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An Eye for an Eye and Who Goes Blind?

by Stephen Williamson  
5/27/2015 / Christian Living


It is written: "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot" (Exodus 21:24, NIV). However, many people today not only think to themselves, but directly and boldly claim that this is an immoral philosophy. This quote from the Bible is often disparaged in justifying nonviolent conflict, with more recent proponents turning it on its head and saying "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind". This short work will attempt to show that it should not be so vilified, for in so doing we actually belittle a powerful message.

What makes the message so powerful is that it displays a revolutionary approach to criminal justice. In our pampered democracies we often think that the only suitable punishment is jail-time or fines. However, if we are to take this verse seriously, then perhaps this does not hold true to the old saying, "let the punishment fit the crime", for it holds no irony. We have lost touch with the irony of true justice; perhaps we do not even try to make justice ironic. After all, when a man wrongfully and criminally knocks out someone's tooth, we find it disgusting that we might knock out his tooth in return, presuming that he is not guilty enough for something so grotesque. However, this verse suggests that he actually is guilty enough, and also that unusual punishments ought to be normal in a world of unusual crimes.

This is not to say, however, that we should redefine what a crime is, or who can convict a person of one. "An eye for an eye" was never meant for personal revenge (Leviticus 19:18). If we have a grievance, we can file it with the authority of government, which is the rightful audience of this verse, for it is the job and duty of government to make something a crime if it truly should be punished. Meanwhile, as Jesus indicated in saying, "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:39), we are not to resist insult, threat, or any other kind of legally allowable evil with violence, for avenging such things is neither in our authority nor healthy for us.

Too often, we get the sense that "an eye for an eye" and "turn the other cheek" are fundamentally opposed and at war in our world. However, if we truly understood them, we would see that one refers to criminal justice, which we must do, and the other to divine judgment, to which we have no right. The two sayings both come from Scripture, which is unified, but few are left who understand how it can remain unified while espousing both concepts at once. The distinction between criminal justice and divine judgment is necessary and powerful, because the Bible consistently makes distinction between crime and sin; the answer to crime is punishment, while the answer to sin is repentance. This is why both sayings are good and true.

So, in truth, an eye for an eye and the criminals go blind.

By an ordinary writer who wants people to know the truth.

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