Could anyone in Old Testament times, take “an Eye for an Eye”?

One of the well known teachings done by Christ at the “Sermon on the Mount”, is the comparison of “Eye for an Eye” and “Turning the other cheek”(Mat 5:38-42). It is a known fact that the “Eye for an Eye” teaching comes from the Old Testament Scriptures. Some believe that Christ was abolishing Old Testament teachings while showing the New Testament way of Love, when He compared these 2 contradictory thoughts, or ways of living. Others see this as an example of how the 2 Covenants are different from each other. The question that is often asked is “Why did God command to take an eye for an eye in the Old Testament, whereas Christ changed it to turning ones cheek in the New Testament”? Is there a contradiction here? Could anyone take “An eye for an eye” in the Old Testament?

Mat 5:38-42  Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

In the following study, we will find out that a little understanding and context behind the Scriptures would help anyone see that the “Eye for an Eye, Tooth for a tooth” phrase was not a commandment for everyone, but a “measurement” used for punishment by “Judges”, appointed in the Old Testament. In other words, no Israelite could take the Law onto his/her own hand and “take an eye for an eye” – it was solely upto the Judges to make just judgement – “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. Solomon JudgesA person who was wronged had to appear before a Judge (Such as Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Solomon, etc.) with at least two witnesses, so that their case was heard. The Judge would then give the judgement according to the loss (An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, etc.) as per the legal system constituted by Moses according to the Word of God. Furthermore, we will see that “Turning ones cheek” which means “Refusing to take revenge” has also been a central theme of the Old Testament, which Yeshua(Jesus’s true name) clearly taught to everyone, through the “Word of God or Scripture“.

1. Why were these 2 ideas compared? The Context.
Much of the misunderstanding behind the phrase “Eye for eye” exists because of the comparison made by Yeshua. Because of this comparison, most Christians believe that anyone in the Old Testament was taught to take “An eye for an eye” while Christ changed it to “Turn the other cheek”. To really understand the reason why Christ compared these ideas, we only need to look at the context of the said passage. The “you have heard” – “but I say to you” teachings of Messiah start off at Mat 5:21. One needs to read only a few verses before, to understand the context of His teaching.

Mat 5:17-20  Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

So what is the context of His teaching, of “you have heard” – “but I say to you”? Notice the “Scribes and the Pharisees” mentioned just before His teaching. Notice how He says that whoever breaks the least of the Commandments or “teach” men to break them will be least in God’s Kingdom. Yeshua was talking about the Scribes & Pharisees of His day, who had taught a perverted version of God’s Word/Scripture (Old Testament). We have studied all about the teachings of the Pharisees in depth, in a previous post. But it is sufficient to say that the Pharisees were going against God’s Word by their own “Traditions” also known as the “Oral Law”. Yeshua was teaching the crowds that had gathered around at His feet, that “they had heard” (from the teachers of their time – who were the Scribes and Pharisees) it being said “An eye for an eye”, but that the correct way was to “turn ones cheek” or in other words, “keep judgement unto God and God alone”.

2. Eye for an Eye – A measurement for the Judges – Not a commandment for people
Under the Law given by God through Moses, any and all Israelites who were wronged had to come before a judge to plead their case. No one could take the Law into their own hands, and “dish out” justice (Deut 1:16-18, 16:18,19, 25:1-3). Now let’s take a look at the verse in concern “Eye for an eye”, and check what the Old Testament writings say about it.

Exo 21:22-25  If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Deu 19:15-21  One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established. If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong; Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days; And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you. And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you. And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

In the above verses, we can clearly see that the person charged with some wrongdoing had to appear before the Judges, who made him/her pay as “Determined by the judges” after a trial. This was the legal system which was instituted by God, through Moses. Judges were instituted by God to judge His people (Exo 18:21, 1Chr 17:10), and they were supposed to be impartial(2Chr 19:5-7). One of the criteria that the judges had to adhere, which came straight from God’s mouth was “Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth”(Lev 24:20). In other words, the Judges had to judge righteously – nothing more, nothing less.

Anyone who says that “in Old Testament times, people took an eye for an eye” believe in an erroneous doctrine. The judgement of “Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” could never be put to power without the ruling of the judges, after due inquisition. It is the same today, with most of the justice systems in the world, where the common man cannot take action against wrongdoing. He/she has to come before a judge and plead his/her case, where the judge will give his judgement according to the Law of that country.

3. Evidence of the same justice system in force even in New Testament times
Even though the justice system put in to effect by Moses survived through to the time of the New Testament, the ruling sect such as the Pharisees broke this system frequently. The following instances are but a few places where we see that no one could be punished outside the Law of God, even in the time of the New Testament.

