I may or may not have mentioned it before but I am studying to become a Crime Scene Investigator. Lately I have been watching a lot of crime-themed TV shows like “48 Hours: Hard Evidence”, “Homicide Hunter”, “Dateline” and “Fatal Encounters”. In a lot of cases where revenge is the motive, “an eye for an eye” is often cited and more often than not with “The Bible says, “ or “Jesus said,” in front of it as if trying to justify criminal deeds.
For a long time, I was not sure whether “an eye for an eye” was a biblical concept or not but I never thought to look it up until I saw a list of commonly misquoted scriptures. “An eye for an eye” was on the list but there was no mention of the correct verse (go figure…). I just knew I had seen it somewhere before and finally I found Matthew 5:38 in the concordance in the back of one of my Bibles (from my Barney bag of Bibles). “Ok, I get how it can be mistaken or misquoted,” I thought, but that was it. No further research, no further study; that was it.
Since I had been hearing that phrase a lot lately I thought perhaps there was more to it than the simple misquotation or misinterpretation of one single verse (should have known since the Bible often repeats things multiple times). I went back to my concordance and found Exodus 21:24 (hmm…must have missed that the first time). Google led me to Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21. So, the source of Biblical references to “an eye for an eye” is (drumroll) not one verse but four Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, Deuteronomy 19:21 andMatthew 5:38 (there are more on general revenge).
First up is Exodus 21:24 which says, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot”. Aha! Justification for revenge! Right? Well, not exactly. Consider the verse in context of the surrounding verses. “22 If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 And if any mischief (death)[i] follow, then thou shalt give life for life, 24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” It is not as simple as “you hurt me, I hurt you back”. This was a response to a specific event.
In accordance with other versions and commentary it says, if some bros are brawling, hurt a pregnant woman in the process and cause her to have a miscarriage but she is still alive then the offender(s) will be punished according to the husbands wishes, through the authority of a judge. (Judges protected the offender from possible excessive compensation sought by the husband)[ii]. If the woman dies then the offender will be punished appropriately. I believe that this means compensation but not necessarily physical punishment.
Keep in mind the golden rule “do unto others as you would have others do unto you”(Matthew 7:12 , Luke 6:31); in a situation like this and with respect to the golden rule, I think it would be contrary to have someone physically punish another in someone else’s stead which is most likely what was done back then. If a man’s wife was insulted or whatever may be the case, it is the man who would seek revenge not the woman who was the actual person offended. So in the situation where a pregnant bystander gets injured and miscarries, she would not be the one gouging the offender’s eye out, metaphorically speaking, (though capable; you should see some of those crime stories; scary!) it would probably be the husband or some other related male. However, and again in respect to the golden rule, it is inappropriate for me to harm someone on someone else’s behalf since I am not the one who was wronged in the first place.
I know there are other situations where God gave the go-ahead to exterminate a thief and his whole family or where battles have occurred but I am talking about one on one situations. That is why I think in this case “eye for an eye” is referring to appropriate compensation for a wrong as opposed to taking actions way beyond what you have endured. If someone is chasing me and I fall and get a concussion (true story), recover and then chase them with a hammer so they run into a wall and get a concussion (that did not happen by the way) it is overkill (and has other legal implications). Appropriate compensation would be to have them pay my medical bill or simply apologize since I was fine. Similarly consider the importance of the features as a measure of appropriate punishment or compensation. An eye is very important, damaging an eye is more significant than damaging a tooth. If someone damages my eye and I can no longer see out of it, knocking out one of the offender’s teeth is not going to satisfy me. If I accidentally burn down my neighbor’s house (also did nothappen) I cannot pay them back with just my bike.
Even the golden rule is not about revenge but how to treat others. It is not “if someone punches me, they must want to get punched too” but “if I punch someone, I should not be surprised or upset if they punch me back” (it is all in the subtleties).
There are a few other verses to get through so, [To be continued…]
[i] Mischief meant “death” in this verse. “Chapter 21.” Exodus. Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 1978. 610-619. Print. Vol. 1 of theSeventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Ed. Francis d. Nichol. 7 vols. 1953-1978. 624
[ii] “Chapter 21.” Exodus. Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 1978. 610-619. Print. Vol. 1 of the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Ed. Francis d. Nichol. 7 vols. 1953-1978. 614.