Exodus 21:23-25: Eye for Eye, Tooth for Tooth?

Lex talionis, "law of the tooth," or the so-called law of retaliation, is found here in Exodus 21:23-25 in its fullest form. It is preserved in a shorter form in Leviticus 24:19-20 and Deuteronomy 19:21. It raises the issue of whether the Israelites were allowed to practice private vendettas and to retaliate every time they were personally wronged.

This legislation was never intended to allow individuals to avenge their own injuries. It is included in the section of Exodus addressed to the judges (Ex 21:1--22:17). These laws functioned, then, as precedents for the civil and criminal magistrates in settling disputes and administering justice, but they were not to be applied in a wooden or literalistic way.

Simply stated, the talion principle was "life for life." But in actuality this rule functioned as a stereotyped expression for the judges who had to assign compensations and amounts of restitution in damage cases. If the law were pressed too literally, it would become an unmanageable concept conjuring up images of the most gross and barbarous infliction of recriminating justice on a society gone mad!

One must not conclude that the Bible authorized physical mutilation, because the biblical rejection and proscription against any such personal vendetta is clearly set forth in Exodus 21:26-27, the very next verses of the passage we're looking at.

The expression "eye for eye and tooth for tooth" simply meant that the compensations paid were to match the damages inflicted--no more and no less. The modern version would be "bumper for bumper, fender for fender"--don't try to get two years' free tuition added on to the insurance claim by some phony story about whiplash!

In modern law, such terms as damages or compensation usually replace the term restitution. In modern law an offense is seen as against the state or one's neighbor; in biblical law the offense was seen as against God as well.

Even in those cases where life was literally required as the punishment for the offense, a substitution was available, as Numbers 35:31 implies. This text specifies that no ransom is available for murder, implying that a commensurate compensation might be possible in cases other than first-degree murder. The Hebrew verb for to give appears in Exodus 21:23; in the surrounding verses, this verb refers to monetary compensation (see Ex 21:19, 22, 30, 32). The ordinary verb that is used for restoring in kind, or paying the exact equivalent, is the verb to make whole or repay.

The earlier stages of biblical law did not distinguish as sharply as present legislators do between criminal law (determining punishment) and civil law (determining commensurate compensation). If this is so, then Exodus 21:23-25 is not a lex talionis, a law of retaliation, but a formula for compensation. Moreover, the principle of equivalence also applies. It appears at this point because it applies not only to the laws preceding it (theft), but also to the laws following it (assault); indeed, it applies even to third parties who were drawn involuntarily into a clash.

A literal interpretation of "hand for hand" may not be a fair and equivalent compensation if one man was a singer and the other a pianist. The formula must be understood conceptually to mean "the means of livelihood for the means of livelihood."

Interpreters must be careful not to fall into the ditch on either side of this issue: (1) the danger of transferring to the private sector what these verses assigned solely and properly to the judges; or (2) an overliteralizing tendency that fails to see that this principle comes under the heading of restitution and not retaliation, that the compensation was to fit the damages--no more and no less. In fact, while some have thought that this text condoned excessive retribution, it actually curbed all retribution and any personal retaliation among Israel's citizens.

See also comment on MATTHEW 5:39.