What Is the Bible’s View?
Was God’s Law “Eye for Eye” Unduly Harsh?
IN GOD’S law to ancient Israel, he commanded: “In case a witness scheming violence should rise up against a man to bring a charge of revolt against him . . . the judges must search thoroughly, and if the witness is a false witness and has brought a false charge against his brother, you must also do to him just as he had schemed to do to his brother . . . So those who remain will hear and be afraid, and they will never again do anything bad like this in your midst. And your eye should not feel sorry: soul will be for soul, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”—Deut. 19:16-21.
Who would say that this law (called lex talionis, the “law of talion,” or retaliation) was unduly harsh? What hatred or vicious scheming would be in the heart of a man who would bear such false witness? A punishment equal to what he tried to bring on his fellowman would be fully justified, and it would certainly be a strong deterrent to false testimony in the courts of the land.
The expression of this commandment is found three times in the Law given to the ancient Israelites. At Leviticus 24:17-20 we read: “In case a man strikes any soul of mankind fatally, he should be put to death without fail . . . And in case a man should cause a defect in his associate, then just as he has done, so it should be done to him. Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the same sort of defect he may cause in the man, that is what should be caused in him.”
Here again a similar attitude is shown on the part of the offender—a deliberate act of murder, or of maiming or injuring a fellowman. Why can we say “deliberate”? Because an unintentional manslayer (someone killing a person accidentally) could receive mercy. “Refuge cities” were provided as sanctuary when the killing was an accident.—Num. 35:11-15, 25.
The third time the expression appears is at Exodus 21:22-25, where we read: “In case men should struggle with each other and they really hurt a pregnant woman . . . if a fatal accident should occur, then you must give soul for soul, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, branding for branding, wound for wound, blow for blow.”
In this case the sacredness of life was again stressed. Two lives, or possibly more, were involved—the woman and her child or children. The man who was not her husband pushed her violently or struck her. There was great disregard for life here, and the man might strike the woman out of a vicious desire to hurt the husband. If the woman or her offspring, or both, died or were seriously injured, the man would incur the penalty prescribed. However, even in such cases, as in others, circumstances, degree of deliberateness, and so forth, were taken into consideration before the judges applied the “eye for eye” penalty.—Compare Exodus 21:28-30.
But the formula “eye for eye,” while a part of the Law covenant, by no means expresses the dominant spirit of that Law. For the first and most important commandments, on which the entire Law hung, involve love—for God and for neighbor. (Matt. 22:37-40) Is it to be supposed that God is less loving than he commanded his people to be? The law of “eye for eye” was applied in a few cases, it is true. But if we say that God was harsh where he commanded that law to be applied, then we can say that any law requiring punishment for crime is harsh.
Moreover, if we really want to know God’s attitude, we can look at his dealings with Israel. Time after time the Israelites despised his law, reproached him and spoke against him, and when they got into bad straits they called to him and he rescued them. In the latter years of the northern kingdom of Samaria the situation became so bad as to be described by the prophet Hosea in these words: “There are the . . . practicing of deception and murdering and stealing and committing of adultery that have broken forth, and acts of bloodshed have touched other acts of bloodshed.” (Hos. 4:2) Yet God did not destroy them all, or cast them off at that time, but sent his prophet to warn them and give them opportunity to change their ways.
However, the greatest example of Jehovah God’s love is called to our attention by the apostle Paul, who said to Christians: “God recommends his own love to us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. . . . For if, when we were enemies, we became reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, now that we have become reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.”—Rom. 5:8-10.
Now, we know that both Jehovah God and Jesus Christ demonstrated unsurpassed undeserved kindness in providing a way by which men can be relieved of very serious sins. The apostle Paul, before becoming a Christian, was actually involved in the murder of Christians. Paul thankfully wrote: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am foremost. Nevertheless, the reason why I was shown mercy was that by means of me as the foremost case Christ Jesus might demonstrate all his long-suffering for a sample of those who are going to rest their faith on him for everlasting life.”—1 Tim. 1:15, 16.
Furthermore, if anyone thinks that God was unjust in giving this law of talion, he should note that God was just as strict on himself when it came to saving mankind. How was this?
Adam, mankind’s forefather, deliberately set himself in opposition to God. In doing so, he knew that he would come under God’s adverse judgment—the stated penalty was death. (Gen. 2:17) Therefore he was not able to transmit righteousness to his children and thus brought an inheritance of death upon the children in his loins, yet unborn.—Rom. 5:12.
Even though all-powerful, God followed his own law of “soul [life] for soul” in order to help humankind. Only by a perfect human life could the judgment against the human race be balanced and justice upheld in God’s universal government. God selected his only-begotten Son, who was willing to make this sacrifice and to work with the purchased human race to help as many as desired to be obedient. Jesus Christ could become “Eternal Father’’ to these.—Isa. 9:6.
God’s kindly, merciful attitude is evident from his action in giving his Son in behalf of humankind, thus upholding the justice of his rulership, of which the Bible says: “Your kingdom is founded on righteousness and justice.” (Ps. 89:14, Today’s English Version) Jehovah God’s personality and his way with humankind are not harsh but loving, merciful, yet just and fair. The law of “eye for eye” can accordingly be seen to be a just law, applied only where it was absolutely essential to carry out justice and was executed only on those who fully deserved the punishment meted out.