People often cite “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” as contradicting Jesus’ command to forgive our enemies. (“Where does the Bible say that?” “Er, somewhere in there.” There are three references: Exodus 21:22 – hurting a pregnant woman; Leviticus 24:19-22 – hurting anyone; Deuteronomy 19:16-21 – perjury. Jesus’ reference to it is in Matthew 5:38). This accusation overlooks two issues: one, that Jesus was telling his disciples how they should act in relation to another person, while the Mosaic stipulation is an issue of social order and justice. Punishments were to be carried out in the presence of the elders of the town, not like a lynching. Today, even if a person doesn’t press charges, the police might still charge the offender independently, if they have sufficient evidence without our testimony.

Even if we personally forgive the offender, we still need to consider the possibility they could offend again and hurt another person. We must also consider the issue of maintaining public order, safety and justice. Having a person receive the just penalty for their offence does not mean we hate them: their punishment can also be a means of rehabilitation – even if that is through fear of receiving the same punishment. It isn’t a positive or ideal motivation but if prevents them from offending again, it has a beneficial effect for society.

The second issue is that the “eye for eye” command was to protect people: to limit punishment, not to prescribe it. Have you heard of a vendetta? One person is hurt by another and their desire for justice becomes a crusade for revenge. Hatred escalates, involves other people and the end is far out of proportion to the original offence. This is what the “eye for eye” law – called lex talionis – was meant to prevent: overkill.

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