Judaism from A to Z—E: “Eye for an Eye”
If one could speak of biblical verses being vilified, then “an eye for an eye” would be the most vilified of verses in the Bible. It is commonly cited to “prove” the existence of an “Old Testament” ethic of vengefulness, in contrast with the supposedly higher ethic of forgiveness to be found in the “New Testament.”
However, the biblical standard of “an eye for an eye” stood in stark contrast to the legal standards prevailing in societies surrounding the ancient Hebrews. The Code of Hammurabi, a legal code hundreds of years older than the Torah, legislated retaliation even against innocent parties. Thus, if A constructed a building for B, and the building collapsed and killed B’s daughter, then A’s daughter was put to death (Law number 229). The biblical law of “an eye for an eye” restricted punishment solely to the perpetrator. Furthermore, unlike Hammurabi’s code, one who caused another’s death accidentally was never executed. “An eye for an eye” also served to limit vengeance; it did not permit “a life for an eye” or “two eyes for an eye.” The biblical principle was that punishment must be in line with the deed, not exceed it.
In the time of the Talmud, “an eye for an eye” was not carried out literally. Jewish tradition teaches that it was never practiced. The rabbis of the Talmud feared that the process of removing the perpetrator’s eye might kill him as well, and that, of course, would be forbidden (Bava Kamma 84a). “An eye for an eye” was therefore understood as requiring monetary compensation equivalent to the value of an eye. The same was applied to almost all the other punishments enumerated in the same biblical verse, “a tooth for a tooth, a wound for a wound.”
The only punishment in this set that was not converted to a monetary fine was capital punishment for murderers, “a life for a life.” The Torah believed that premeditated murder deserved the death penalty. However, Torah law also forbade remitting a murderer’s sentence with a monetary fine. Life and money, according to biblical ethics are incommensurate; one can never atone for murder by paying money. In this regard too Torah law differed from the laws of the neighbours of the ancient Jews which would sometimes fine those who had murdered people belonging to a lower social class and which made certain property crimes (for example, looting at a fire) capital offenses.
In Jewish law property crimes could never be punished by death and murderers could never be let off with payment of money, even if the family of the victim was willing to accept it (Numbers 35:31). Both in its insistence that evil must be punished and in its equal insistence on setting limits to that punishment, “an eye for an eye” is a basic principle of biblical justice.
Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: J. Telushkin: Jewish Literacy )