Eye for eye , tooth for tooth!! Did the Old Testament allow Israelites to take personal revenge?

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eye for an eye


Ex 21:23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life,

Ex 21:24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,

Ex 21:25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

Did the Mosaic law allow the Israelites to assault a person who had done damage to them? From the law given in Exodus 21:23-25 it seems God had allowed that but lets see whats the truth behind the giving of these laws and how they were actually used.

It is seen that quite often we assume the meaning of a Bible verse from the general opinion of the public of how they perceive it. Bible  interpretation of the Christians is shaped by the culture they live in, the church they have been a part of , their world view, their use of language etc. In order to get the right interpretation we should always find out what a particular verse meant for the people it was first written to , then we can rightly apply it for our times. A culture, literature,  language  and time gap exists between us and the Bible. We need go into the world of the Bible to find out how their culture was, their literature was,  their worldview & how they used their language.

The axiom ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth’ demands the study of the ancient world. Not only Christians throughout the history of the church but even most Jewish people during Jesus time had interpreted this in a way which was not intended in the text. This saying is well known not only among Christians but also to others who have never read the Bible. The first thing that comes into our mind when we hear this saying is ‘personal retribution’ or retaliation. But did the Bible tell the Israelites to take the law into their own hands and settle  their disputes by taking personal revenge?

This so called “law of retaliation” or “lex Taliaonis[1]” is found in its fullest form in Exodus 21:23-25 and then in a shorter form in Lev 24:19-20 and Deut 19:21. When we read it in its context , we will understand that this directive was never given to common people but to judges presiding over the courts. This section is found in a larger passage addressed to judges which starts from Exodus 21:1-22:17.

“Eye for Eye, Tooth for Tooth, was  not a directive to individuals, licensing them to retaliate – they were ‘sentencing’ guidelines for courts. This law was used to secure justice not revenge.”[2] This law was used by judges to give punishment fit for the crime commited. In short “Eye for eye , tooth for tooth” means – Punishment should fit the crime. In ancient society the other law codes[3] prescribed judgement to be given on the basis of what a person’s standing is in the society. If the person is from rich class then he will get away with less punishment whereas the slave will get more punishment than he deserves. Justice was unequally ministered.

“Eye for eye’ never intended to allow people to avenge their own injuries but this law functioned as a precedent for judges to settle disputes and administer justice. This law was never meant to use in a wooden & literalistic way. Simply stated, the talion principle was “life for life.” But in actuality this rule functioned as a stereotyped expression for the judges who had to assign compensations and amounts of restitution in damage cases. If the law were pressed too literally, it would become an unmanageable concept conjuring up images of the most gross and barbarous infliction of recriminating justice on a society gone mad! [4] Just imagine a society or a group of people assualting each other! The expression simply meant that the compensations paid were to match the damages inflicted – no more no less.

One must not conclude that the Bible authorized physical mutilation, because the biblical rejection and prohibition against any such personal vendetta is clearly set forth in Ex 21:26-27, the very next verses of the passage we’re looking at.

A literal interpretation of “hand for hand” may not be a fair and equivalent compensation if one man was a singer and the other a pianist. The formula must be understood conceptually to mean “the means of livelihood for the means of livelihood.”

This is the right interpretation for “eye for eye , tooth for tooth’ in the Old Testament.  Many people think Jesus is changing this attitude in Matthew chapter 5:38-42 and so he also understood it as a law for retaliation. When Jesus quoted “eye for eye,tooth for tooth” he knew what it meant but he was addressing the people’s misconception about this directive. Notice Jesus does not say “it is written” but he says “you have heard it was said…”. Whenever Jesus quotes the OT he says “it is written” but here he is showing them the right place of the laws. The people had taken this directive in the literal sense and for personal vendetta and so he was telling them to change this attitude and instead bear the insult and change your heart attitude. Again Jesus words should not be meant that he is telling his followers to boycott court. (that is a separate study)

Lev 19:18  clearly directed the Israelites not to take revenge. So the Israelites were never encouraged through this law to take personal revenge by assaulting each other. In fact ‘Eye for Eye, tooth for tooth’ was a directive or saying used in courts by the judges to administer and secure justice.

