Eye for Eye

Did Yeshua’s law of love overturn the Old Testament’s harsh eye-for-eye standard of justice? Take a closer look.

It’s commonly believed that Yeshua’s teachings about love, forgiveness, and turning the other cheek contradict the harsh Old Testament standard of justice. The Torah says, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21:24). Yeshua seemed to contradict the rule of repaying measure for measure when He said, “I say to you, do not resist an evil person.”

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. (Matthew 5:38-39)

Did the Torah really encourage people to take personal revenge? No. In the context of Jewish interpretation, the Torah’s eye-for-eye laws created axiomatic limits for restitution and damages imposed by formal courts of law. Eye-for-eye is a biblical expression for fair and equitable punishment. Jewish law courts did not actually poke out eyes and knock out teeth. Rather the court of law ascribed a penalty or punishment considered to be of equal value (usually monetary) to the offence committed. “Eye-for-eye” means “let the punishment fit the crime.” The Torah imposes the eye-for-eye rule as a standard for liability in a court of law.

Nevertheless, people often invoke the standard of eye-for-eye as a justification for taking personal vengeance, and they did so in the days of the Master too. Yeshua corrected that error. He urged His disciples to be an entirely different breed of people. His message to them was, “Do not press charges. Do not litigate. Do not demand your rights. Do not demand your fair measure or pound of flesh.” In the same regard He told His disciples to turn the other cheek, settle out of court, and go the extra mile. These are a few of the practical out-workings of His teaching regarding forgiveness: “If you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6:14).

These instructions sound like impossible demands until we remember that there is a judge in a higher court of law that will one day settle all accounts. The Talmud offers corroboration:

Regarding those who are insulted but do not return an insult, those who are rebuked without replying, those who do good merely out of love for God and who rejoice in their sufferings, the scripture says [in Judges 5:31]: “Let those who love Him be like the rising of the sun in its might.” Indeed, such a man keeps a matter in his heart [and does not retaliate]. And Raba said, “He who passes over an opportunity to retaliate has all his transgressions passed over.” (b.Yoma 23a)

This article originally appeared on First Fruits of Zion.