A. When the Pharisees were accusing Yeshua without a formal hearing, we see that Nicodemus (who was a pharisee himself) challenging the other Pharisees saying “Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?“(Joh 7:51). This proves that no one could be punished before being judged, and being formally heard.

B. In a similar fashion, we see Paul challenging the Council which had brought him to be  judged, for hitting him for no reason saying “for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law?”(Act 23:3). This shows that the person brought before the judges could not be punished in any way before proven guilty. In other words, It was contrary to the Law to punish someone without him/her being found guilty.

4. Turning the other cheek
Through this teaching (which challenged and rectified the teaching of the Pharisees) Yeshua taught the crowds that no one should retaliate or avenge oneself, when somebody wrongs them. God alone stands for Justice, and taking it upon oneself to enact justice has never been approved by God. In fact, God had communicated the same idea in the Old Testament as we see below.

Lev 19:18  Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.
Pro 20:22  Say not thou, I will recompense evil; but wait on the LORD, and he shall save thee.
Pro 24:29  Say not, I will do so to him as he hath done to me: I will render to the man according to his work.
Job 31:29,30  If I rejoiced at the destruction of him that hated me, or lifted up myself when evil found him: Neither have I suffered my mouth to sin by wishing a curse to his soul.
Pro 25:21  If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink:
Exo 23:4,5  If thou meet thine enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again. If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden, and wouldest forbear to help him, thou shalt surely help with him.

5. Righteous Judgement belongs to God Almighty
Righteous judgement can only be provided by Our Heavenly Father. This is why He said not to avenge anyone as vengeance is His alone. These are the same words quoted by Paul, in his letter to the Romans, as well as by the author of the Book of Hebrews.

Deu 32:35  To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste.
Rom 12:19  Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
Heb 10:30  For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people.

We see that throughout the Old Testament Scriptures, people referred to God as the Judge, and kept off judgement to Him alone.

Jdg 11:27  Wherefore I have not sinned against thee, but thou doest me wrong to war against me: the LORD the Judge be judge this day between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon.
Job 5:8 
I would seek unto God, and unto God would I commit my cause:
Gen 18:25 
That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
Psa 75:7  But God is the judge:
he putteth down one, and setteth up another.

King David has shown the same characteristic of “Turning the other cheek” on several occasions, where he refused to take vengeance, even though it was rightfully his. He knew that God was the ultimate judge, who judges between people to deliver true justice.

1Sa 24:12  The LORD judge between me and thee, and the LORD avenge me of thee: but mine hand shall not be upon thee.
1Sa 26:23  The LORD render to every man his righteousness and his faithfulness: for the LORD delivered thee into my hand to day, but I would not stretch forth mine hand against the LORD’S anointed.
2Sa 16:11b,12 let him alone, and let him curse; for the LORD hath bidden him. It may be that the LORD will look on mine affliction, and that the LORD will requite me good for his cursing this day.

Additionally, even Joseph showed the same characteristic, when his brothers begged him for forgiveness for selling him into slavery. His words to them were “Fear not: for am I in the place of God?”(Gen 50:19),  Even though Joseph was wronged by his brothers, he did not avenge his brothers for their wrong, knowing that God is the judge of all creation.

6. Conclusion
The words of Yeshua recorded in Mat 5:38-42 are inherently connected to “Loving your Neighbor”(Mat 5:43). Even though the subject of “Loving the Neighbor and Hating the enemy” has been discussed in a previous post, it is important to note that “turning the other cheek” is part and parcel of “The Love thy Neighbor” commandment(Lev 19:18). In retrospect, whoever compares the Old Testament to the idea of “An eye for an eye” is utterly mistaken, as Yeshua’s message was directed at rectifying the wrong doctrines taught by the teachers of His day, such as the “Scribes & Pharisees”.

A person with a simple knowledge of the Old Testament would know that no one could take the Law on to their own hand, under the Mosaic Covenant. Anyone who was wronged by another, had to bring the case before the Judges who listened to both sides and judged with the measure of “Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth”. What Yeshua addressed was the wrong doctrine of applying “An eye for an eye”(which was a standard/measure given to the judges), to say that any person can avenge him/herself for whatever wrong caused against them. “Judgement”, just like in the Old Testament times, still belongs to God. We must trust Him and bring our petitions to Him, without trying to avenge anyone for the hurt they have caused us. This was the simple teaching that our Messiah brought us, not that it was from Himself, but it was God’s Word all along.

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One thought on “Could anyone in Old Testament times, take “an Eye for an Eye”?

  1. Pingback: Should we stone sinners, if we obey God’s Law? | Bible things in Bible ways

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