Question: "What does the Bible mean by 'an eye for an eye'?"
Answer: The concept of “an eye for eye,” sometimes called jus talionis or lex talionis, is part of the Mosaic Law used in the Israelites’ justice system. The principle is that the punishment must fit the crime and there should be a just penalty for evil actions: “If there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21:23–25). Justice should be equitable; excessive harshness and excessive leniency should be avoided.
We have no indication that the law of “an eye for an eye” was followed literally; there is never a biblical account of an Israelite being maimed as a result of this law. Also, before this particular law was given, God had already established a judicial system to hear cases and determine penalties (Exodus 18:13–26)—a system that would be unnecessary if God had intended a literal “eye for an eye” penalty. Although capital crimes were repaid with execution in ancient Israel, on the basis of multiple witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6), most other crimes were repaid with payment in goods—if you injured a man’s hand so that he could not work, you compensated that man for his lost wages.
Besides Exodus 21, the law of “an eye for an eye” is mentioned twice in the Old Testament (Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21). Each time, the phrase is used in the context of a case being judged before a civil authority such as a judge. “An eye for an eye” was thus intended to be a guiding principle for lawgivers and judges; it was never to be used to justify vigilantism or settling grievances personally.
In the New Testament, it seems the Pharisees and scribes had taken the “eye for an eye” principle and applied it to everyday personal relationships. They taught that seeking personal revenge was acceptable. If someone punched you, you could punch him back; if someone insulted you, he was fair game for your insults. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day ignored the judicial basis of the giving of that law.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus counters the common teaching of personal retaliation: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you . . .” (Matthew 5:38–39). Jesus then proceeds to reveal God’s heart concerning interpersonal relationships: “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 5:39–42).
In giving this “new” command, Jesus is not nullifying the Old Testament law (Matthew 5:17). Rather, He is separating the responsibility of the government (to punish evildoers justly) from the responsibility we all have on a personal level before God to love our enemies. We should not seek retribution for personal slights. We are to ignore personal insults (the meaning of “turn the other cheek”). Christians are to be willing to give more of their material goods, time, and labor than required, even if the demands upon us are unjust. We should loan to those who want to borrow, love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us (verses 43–48). Enforcing “an eye for an eye” is the magistrate’s job; forgiving our enemies is ours. We see this played out today every time a victim stands up in court to publicly forgive a convicted criminal—the forgiveness is personal and real, but the judge still justly demands that the sentence be carried out.
Jesus’ limiting of the “eye for an eye” principle in no way prohibits self-defense or the forceful protection of the innocent from harm. The actions of duly appointed agents of the government, such as police officers and the military, to protect citizens and preserve the peace are not in question. Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek applies to personal relationships, not judicial policy. The principle of “an eye for an eye” is meant as a judicial policy, not as a rule for interpersonal relationships. The believer in Christ is guided by Jesus’ words to forgive. The Christian is radically different from those who follow the natural inclination to respond in kind.