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What Does “an Eye for an Eye” Mean?

The Bible’s answer

 The rule of “an eye for an eye” was part of God’s Law given by Moses to ancient Israel and was quoted by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5:​38, King James Version; Exodus 21:24, 25; Deuteronomy 19:21) It meant that when dealing out justice to wrongdoers, the punishment should fit the crime. *

 The rule applied to deliberate injurious acts against another person. Regarding a willful offender, the Mosaic Law stated: “Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, the same sort of injury he inflicted should be inflicted on him.”​—Leviticus 24:20.

 What was the purpose of the “eye for an eye” rule?

 The “eye for an eye” rule did not authorize or sanction vigilante justice. Rather, it helped appointed judges to impose punishments that were appropriate, being neither too harsh nor too lenient.

 The rule also served as a deterrent to any who would intentionally harm others or scheme to do so. “Those who remain [those who observed God’s justice being carried out] will hear and be afraid,” explained the Law, “and they will never again do anything bad like this among you.”​—Deuteronomy 19:20.

 Does the “eye for an eye” rule apply to Christians?

 No, this rule is not binding on Christians. It was part of the Mosaic Law, which Jesus’ sacrificial death abolished.​—Romans 10:4.

 Even so, the rule provides insight into God’s way of thinking. For example, it shows that God values justice. (Psalm 89:14) It also reveals his standard of justice​—namely, that wrongdoers should be disciplined “to the proper degree.”​—Jeremiah 30:11.

 Misconceptions about the “eye for an eye” rule

 Misconception: The “eye for an eye” rule was excessively harsh.

 Fact: The rule did not authorize a heavy-handed, cruel application of justice. Rather, when properly applied, it meant that qualified judges would impose retribution for an offense only after first considering the circumstances involved and the extent to which the offense was deliberate. (Exodus 21:28-​30; Numbers 35:22-​25) The “eye for an eye” rule thus acted as a restraint against extremes in punishment.

 Misconception: The “eye for an eye” rule authorized an endless cycle of personal vengeance.

 Fact: The Mosaic Law itself stated: “You must not take vengeance nor hold a grudge against the sons of your people.” (Leviticus 19:18) Rather than promoting personal vengeance, the Law encouraged people to trust in God and in the legal system that he had authorized to right any wrongs.​—Deuteronomy 32:35.

^ This legal principle, sometimes referred to by the Latin term lex talionis, was also reflected in the legal system of some other ancient societies.