How Orthodox Jews read tough Biblical passages: Part III—“An Eye for an Eye?”

How Orthodox Jews read tough Biblical passages: Part III—“An Eye for an Eye?” September 2, 2018

My last two posts about controversial Bible passages were a bit obscure. I’m sure many Christians are completely unfamiliar with the law of the female captive. It’s certainly not the kind of topic you hear a sermon about on Sunday morning. But today’s post is different.

Today, I’m writing about the Biblical law of “an eye for an eye,” which is widely known and also widely criticized. It even has its own special name in Latin,—lex talonis—which means “the law of retaliation.” So everybody is familiar with this law, and everyone thinks they know what it means. But what did ancient Jewish interpreters have to say about it? Let’s take a look.

First, let’s examine the earliest, most prominent place where the law appears:

“When individuals quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or fist so that the injured party, though not dead, is confined to bed, but recovers and walks around outside with the help of a staff, then the assailant shall be free of liability, except to give for the loss of time, and to arrange for full recovery.
When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined… If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

(Exodus 21:18-19, 22-25)

What does the expression of “eye for an eye” actually mean? On face value, the verse seems to literally suggest that if you blind someone else, the court should blind you. The sages of the Talmud (see Bava Kamma 83b), however, nearly unanimously rule that if you blind someone else, the court must compel you to compensate the injured party with the monetary value of his injury . Is this a case of the rabbis ignoring and overriding the real intention of the Bible?

I don’t think so.

In the above mentioned passage of the Talmud, the rabbis bring a flurry of biblical verses to support their counterintuitive position. Here are two. First, there is actually another Bible verse that states:
“He who kills a beast shall pay compensation; a life for a life (Leviticus 24:18).”

This teaches us that apparently, in the Bible, a monetary fine for damage/death caused is clearly referred to as “a life for a life.” Even though obviously, in this case, the animal-killer isn’t getting the death penalty.

Another proof: in regards to an actual murderer, the Bible says:
“Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death; for he shall be surely put to death.”
(Numbers 35:31)

How does this verse help us? Well, the Bible went out of its way to forbid taking a ransom from a convicted murderer in place of killing him. No, God says. He must die! Fine. But what this suggests is that in regards to all crimes other than murder, the victim is allowed to accept a ransom payment in place of a physical punishment! And, we actually have a Biblical case where this happens:

“if the ox gored in the past, and his owner had been warned, but he did not keep him in, and it killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. If a sum of money is laid on him, then he shall give for the ransom of his life whatever is laid upon him.“

(Exodus 21:29-30)

From the combination of these two verses (the one in Numbers and the one in Exodus), we learn the important rule that in all cases of damage and injury besides murder, the damager can pay a fine/ransom, referred to as “a life for a life,” as opposed to getting his eye gouged out.

Taking a closer look at the passage in Exodus, we see that in the case of a man who accidentally kills or injures a pregnant woman, his punishment is “life for life, eye for eye, etc.” This suggests that the punishment for an accidental murderer is the death penalty. But is that really so? Just 10 verses earlier, in Exodus 21:13, the Bible says that an accidental murderer does NOT get the death penalty. Check it out for yourself. Thus, “life for life” in our verse must be interpreted metaphorically. Not for moral reasons, but for textual, logical ones.

If that’s true, why shouldn’t the whole verse be read non literally? That would give a symmetry and parallelism to the punishments. The Hebrew being used is poetic, in any case, and once we know that the first example is non literal, the others could be too. Then, we’d read the text as follows: if someone accidentally causes a miscarriage in a fight, then he’s fined. If the pregnant woman is also injured or dies during the fight, then he’s also fined for the injury he caused the woman.

Finally, here’s a succinct statement about this law that can be applied to many other Biblical instances of the death penalty, by Christian Bible scholar Walter Kaiser, in his book Towards an Old Testament Ethics:

“The key text in this discussion is Num 35:31: “Do not accept a ransom [or substitute] for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. He must surely be put to death.” There were some sixteen crimes that called for the death penalty in the OT…. Only in the case of premeditated murder did the text say that the officials in Israel were forbidden to take a “ransom” or a “substitute”. This has widely been interpreted to imply that in all the other fifteen cases the judges could commute the crimes deserving of capital punishment by designating a “ransom” or “substitute”. In that case the death penalty served to mark the seriousness of the crime.”

I hope to elaborate on the idea that Kaiser alludes to here in later posts: namely, that certain Biblical punishments are not intended to be taken literally, but are rather written to underscore how serious certain sins are. To be continued…

"You have a typo there--Alamekites. Threw me for a loop for a sec ;) In ..."

Did God Really Command Genocide?: The ..."
"I have to admit that I didn’t even read your article as the picture you ..."

You won’t believe what this 18th ..."
"In addition to these cases, there are at least two cases of God's commanded law ..."

How we know what’s right: from ..."
"How about a bit of Vivaldi? All gifts, whether Shakespeare's gift for words, or Vivaldi's ..."

How we know what’s right: from ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Christine

    Here’s the footnote to Ex 21:22-25 in one Catholic Bible (

    21:22–25] This law of talion is applied here in the specific case of a pregnant woman who, as an innocent bystander, is injured by two fighting men. The law of talion is not held up as a general principle to be applied throughout the book of the covenant. (But see note on Lv 24:19–20.) Here this principle of rigorous accountability aimed to prevent injury to a woman about to give birth by apparently requiring the assailant to have his own wife injured as she was about to bring new life into his family. However, it is debatable whether talion was ever understood or applied literally in Israel. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges his audience to find a deeper form of justice than the supposed equilibrium offered by talion (Mt 5:38–40).

  • Christine

    Which of the 3 rationales does the law of talion address (deterrence, punishment, compensate the victim)? Ironically, the law regarding intentional murder arguably is does not compensate the victim, while the others do.

    Interesting hypotheticals in the cited portion of the Talmud suggest that, in cases other than intentional murder, the offender should only be required to give up the (objectively assessed?) *value* of what he has injured.

  • Michael Weiner

    That’s an excellent point. The literal understanding of lex talonis is all about punishment and probably deterrence as well, while the rabbinic understanding of the law makes the rationale about compensating the victim.

    I think the verses I cited are a reasonable enough proof that the Bible intended lex talonis to be figurative. But if that’s the case, the questiom arises: why does God write this law in such a misleading way? Perhaps your point about different rationales for punishment could provide an answer: while one goal of monetary payments is victim compensation, another is punishing the perpetrator and making him feel like he did something wrong that cannot simply be “fixed” by writing a check. Paying the fine would then function as a sort of atonement, if accompanied by repentance. Interesting..

  • Michael Weiner

    Interesting interpretation. Not sure I buy the claim that lex talonis would only be specific to the case of a pregnant woman. Why would that case of accidental injury result in harsh physical punishment, while the case of intentional injury (listed right before in Exodus) would result in a fine? That’s part of what moves me to say that the whole language of eye for an eye is a stylistic, poetic device that just refers to the concept of proportionality and equality in compensation, and not meant in a physical sense.

  • Christine

    Maybe some moral judgment has been made in the case of the pregnant woman that proportionality requires a more severe punishment, due to >1 life being affected?

    Also of possible interest is the usccb footnote to Dt * [19:21] “Life for life…: this phrasing of the lex talionis may seem exaggerated, but the law itself is meant to ensure equity and proportional punishment; cf. note on Ex 21:22–25.”

    Of course this part of Dt is talking about punishment for one who bears false witness.

    I buy the overarching theme of accountability for one’s actions in proportion to the result of the actions.