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The legal for basis for lex talionis (“law of retaliation”) that Jesus referred to in Matthew 5:38 was well established in Jewish history and in the Law of Moses.

The “eye for an eye” concept first appeared in Genesis 9:6, just after the Great Flood when God told Noah, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.” It was more clearly spelled out in Exodus 21:22-24 as the judicial penalty for one who caused serious injury to a pregnant woman and/or her unborn child. Leviticus 24:19-20 expanded the judicial scope of both Genesis 9:6 and Exodus 21:22-24 to include “Anyone who injures their neighbor.” And Deuteronomy 19:21 added that even the intent to injure (through the means of bearing false witness) was worthy of lex talionis, while also indicating that it was intended as a deterrent to violent crime.

Interestingly, this seemingly-primitive law of physical retaliation was actually quite progressive for its time and even well into Jesus’ day. Jewish theologians tell us that lex talionis “had the important function of limiting private revenge, especially family or tribal feuds. Further, the Torah treats injuries to rich and poor, male and female, completely alike.”

It’s also significant to note that, despite it Scriptural and historical endorsement, the Bible doesn’t record a single instance in which someone was actually maimed or blinded under the justification of lex talionis. Why? Legal and religious authorities in ancient Israeli interpreted talionis as meaning that “financial compensation, and not literal, physical talion, was the intent of the law.” Thus in common practice, “compensation [was] scaled to the degree of the injury: the value of an eye for the loss of an eye, the value of a limb for its loss, and so forth.” To that end, Jewish law had encoded “detailed stipulations for monetary compensation, much as modern insurance contracts are wont to do.”

 

Works Cited:

[BKC, 31; TOR, 571-572]

 

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