As Christians, we know Jesus told us to turn the other cheek and not repay evil for evil (Matthew 5:38-40). So why does a principle found in the Old Testament seem to run contrary to this? The concept of an eye for an eye essentially means that if someone hurts you in some way, you repay them with a punishment that fits the crime. In the literal sense, if someone takes out your eye, you take out theirs.
But wait. That doesn’t sound biblical at all. At least, most Christians appear to have their eyes in their forehead. And if they don’t, it probably was not caused by wronging another believer. At least, we should hope not.
So where did this concept of an eye for an eye come from? Does God actually mean for his people to seek revenge and then later changes his mind? Or have we been seeing (buh dum tssh) this the wrong way? Let’s dive into the meaning of this phrase found in Exodus 21:24.
Where Does the Phrase Eye for an Eye Come From?
According to John Gill’s commentary, retribution law existed long before the phrase “eye for an eye” occurs in the Old Testament. In other words, if someone wrongs you in the sight of the law, justice needs to be served and consequences often occur.
The phrase actually originates in the Mesopotamian Empire under Hammurabi. Or at least, archeological evidence can trace nothing further back than the Code of Hammurabi. In many Middle Eastern cultures (and some lands beyond) during the Old and New Testament, people operated off of a Karma-esque principle. That if someone harms you in a certain way, they receive a punishment to repay for the damages.
But this doesn’t really seem biblical.
First, we have to examine what this means when the Old Testament writers included it. According to this Crosswalk article, “For both passages, the phrase is used in the circumstance of a court case before a civil authority such as a judge. “An eye for an eye” was thus intended to be a guiding ethic for legislators and judges; it was not meant to advocate personal vengeance.”
In other words, they did not want someone to carry out the punishment literally. If someone took out your eye (literally) you would, in Old Testament culture, bring them to a court of law to receive fair compensation for the pain they inflicted.
But let’s take a look at the verse in context to better understand what it means.
What Is the Context of Exodus 21:24?
It often never helps to take one single verse and never read it without surrounding chapters for context. This is how we ended up misconstruing Jeremiah 29:11 and Philippians 4:13. So for Exodus 21:24, let’s include some surrounding verses, to better understand the context of this passage:
Exodus 21:22-24: “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”
This entire chapter falls under the heading of “personal injuries.” It lists several specific examples of what punishments fit the crime in Old Testament law. It also looks out for those who would’ve been considered second-class citizens in Ancient Israel such as women and slaves. For instance, in the above passage, we learn what happens if someone kills the baby of a pregnant woman. They repay the life with their life. In other words, a form of capital punishment in the eyes of Old Testament court law.
Matthew Henry summarizes the section dedicated to personal injuries: “The cases here mentioned give rules of justice then, and still in use, for deciding similar matters. We are taught by these laws, that we must be very careful to do no wrong, either directly or indirectly. If we have done wrong, we must be very willing to make it good, and be desirous that nobody may lose by us.”
God values justice and watched out for the marginalized in Old Testament times. He hated sin and these laws often showed the consequences of it.
We do really need to read these verses in the context of Old Testament law. God didn’t commission Israelites to become vigilantes to execute justice outside of the court system. Below we’ll analyze some verses that say why.
What Does the Bible Say about Revenge?
So does this mean that people can go out and seek revenge if someone wrongs them? That they should personally remove the “eye” of whoever wronged them? Let’s analyze some verses on what the Bible says about revenge.
Romans 12:19: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
Leviticus 19:18: “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.”
1 Peter 3:9: “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.”
Proverbs 20:22: “Do not say, “I will repay evil”; wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you.”
The Old and New Testament make it clear that vengeance belongs to God. We should not go out and seek revenge ourselves, but rather, wait on the Lord. Does this negate going to court or bringing to light the wrongdoings of other people—even believers? Not necessarily. The Bible not only instituted court systems for the Israelites to receive proper retribution, but it also mentions taking people to court for wrongdoings. With that said, let’s take a look at what 1 Corinthians 6 has to say when it comes down to other believers.
Should Christians Implement ‘Eye for an Eye’ when it Comes to Retribution?
1 Corinthians 6:1-8: “Why do you go to court when you have something against another Christian? You are asking people who are not Christians to judge who is guilty. You should go to those who belong to Christ and ask them. Did you not know that those who belong to Christ will someday judge this world? If you judge the people of the world as guilty, are you not able to do this in small things? Did you not know that we are to judge angels? So you should be able to take care of your problem here in this world without any trouble. When you have things to decide about this life, why do you go to men in courts who are not even Christians? You should be ashamed! Is it true that there is not one person wise enough in your church to decide who is right when people argue? Instead, one Christian takes another Christian to court. And that court is made up of people who are not Christians! This shows you are wrong when you have to go to court against each other. Would it not be better to let someone do something against you that is wrong? Would it not be better to let them rob you? Instead, you rob and do wrong to other Christians.”
For context, the Corinthians were getting a little sue-happy. When it comes to retribution and fellow believers, we should first go to them with the problem to try and work it out, especially in the case of trifling quarrels. This doesn’t negate the court systems or prevent any Christian from being taken to court for crimes. But it does warn believers that the world is watching. If we take everyone to court over little matters, it will not look good for the church as a whole.
God values justice. Paul even advocates for court systems (Acts 16:37–40), so don’t read 1 Corinthians 6 as “Never go to court.” But God is also the perfect Judge. We should never exact revenge on our own. Instead, we should wait on the Lord for the right actions and know that he hates sin and does not allow evil to prosper forever.
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Hope Bolinger is an editor at Salem, literary agent at C.Y.L.E., and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 1,000 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her modern-day Daniel trilogy released its first two installments with IlluminateYA, and the final one, Vision, releases in August of 2021. She is also the co-author of the Dear Hero duology, which was published by INtense Publications. And her inspirational adult romance Picture Imperfect releases in October of 2021. Find out more about her at her website.
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.
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