Matthew 5:38


38 1"You have heard that it was said, 2'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'

Matthew 5:38 Meaning and Commentary

Matthew 5:38

Ye have heard that it hath been said
That is, to, or by them of old time, as is expressed in some of the foregoing instances,

an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,
( Exodus 21:24 ) . This is "lex talionis", the "law of retaliation"; which, whether it is to be understood literally, or not, is a matter of question. The Baithuseans, or Sadducees, among the Jews, took it in a literal sense, and so does Josephus, who says F2, he that shall blind, i.e. put out a man's eyes, shall suffer the like. But the Jewish doctors generally understood it of paying a price equivalent to the damage done, except in case of life. R. Sol. Jarchi F3 explains the law thus:

``He that puts out his neighbour's eye, must give him (wnye) (ymd) , "the price of his eye", according to the price of a servant sold in the market; and so the same of them all; for, not taking away of the member is strictly meant.''

And, says Maimonides F4,

``if a man cuts off his neighbour's hand, or foot, he is to be considered as if he was a servant sold in a market; what he was worth then, and what he is worth now; and he must pay the diminution which is made of his price; as it is said, "eye for eye". From tradition it is learned, that this for, spoken of, is to be understood of paying money; this is what is said in the law, "as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again". Not that he is to be hurt, as he has hurt his neighbour; but inasmuch as he deserves to want a member, or to be hurt as he has done; therefore he ought to pay the damage.''

And Josephus himself F5 says, that he must be deprived of that, which he has deprived another of, except he that has his eye put out is willing to receive money; and which, he observes, the law allows of. The controversy about the sense of this law may be seen in a few words, as managed between R. Sandish Hagson, and Ben Zeta F6.

``Says R. Sandish, we cannot explain this verse according to its literal sense; for if a man should smite the eye of his neighbour, and the third part of the light of his eye should depart, how will he order it, to strike such a stroke, as that, without adding or lessening? perhaps he will put out the whole light of his eye. And it is yet more difficult with respect to burning, wound, and stripe; for should they be in a dangerous place the man might die but that is intolerable. Ben Zeta answers him, is it not written, in another place, "as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again?" To which Hagson replies, (b) , "in", is instead of (le) , "upon", or against; and lo! the sense is, so shall the punishment be upon him. Ben Zeta answers him again, as he does, so shall it be done to him. Hagson replies, behold Samson said, "as they have done to me, so will I do to them"; but Samson did not take their wives, and give them to others, he only rendered to them their reward: but Ben Zeta replies, if a poor man should smite, what must be his punishment? Hagson answers him, if a blind man should put out the eye of one that sees, what shall be done to him? as for the poor man, he may become rich, and pay, but the blind man can never pay.''

Now our Lord here, does not find fault with the law of retaliation, as delivered by Moses, but with the false gloss of the Scribes and Pharisees; who, as they interpreted it of pecuniary mulcts, as a compensation for the loss of a member, which sometimes exceeded all just and due bounds; so they applied it to private revenge, and in favour of it: whereas this law did not allow of a retaliation to be made, by private persons, at their pleasure, but by the civil magistrate only.


F2 Antiq. Jud. l. 4. c. 8. sect. 35.
F3 In Exod. xxi. 24.
F4 Hilchot Chebel. c. 1. sect. 2, 3.
F5 In loc. supra citat.
F6 In Aben Ezra in Exod. xxi. 24.

Matthew 5:38 In-Context

36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
37 Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil.
38 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'
39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.

Cross References 2

  • 1. [See ver. 27 above]
  • 2. Cited from Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21
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