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the weird eye for an eye law

Some laws in Old Testament are weirder than others. And some of these Old Testament laws get even weirder when you see them in the New Testament.

Take for example, the weird law of “an eye for an eye.” “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” (Exodus 21:23-25). Here we see that the “eye for an eye” is a principle: any punishment must fit the crime. By preventing excessive cruelty and excessive leniency, true justice involves mercy.

The “eye for an eye” is a principle; it was never meant to be taken literally. If someone’s eye is taken out, how will you respond? If you take that person’s eye out, you may unintentionally end up killing him. It’s impossible to maim, burn, wound, or bruise someone in precisely the same way they burned, wounded, or bruised their victim. Enforcing the “eye for an eye” principle prevented the never-ending cycle of retaliation.

The “eye for an eye” principle is deliberately placed within the context of an example (Exodus 21:22). Say, two guys are fighting, and they accidentally hit a pregnant bystander. If the baby or the mother is injured or even killed, her husband has the right to seek restitution in a court of law for the harm done to his family. “Eye for an eye” was the guiding principle to ensure due process. God’s laws created a system that required multiple witnesses to testify before civil judges (Exodus 18:13-26; Deut 17:6).

Unfortunately, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day used the “eye for eye” principle to encourage everyday retaliation. They would say, if you get punched, don’t hold back; if someone hurls an insult, you should respond with a tongue-lashing. So, when Jesus responds with, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you …” (Matt 5:38-39), he is not abolishing the principle; he’s correcting them by clarifying God’s original intent for such a principle. Applying the “eye for an eye” principle is only appropriate in a court of law—not on city streets.

Jesus goes on to say, “Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matt 5:39). The word, “resist,” is used throughout the New Testament for legal disputes—and this fits the context here. “Avoid taking your enemies to court,” he says. “But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek.” Is Jesus saying it’s OK to be abused? Of course not! He’s saying, “If someone gives you a backhanded slap on your right cheek, you should turn the other cheek”—that is, turn your face to make it difficult to get another backhanded slap. Don’t retaliate. Protect yourself. Do what you can to avoid abusive situations.

Jesus did not come to abolish God’s laws. He came to clarify them, embody them, and fulfill them (cf. Matt 5:17). The Bible’s weird “eye for an eye” principle isn’t weird; it’s quite relevant, don’t you think?

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