[1] Lex talionis – in latin from the latin ‘talion’ which means ‘ The principle that punishment should be equivalent or identical to the offense committed.’ – from American Heritage Dictionary.

[2] Gordon Hugenberger, professor of Old Testament at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in his lectures.

[3] Law codes like the Hammurabi law code which is dated around 1700 BC , practiced in Mesopotamia.

[4] from Hard Sayings of the Bible, Copyright © 1996 by Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, Manfred T. Brauch, published by InterVarsity Press.


Jesus’ use of the title ‘Son of Man’

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We are quite aware that Jesus used the title “Son of Man” in the Gospels for himself. This was his favorite title for addressing himself[1]. Jesus came to the earth as fully human and fully God. While explaining the doctrine of Jesus’ humanity the title “Son of Man” is used primarily to explain his humanity while the title ‘Son of God’ is used to explain his deity. Today I want to show that Jesus’ use of this title was a very clever way to show both his humanity and deity. Son of Man was not just a human title but a divine title.

The title, ‘Son of Man’ is used exclusively to refer to humans in the Old Testament. It appears 100 times in the OT. 93 times it is found in the book of Ezekiel and all of the references are used to address the prophet Ezekiel. It is found once in Numbers, once in Job, thrice in Psalms[2] and twice in Daniel. 99 of these are addressed to humans except one reference found in Daniel 7:13 where it is used to refer a divine figure. In Daniel 8:17, ‘son of man’ is used for addressing Daniel but not so in Daniel 7:13 where it is used to refer to Christ. Now you might argue that this reference to Christ can also be used to show his humanity. My answer would be it is used to show both his humanity and deity but primarily his deity.

Let’s see some points to show Son of Man as a divine figure.

a. The Son of Man is seen here coming with the clouds of heaven. In the Old Testament God is the ‘cloud rider’ (Psalm 68:4). He is the one who rides the storm. There are various references to God coming on the clouds or in the clouds, surrounded or enveloped by clouds to judge[3]. Clouds, storm and wind were important elements in a Theophany[4]. When God manifested himself on Mount Sinai, the whole mountain was covered with dark clouds, lightning and fire. In Daniel 7:13 , the Son of Man is coming on the clouds.

b. When Jesus was captured and taken before the Sanhedrin, the High Priest asked Jesus point blank – “Are you the Son of God?”. Jesus answer was affirmative and then he went on to quote the verse in Daniel 7:13.

 “Yes, it is as you say, “Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”  Mt 26:64

Notice the question asked was about the Son of God and Jesus still uses the title Son of Man but the combination of ‘Son of Man’ and ‘coming on the clouds of heaven’ is divine. The High Priest has knowledge of this verse and therefore this claim which Jesus made makes him tear his robe and considers this claim as a blasphemy. Jesus claimed divinity by quoting Daniel 7:13 and clearly declared that the verse is a messianic prediction about him.

This Son of Man according to Daniel 7:13 & 14 is ushered into the presence of God and he was given authority, glory and sovereign power. All nations, peoples worshiped him and his kingdom would be an everlasting kingdom.

This ‘Son of Man’

a. was given authority, glory, power

b. All nations worshiped him

c. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom

All these point to the divinity of the Son of Man. No human being can have an everlasting kingdom!

Why did Jesus use this title? It was a clever way to avoid unwanted strife during his years of itinerant ministry but at the same time it also claimed divinity.


[1]  Mark 8:31, John 3:14

[2]  Psalm 8:4. 80:17, 144:3

[3] Psalm 18:9,11,12 Psalm 97:2, Psalm 104:3

[4]  Theophany is the visible manifestation of God. Theophany comes from the words ‘Theos’ = God and ‘Phany’ = appearance.


Frank E Gaebalein. Expositors Bible Commentary. Zondervan, 1979-92.

Jeffrey J Niehaus.God at Sinai. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1995.