No matter how many times I explain, the question still comes up. Sometimes people ask respectfully and sometimes scornfully to “prove” that the “Old Testament” is a book of harsh vengeance.
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Deuteronomy 19:21; also Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24:20) is not instruction that we should understand literally. In all Hebrew Scripture (thirty-nine books), you will not find a single case where punishment involved amputation or mutilation. No! An “eye for eye” is a vital commentary on the Torah portion’s flagship statement. “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof, Justice, Justice shall you pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20).”
That statement truly capsulizes the ideal of Hebrew Scripture and later Jewish thought. It is in stark contrast to Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38): “Do not resist an evildoer.“
A completely just society will always elude us, but we must always strive toward that goal. As Rabbi Tarfon put it in the second century CE, “It is not incumbent on you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (Pirke Avot 2:21).”
Understood as part of the ongoing quest for justice, the “eye for an eye” passages mean the punishment should fit the crime. The Talmud (B. Baba Kama 83b-84a) clearly states that when the action of another cost a person limb or an eye, judges must levy financial compensation commensurate with the loss.
Punishment should neither be too lenient nor excessive. “An eye for an eye” reminds us to constantly pursue Tzedek (true justice) the elusive balance of punishment and compassion as we seek to create a world that lives up to God’s hopes!