What Does “An Eye For An Eye” Really Mean?

The phrase “an eye for an eye” occurs four times in the Bible.

The first three are in the Old Testament, in the Law of Moses. In these verses it seems that Moses grants us permission to seek revenge.

However, putting it into an historical context, some scholars say it was actually a command for moderation, to have the response match the injury. An excessive reaction to you stole my sheep is I’ll take all your animals and burn down your barn. Or you broke my arm, so I’ll kill you and your family. No, an eye for an eye may mean that the punishment must be proportional to the offense.

Regardless of the interpretation, Jesus dismisses the concept entirely. Instead he offers a curious replacement. He says to go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, and give more than required. However, it’s hard to know exactly what he means by all this. Is this a passive-aggressive response, a prohibition against retaliation, a command for generosity, a ploy to embarrass your enemies, or a lesson to let people take advantage of you?

There’s much to consider. But the one thing for sure is that Jesus dismisses the idea of an eye for an eye. It’s old school and he has a better way.

[Exodus 21:22-25, Leviticus 24:17-22, Deuteronomy 19:16-21, and Matthew 5:38-42.]