“But if any harm follows, then you shall give 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

Our English class had to read several classic books during our eleventh grade year. Besides David Copperfield, we had to read The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. The qualities of vengeance, justice, and mercy are themes in that play. Money is borrowed and the cost of a loan default was a “pound of flesh.” Eventually, the dialogue centers on this pound of flesh. Judgment is given that indeed the borrower was obligated to allow his debt to be paid by sacrificing a pound of his flesh. Needless to say, he would be sacrificing his life as well, therefore the price would be much higher than the bargain struck.

Of course, the pound of flesh is never taken because there is just no way to assure that exactly a pound will be cut out, besides the fact that along with the pound of flesh, there is bound to be blood lost. Actually, if a drop of blood is taken along with the flesh, then Venetian law required that all the lands and goods of the aggressor would be forfeit, possibly even his own life! Needless to say, the debt was settled with the repayment of the principle of the loan, if I remember correctly. Justice was served and mercy was satisfied.

I have thought of this story often when I have read through Exodus 20 and 21. The passage quoted above is known as the lex talionis. It is often abbreviated to the phrase “an eye for an eye.” The concept seems to be terribly out of step as our culture steadily drifts into a post-Christian fog of immorality and relativity. Eye for an eye seems archaic, brutal, and rigid (or, as our culture would likely declare, old fashioned, masculine, and prejudicial). I would call its wisdom time-proven, instructive, and balanced.

Our prejudiced culture sees lex talionis as draconian because the passage is largely misunderstood, both in its historical context and its scriptural context. When someone says eye for and eye, they tend to be speaking in context of vigilantism, vengeance, and malicious revenge. It seems to seek justice by making an offender pay dearly for their offense. However, there is a sublime lesson found in God’s Word that is badly needed by our culture.

First, some historical perspective—the advent of government among men is revealed in the Bible as occurring at the conclusion of the flood narrative in Genesis 9:6. God establishes the dispensation of human government with these words: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man….” Before you know it, cities begin to be founded in Genesius 10, the Tower of Babel is judged in Genesis 11, and the nation/states become separated.

One of the primary jobs of human government is to adjudicate justice and fix penalties with just compensations. The logical consistency of lex talionis was evident to the ancients. Hammurabi’s Code is one such code that incorporates a primal sense of lex talionis but it limits its applicability within classes but not across classes. It was not a universally applicable law. Crimes against social “betters” were punished more severely than crimes against those of a lower class. The code even stipulated the death penalty for property crimes in several cases instead of “life for a life” as God states in the Bible.

By the revelation of God to Moses, we discover that God had a higher purpose in authorizing a similar Law. But, fully in keeping with His Excellencies, what is plain-faced human logic becomes elevated by divine intention. God places all human life on the same plane of value. The context of our passage starts in Exodus 20 with the revelation of the Ten Commandments (summarized in the commandment to love God and love your neighbor as yourself). By the time you arrive at Exodus 21, you are being treated to various applications of the Decalogue. Acts of violence, justice for slaves and justice for a pregnant woman who gets injured are discussed just before Exodus 23ff. What God reveals is that justice is served by fines for infractions short of death and a person cannot be subjected to the death penalty for causing an injury rather than a death. We also discover that God identifies an unborn child as a full-fledged human life since “life for life” is the result of the loss of the pre-born baby.

Interestingly, there is no passage where someone caused the loss of an eye and they were punished with the forfeit of an eye, for example. Instead, lex talionis becomes the guideline for establishing the limit of the legal penalty. Lex talionis is therefore an upper limit on punishment rather than an antiquated formula. “Let the punishment fit the crime” is another way of putting it.

In Matthew 5:38ff, Jesus Christ unpacks the full meaning of lex talionis. Whereas the government has the right to pursue justice for injury, the child of God has the sensitivity to relinquish his personal rights for the sake of mercy rather than clamoring for the highest penalty available under the law for every infraction. Our Lord does not cast aside Exodus 21 but explains the spirit of the law so that your heart may be instructed and your desire for revenge may be checked. Trust and obey.