What Does “Eye for an Eye” Really Mean?

“An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”

So goes the saying. It appears as though this saying came from Gandhi, or at least one of his biographers as a summation of Gandhi’s thoughts. It’s popular for many Christians to celebrate Gandhi. I am not one of those Christians who does so.

Gandhi was a fine political leader and accomplished a perfectly noble political end. I’d celebrate his political accomplishments. As far as his religious views, and more precisely his biblical views, I’ll take a pass.

Exactly how would the whole world be blind if we enacted an eye for an eye? I’ve lived for 47 years and never poked out anyone’s eye. I don’t know anyone who has poked out anyone’s eye.

The context of the edict is from Exodus 21:23-25, “But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

Physical harm is what is in mind. If you hurt someone, the punishment for so doing should be equal. This is the reverse of, “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.”

The context is also the political setup of the nation of Israel. The Old Covenant law was not a means of salvation. It was, in part, the legal code to direct the nation of Israel. This is what a Messiah-creating nation’s laws would look like if God were its King. People get punished for their sin.

The Book of Proverbs tells people to use just weights and measures, not to favor the rich and disfavor the poor, nor should you nail the rich and let the poor off the hook. They should judge with equity and fairness.

Today there are stories where people get millions of dollars for burning themselves on hot McDonald’s coffee. They do that because McDonalds has a lot of money. Let’s stick it to The Man! Make em pay! Israel’s law was written to prevent such extreme court results.

Jesus brings up an eye for an eye in The Sermon of the Mount. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”

Ah, so Gandhi was right! Down with eye for an eye!

Nope: context. Remember, in Exodus God is giving a nation their legal code, how to enforce the law of a nation consisting of believers, non-believers, Jews and non-Jews. Jesus is correcting the notion of individuals seeking revenge on those who wrong them.

When it comes to individuals, let wrongs against you go. It’s not your job to smite those who smite you. If you are a nation, then yes, your legal code should have a fair and consistent form of punishment for evildoers.

Jesus was correcting the personal desire for revenge that many took that verse to mean. That’s not what it’s talking about. It was specifically a command for the nation of Israel and their legal code.

So, in summation: Context is king. Gandhi is not a good interpreter of the Bible. Don’t poke people’s eyes out first or second.

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