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…

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