By Compiled & Edited by Crosswalk Editorial Staff, Crosswalk.com
What Does "Eye for an Eye" Mean in the Bible?
"Eye for an Eye" originates from the Code of Hammurabi and is found in the Old Testament books of Exodus and Leviticus. It is also referenced in the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus, found in the New Testament. Its meaning in the Bible was simply, the punishment or sentencing should equally match the crime.
From scripture, Exodus 21:23-25 states, "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." Leviticus 24:19-21 echoes this assertion, "Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury."
For both passages, the phrase is used in the circumstance of a court case before a civil authority such as a judge. “An eye for an eye” was thus intended to be a guiding ethic for legislators and judges; it was not meant to advocate personal vengeance.
Furthermore, Jesus condemns the practice of personal retaliation in the Sermon on the Mount saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:38-42).
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Jesus is not revoking the Old Testament decree of "Eye for an eye" (Matthew 5:17). Instead, He is delegating the responsibility of the civil authority (to penalize criminals rightfully) from the responsibility we all have in a personal context to love our neighbors and enemies.
What is the Significance of "Eye for an Eye?"
The significance of this principle is the sheer longevity of its relevance. Our modern court systems still abide by this guiding precept when determining a judicial penalty. "Eye for an eye," has literally influenced the appropriate penalty decisions of millions of legal cases over thousands of years, and rightfully so.
What may be surprising about this judicial precept, although many would now consider it common sense, is that not all countries use it. Even today, there are places in the world in which the punishment does not correspond reasonably to the crime. For examples of this, check out an article from Ranker about Real, Horrifying Punishments in Other Countries. "Eye for an eye" is a principle that is worth appreciating and understanding for its historic significance, arising from the wisdom of God.
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This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.