual who killed the animal was to be killed. The law provided the legislative foundation to establish proper equivalence in specific cases.

4.  Jesus and the law of equivalency. The intent of the law of retribution was to ensure that the punishment corresponded to the crime in order to control the punishment inflicted on the guilty one. In Matthew 5:38-42 Jesus was not abrogating this important legal principle, but was rather inviting Christians in their daily lives to go beyond the letter of the law.

The implicit intention of the law—to eliminate personal revenge—was stated explicitly by Jesus; and He, in His own person and ministry, modeled it for us.