Critics of the Bible often get ammunition from seemingly bloodthirsty sayings like the following: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” They say, not without reason, that plucking out an eye or a tooth is harsh punishment for committing a crime. Thus, any god who commands this, such as Yahweh the God of Israel, must be a cruel god without compassion, prone to wiping out the innocent due to the actions of the guilty, and showing no mercy. (The instructions to the early Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites without exception would also demonstrate this very thing: see Deut 7:1-5; 20;16-18; Josh 6:21; 11:14-15; etc.) But what about “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”? Should we take this literally? As Tevye in “The Fiddler on the Roof” reminds us, then the whole world would soon be blind and toothless.
First of all, we should look at the larger context for this saying. The classic exposition is to be found in the so-called Book of the Covenant in Exodus chs. 21-23, “[But] 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 21:23-25). Here Moses is depicted as speaking the very words of Yahweh, addressing the people of Israel less than half a year after they escaped in the “Exodus” from Egypt (whence the name of the book). The “Book of the Covenant” takes its name from a statement in Exod 24:3-8, and especially verse 7.
But there was an earlier “lawgiver” who also took pride in the fact that he had his lawcode reduced to writing and available for all to see (all who could read, that is, and since it was written in the complicated cuneiform of Old Babylonian, this would have been only a small minority of the upper class). Still, this “Hammurabi” (sometimes spelled “Hammurapi”—I told you it was a tricky language to read), depicted above as receiving the commission to write his famous lawcode from the sun god Shamash—recorded some 282 separate laws, plus a prologue and an epilogue extolling his royal role as keeper of justice, a “salvation-bearing shepherd, whose staff is straight.” And Hammurabi ruled back in the 18th century BCE, at least three, and more likely five, centuries before the time of Moses.
Now you can figure out where this essay is going—back to the “an eye for an eye” legal principle. Sure enough, Hammurabi uses the same criterion for his expression of justice:
[Law number] 196: If a seignior [feudal lord] has destroyed the eye of a member of the aristocracy, they shall destroy his eye.
197: If he has broken a(nother) seignior’s bone, they shall break his bone.
198: If he has destroyed the eye of a commoner or broken the bone of a commoner, he shall pay one mina [60 shekels; 700g or 1.5 lbs.] of silver.
199: If he has destroyed the eye of a seignior’s slave or broken the bone of a seignior’s slave, he shall pay one half his value.
200: If a seignior has knocked out a tooth of a seignior of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth.
201: If he has knocked out a commoner’s tooth, he shall pay one-third mina of silver.
202: If a seignior has struck the cheek of a seignior who is superior to him, he shall be beaten sixty (times) with an oxtail whip in the assembly.
203: If a member of the aristocracy has struck the cheek of a(nother) member of the aristocracy who is of the same rank as himself, he shall pay one mina of silver.
204: If a commoner has struck the cheek of a(nother) commoner, he shall pay ten shekels of silver.
205: If a seignior’s slave has struck the cheek of a member of the aristocracy, they shall cut off his ear . . .
Well, you get the idea.
The “eye for an eye” principle was common in the ancient Near East, and it simply signified that the punishment must fit the crime—no less than, but also, no greater than the extent of the crime. (Of course, back in Hammurabi’s time—and for that matter, typically throughout the history of any socially stratified society—aristocrats experienced much more lenient “justice” than did commoners or slaves.) Moses—or if you will, Yahweh—actually advanced the legal principle that any Israelite male would be treated equally before the law (it took much longer, alas, for women to be included). So the biblical “eye for eye” principle represented, of all things, an improvement on the legal practice of the time. And of course, the “eye for eye” principle was just that, a principle, not a literal punishment. Monetary fines or the like were the rule of the day.
Let me sign off with what was the ideal legal status of ancient Israel: shalom [peace, completeness, blessing].