The Principle of an “Eye for an Eye” – Matthew 5:38-42

The tradition of the Mosaic Law was a “one for one” retribution. In legal terms, this is known as lex talonis (law according to kind). A similar principle appears in the Code of Hammurabi, although Quarles points out lex talonis only applied to persons of the same social standing. Quarles, Sermon, 145. The Torah ideally applied to all people regardless of social standing, but it seems obvious from the prophetic books the poor did not receive the same justice as the wealthy.

Between the fall and the flood, there was no law and people sought justice through unparalleled blood vengeance. For example, Genesis4:23-24 implies vengeance could be ten-fold. After the flood God instituted human government to control anarchy and capital punishment for murder.

The Mosaic Law used the principle of compensation for a loss, using the phrase “eye for an eye” (Exod 21:23-24; Lev 24:19-20; Deut 19:21). Although it sounds harsh, the goal of this legal principle was to prevent excessive penalties and uncontrolled vengeance (Pennington, Sermon, 197) but also excessive leniency for the wealthy or powerful (“you must not show pity”) (Quarles, Sermon, 145). It was possible for a wealthy, elite person to demand a harsh penalty against a poor person, or for a wealthy person to avoid a harsh penalty because of their status in the society. “Eye for an eye” insures all people are treated fairly in the legal system.

By the time of Jesus, the “eye for an eye” principle was expanded to include monetary compensation for loses (Josephus, Ant. 4.8.35, §280). If someone was injured they had a legal right to monetary compensation from the one who injured them. This is probably the most basic sense of morality humans share. If someone harms you, you have a right to get “pay back.” Nobody teaches children to behave this way, yet when children argue they follow this principle. If someone does it to me, it is therefore right for me to do it back to them.

Even though “eye for an eye” was a legal principle, total retaliation was not common in Second Temple Judaism. In fact, there are many examples of Second Temple texts which recommend forgiveness and living in harmony with outsiders. Consider Sirach 28:1-8, for example. God is the one who keeps accounts of wrongs, therefore the wise person forgives their neighbor and does not harbor anger toward someone who does them wrong.

Sirach 28:1–8 (NRSV) The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance, for he keeps a strict account of their sins. 2 Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. 3 Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? 4 If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins? 5 If a mere mortal harbors wrath, who will make an atoning sacrifice for his sins? 6 Remember the end of your life, and set enmity aside; remember corruption and death, and be true to the commandments. 7 Remember the commandments, and do not be angry with your neighbor; remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook faults. 8 Refrain from strife, and your sins will be fewer; for the hot-tempered kindle strife.

Although the date of 2 Enoch is uncertain, the writer of the book expresses a similar view. Since God will provide justice on the Day of Judgment, the wise person ought to live in “peace and harmony.”

2 Enoch 50:2-6 Now therefore, my children, live in patience and meekness for the number of your days, so that you may inherit the endless age that is coming. 3 ‹And› every assault and every wound and burn and every evil word, 4if they happen to you on account of the Lord, endure them; and, being able to pay them back, do not repay them to ‹your› neighbor, because it is the Lord who repays, and he will be the avenger for you on the day of the great judgment. 5 Lose gold and silver for your brother, so that you may receive a treasure (not) according to flesh on the day of judgment. 6‹And› stretch out your hands to the orphan and to the windows, and according to (your) strength help the wretched, and they will be like a shelter at the time of the test.

This principle of non-retaliation was part of the oath made by the Qumran community. Once again, the wise person does not cling “sustain anger” with unjust people, but they await God to judge them on the “day of vengeance.”

1QS 10.19-21 I {shall not sustain angry resentment for those who convert} /shall not be involved/ in any dispute with the men of the pit /until the day/ of vengeance. However, my anger I shall not remove from unjust men, nor shall I be appeased, until he carries out his judgment. I shall not sustain angry resentment for those who convert from iniquity, but I shall have no mercy or all those who deviate from the path. I shall not comfort the oppressed until their path is perfect. I shall not retain Belial within my heart.

This is also Paul’s view in Romans 12. In verse 16 he tells his readers to live in harmony with one another and in verse 19 he says “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”

As with the other examples from the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus wants his disciples to reflect the heart of God revealed in the Law. Rather than seek revenge for perceived damages, Jesus’s people ought to set aside their rights in order to serve one another in humility. Jesus himself is the best example of setting aside rights to serve. In John13 he humbly serves his disciples by washing their feet in order to demonstrate how they ought to serve one another. In Mark 10:45 Jesus says he did not come to be served, but to serve others by giving his life as a ransom for many.

How should we push “setting aside one’s rights”? Can a Christian live out this principle as they play sports? Does this apply to Christians bringing lawsuits against one another? Against no-Christians? Does this apply only to interpersonal relationships, or does it extend to business ethics? How does one “do business” and live out the ideal of non-retaliation?

12 thoughts on “The Principle of an “Eye for an Eye” – Matthew 5:38-42

  1. Between the flood and the fall there was no law about people seeking justice through blood vengeance. But after the flood, God made sure that people understood that no murder would be right and count as justice. An eye for an eye means and insures that all people are treated fairly and get what they desire. If someone hurts you than you have the right to hurt someone back, and they have the “right” to do so. God keeps account of all wrong doing, so the wise person would not act against their anger and get even with someone. We are called to live in harmony with one another and not seek revenge. We are told to leave all wrath in God’s hands and not put that into our own hands. We are to serve one another, not cause pain to each other. “The enemy is the persecutor; loving means at least praying for that person” (Hendrick, 143).


