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?

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

  1. 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.

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  2. 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.

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  3. 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?

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  4. The concept of eye for an eye is a real no win situation. The idea of payback is only justified by the first attack. As many of our parents say when were younger, don’t hit first, but if they hit you hit back more and harder. My Dad used to say this to me all of the time as I was growing up. I never saw the benefit of this lesson. As stated in John 8:7, Jesus says, “let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” This is a single comparison from the bible, not direct or exact, just an insight. Those who were throwing stones believed they had the right because of her sin, so, they went and got their “eye for an eye.” Page 634 of the book Four Portraits, One Jesus by Mark Strauss states that the definition of dyadism is “group mentality.” This is exactly what is going on in the scenario in John 8:7. Everyone banded together to destroy what they saw to be evil when in reality they had no place judging that one woman when they wouldn’t even judge themselves. Eye for an eye is the meaning of vengeance and about getting even. However, no one ever gets even enough. There is never a winner when it comes to this, only two losers.

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  5. The principle “an eye for an eye” is learned at such an early stage, even with the children within a Christian family. This principle is acted out of the human nature, but is not Biblical whatsoever. In fact, the Bible has passages countering this principle. There were various situations in the Bible where individuals wanted to enact revenge upon those who had wronged them. Within the Torah, there is Scripture providing evidence to this, saying, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18, ESV). It is clearly stated in God’s law that we are to leave vengeance up to Him. Another passage providing evidence to this, aside from Matthew 5:38-39, is Ephesians 4:26-27 which states, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (ESV). This text states that we must not act out on our anger. God has grace and mercy on His children, and knows that out of human nature we can become angry. However, He reminds us through His Word to not act out that anger.

    This blog was enlightening in the way of confirming my personal moral with the principle “an eye for an eye”. The 3 texts (2 Enoch, Sirach, and 1QS) that you provided, was more evidence of God’s intention for his children to walk in love and not react out of anger. I believe that Christians especially should really adopt the opposite of this principle – “vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19, ESV). Christians should push aside this principle and stop justifying our reactions to human nature. Christians will experience anger, but we must avoid acting out upon it.. We must not give the devil that satisfaction.

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