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What Does “An Eye for an Eye” Mean? – #6 Post of 2011

Post Author: Bill Pratt

The biblical injunction to take a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – called lex talionis –  is repeated several times (e.g., Ex. 21:23-25; Lev. 24:17-22; Deut. 19:16-21).  Some people have read this punishment to literally mean that bodily mutilation is prescribed.  Is that what the biblical writers meant?

Not according to philosopher Paul Copan, who has written about this issue in his book Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. What Does An Eye for an Eye Mean?   #6 Post of 2011 Copan points out that the phrase “eye for an eye” is not to be taken literally.  As an example, he asks us to continue reading in Ex. 21 through verses 26 and 27.

If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye.  And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth.

Clearly there is no call for bodily mutilation in these verses which immediately follow the call for lex talionis.  Rather, there is a call for just compensation – freeing the servant.

So what is the point of lex talionis?  It is quite simple.  According to Copan, “The point of lex talionis is this: the punishment should fit the crime.  Furthermore, these were the maximum penalties; punishments were to be proportional and couldn’t exceed that standard.  And a punishment could be less severe if the judge deemed that the crime required a lesser penalty.”

Is there ever a case where the call for lex talionis is meant literally?  Yes, when a person is guilty of murder.  In this case, the call for “a life for a life” is to be taken literally and capital punishment is mandated.

Lex talionis was a principle which helped protect the poor from the rich, who were prevented from dictating harsher punishments of their own.  Copan adds that the principle “served as a useful guide to prevent blood feuds and disproportionate retaliation (think Mafia methods here).”

In conclusion, “When we compare Israel’s punishments with other Near Eastern legislation, the law of Moses presents a noteworthy moral development.  As biblical scholar Brevard Childs points out, the lex talionis principle ‘marked an important advance and was far from being a vestige from a primitive age.'”

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  • Todd Pratt


    Since I was here commenting on the other post, I thought I might continue my friendly disagreement with this post as well. I find it convenient for apologists to say not to take certain verses of the bible literally and even more convenient when passages of the bible are taken outside of the full context. In the example from Exodus, the you should start the passage with the context. The beginning of the paragraph starts on verse 22 and is talking about the consequences of hurting a pregnant woman.

    22“If men who are fighting 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.” From there it finishes the line of reasoning with “23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”

    The example that Paul Copen asks us to consider as part of the same, is obviously a separate line of reasoning about what type of punishment should be handed out when a master strikes a servant:

    26 “If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. 27 And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth.”

    If anything, I think it underlines how the bible devalues the life of servants (though one may argue that the loss of a tooth is fair compensation for freedom).

    In either case, I think the meanings of both passages are clear and should not to be muddied by interpretation. Morality in the bible has not evolved with civilization. In order to shoehorn biblical morality into the current century, the Christian is forced to interpret clearly stated but morally inconvenient verses, into clever interpretations that provide the illusion that the bible is in line with contemporary moral values even in its most sinister verses.

    To be sure, there are good verses that still point north on the contemporary moral compass. But in any of the three times it appears in the bible, to interpret an “eye for an eye” to mean anything other than what it clearly states, is simply misleading.

  • R. Eric Sawyer

    here I think I agree with Todd.
    To be fair, Mr. Copan may address my concerns. I haven’t read him.

    But when certain passages are to be taken at face value, and others are not (and I certainly believe that is true) There needs to be very good reasons for the variance.
    I am always suspicious that this is bringing something to the text that isn’t there, and serves to make it more paletable, less shocking, easier to deal with, and more like me.

    The change of interpretive style may be right. But it better have a darned good reason.

    I have heard it suggested that this whole limiting at all, issisting on some sort of proportinate response, is the innovation. Don’t know if that holds water or not, but that would help.

  • Bill Pratt

    Verses 26 and 27 flow easily from 23-25. They explicitly mention eyes and teeth, so for you to say that those verses are not connected with the previous verses is truly strange. I invite anyone who cares to read the verses in context to do so. I don’t think your interpretation is the clear winner at all. Copan and other scholars have made a sound case for a different interpretation.

    With regard to punishments in the Old Testament, there is no doubt that God accommodated the culture of the time, which was was morally deficient compared to our culture in many ways. I don’t know of any biblical scholar who doubts this. Jesus himself reminds us of this in Matt. 19:6. There is no need to try and make every statement in the Old Testament compare favorably with contemporary values. However, many critics twist verses out of context to make the situation look much different than it actually is. The “eye for an eye” verses are a perfect example.

  • Richard Williams

    “Is there ever a case where the call for lex talionis is meant literally?  Yes, when a person is guilty of murder.  In this case, the call for “a life for a life” is to be taken literally and capital punishment is mandated.” As I argued extensively when this was posted by John Ankerberg on Facebook. Capital punishment may have been mandated under the old covenant, but not under the new. It is true that the secular government has the power to put anyone to death for any wrong that they do according to Paul in Romans (and I emphasize any wrong – contrary to what Bill has said that only murder calls for lex talionis), however, in that context we are not talking about God’s covenant with man! Under the new covenant, Jesus died for all sins, including murder! For Christians to call for capital punishment is not in the spirit of the new covenant at all, and although murder is a serious sin against humanity, God can use His grace to not only save someone eternally, but also to save them from paying a physical penalty for that sin. Hence people like the apostle Paul could be used extensively to reach many people for Jesus Christ. And a modern day example would be Stephen Luongo, the director of African Enterprises. And this is not an injustice. Paul was shown mercy by God because he acted in ignorance and unbelief, and so was Stephen. That mercy had nothing to do with any government not carryong out their “divine” duty.

  • Eric Lee


    I agree with the foundational principle of your article; however, you fail to thoroughly analyze the complete contextual meaning of this concept. This has led to a somewhat under-developed apologetic position. I have written a short article concerning this principle. Please read it at your convenience and respond. Thanks and God bless.

  • Bill Pratt

    Good article. Thanks for pointing me to it.

  • Karla Marie Robinett

    Bill,how are we to look at an adulterer,a disobedient son is to be stoned to death in the context of punishment fitting the crime? How do we determine which foem of punishment is to be taken literally and which is not according to lex talionis?

  • Joelf Tws

    Since when do we interpet the bible literally, Todd. Contextually my friend. Contextually.

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