  2. The system for an eye for an eye would sound good to others, so that everyone is fair and equal, but it is not right. We are not to hold on to things that other people have done. God wants us to forgive and forget and move on. Holding on to these things can cause a lot of anger and build up inside a person creating something that is unhealthy and evil. God keeps account of all the wrong doings so that we do not have to. We should be living a peaceful life with those around us instead of getting revenge with others. God is the one who does the judging in the end, not us. The way that we can get rid of these vengeful thoughts is by praying for the people who hurt us (Hendricks pg.143).


  3. I feel like this is such a human thing too, to not even know what brings this on our human body to when someone hurts us we need to hurt them back. I liked when you were talking about how no one teaches us that when someone hurts us that we need to hurt them back, we just somehow to know it how to be mean to people. we need to learn how to treat people, as we grow we learn that if someone hurts us it probably not bests to hurt them back. I think it is very interesting, and I am not saying that I am the best at it, is how to be a Christian and also be in a secular work environment, it is something that I will have to learn as I go.


  4. When reading these passages it seems as though Jesus’ thinking is backwards. As He states “you have heard and eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth.” This reasoning sounds fair as say someone stole your pizza, then it would be right to steal their pizza. Instead Jesus tells us to give them an extra pizza. I think applying this to today in examples as such in sports,business, and lawsuits is rather difficult. For all three of these there are systems and rules put into place that do their best to make the “playing grounds” equal. I like what McKnight points out about Jesus’ kingdom vision and unresistant love. Jesus has called us to love God and love others, even those who are unjust to us (p 124). I think this is the overall point of Jesus’ message here, and often times it can be very challenging.


  5. This makes me think about what is said in the New Testament in 1 Peter 3:9, how we are not suppose take revenge in the actions that’s not blessings. In every situation do you think eye for an eye is the best method to use or just in certain areas of confrontation in life? If look back at the civil rights movement and how you had two side of the fight for black equality. One side being Dr. King’s philosophy and using non-violent measures to make the statement that things need to change. While there was the Malcolm X philosophy that mirrors the idea of eye for an eye. With these two different views, the both have pros and cons to them. I am all for not using the eye for an eye method, because God’s word wants us to prevent as much conflict as possible and getting revenge is the birth of that. Deuteronomy 32:35, tells us that God will handle our enemies and we should just display love at all times. Mirandamc3 stated “We are called to live in harmony with one another and not seek revenge.” (Mirandamc3, 2018) Then again, we are all humans, and we only have so much patience when it comes to certain things that irritate us, or even causing us harm. Therefore, will it be wrong for us to take action as a sign of peace. And I say that some people don’t get the notion to stop doing things that offend us, unless their wellbeing is in danger. Everybody do not respond to kindness but what does it takes for us to make show our enemies that we are not tolerating the confront.


    • Interesting contrast between King and Malcolm X. I think most people would agree MLK lived out non-resistance, and I think this was grounded in Sermon on the Mount ethics. But MalcolmX was driven to violent action because the non-violent protests were not generating sufficient change. Is this a problem with non-violent protests? Can a Christian be involved in a violent response to a bad law or an evil government?


  6. I think it is important to understand the purpose of the law. The law was designed to be appropriate and justifiable. The law was designed to protect the people and provide equal retribution for those who committed crimes and were victims of crimes. However, Israel was unique in their justice system, as the God who he himself is justice and takes righteous vengeance is behind the law (McKnight, 123). However, over the years the laws began to be manipulated and changed by the people. Rather than equal punishment for the crime committed, the offending person could simply pay their victim for the damage they had done. If a slave had his eye gouged out of his head, his owner would take him to the slave market and see the amount of value that was lost. The perpetrator would then pay the owner that amount of money. This is very similar to the justice system America has today. There are many cases that involve people being injured that seek money through the act of suing. However, this is not what Jesus teaches in Matthew. Jesus tells his audience to turn the other cheek. This teaching is contradictory to the legal system of the day. However, this teaching is reflective of the ethics within the kingdom of God (McKnight, 125). Jesus call man to forgive and love upon those who harm and wrong you. This is a hard task to live out. For thousands of years man has sought Justice as societies have been ruled by law. Jesus comes and flips this thinking on its head and calls for forgiveness instead of retaliation. Christians are called to live a life of loving forgiveness rather than a life of justification. Rather than always seeking what is just, learn to look through a lens of forgiveness. After all, man justly deserves to live eternal life in hell. However, God gave forgiveness to us rather than justice.


    • Sarah I think you make a great point about that laws are made to protect people. therefore the law is create to prevent things from happening rather than equaling it out after it already happened. I also agree with what you said about forgiveness. Our culture tells us not to forgive and take whatever you can from that person. God tells us to forgive and move on, rather than getting this justification. Great thoughts!


  7. “(An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind- Mahatma Gandhi.) This is the what Jesus was teaching against revenge. “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot (Deuteronomy 19:21).” This is where the philosophy “eye for eye” comes from. “Jesus forms another way: show mercy and unravel the system of retribution that pervades our society (McKnight pg.130).” Jesus challenged what society had accepted as right in the eyes of the law.


  8. “show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot”( 122). in other words justice is to be served. this biblical saying was put into place so that violence wouldn’t get out of control. therefore, what was done to one person, would in return be done to the one who inflicted the damage to begin with. ” Jesus reveals that grace, love, and forgiveness can reverse the dangers of retribution”(123). Jesus takes a different front when it comes to “show no pity”, he rather taught the people to have mercy on one another. in this he undermined the religious leaders at the time in order to reshape the way people would respond to one another. Jesus wants the people not to be offended and seek revenge, but rather be merciful and let God have the revenge. to show grace, as it has been shown to them. (124-125) love God and Love others.


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