The scenario plays out every day, potentially millions of times every day. Someone does something nasty to another—what it is doesn’t matter, the same reaction will result whether it is serious or frivolous. The one who was wronged may articulate it clear and concise or may simply reserve the thought in his heart. When verbalized, it often comes out like this: “He’ll get his,” or “He’s gonna get what’s coming to him,” or “Vengeance is sweet,” or a variety of other sayings, some which are unfit to repeat. It matters not what we call it: getting even, or payback, or retribution, or tit for tat; the end result is always the same—someone did something nasty to me, so I’m going to do something nasty to them.
Many are familiar with a Bible phrase that would seem to justify such behavior. It is called by some “the law of retaliation.” The Bible says,
…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. (Exodus 21:23-25)
My guess is most people are not familiar with all 3 verses, but likely just the first portion of verse 24, “eye for eye.” Some will cite this text to justify doing unto others what has been done unto them; which is a perversion of what is commonly called the golden rule. Jesus said,
…whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)
We are not to treat people how they have mistreated us, but we are to treat them how we would like to be treated. Not only that, but earlier in this same context, Jesus addressed the “eye for eye” idea. He said,
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. (Matthew 5:38-39)
Friend, if you and I are going to be followers of Jesus, then we cannot look for the opportunity to get back at someone, to take vengeance for ourselves. Such has no part in the Christian life. Just a few verses later, Jesus would tell us to love our enemies and do good to those who mistreat us (Matthew 5:44). The apostle Paul repeats these thoughts, and reminds us that vengeance belongs to God, not us (Romans 12:14-21).
A Christian may not justify revenge using the “eye for eye” Scripture. It is contrary to the doctrine of Christ as given in the New Testament. As we noted already, the “eye for eye” law is found in Exodus 21. It also appears in Deuteronomy 19 and Leviticus 24. And the same law exists in many other ancient cultures, and can also be found in Islamic law today (in fact, there was a “retribution in kind” case in Iran just recently1).
Unfortunately, this law, as given in the law of Moses and in the other cultures is usually misrepresented. It is not a law of vengeance. The one who is wronged is not handed a “get even” card to be redeemed at a convenient time. The “eye for eye” law is exactly that—a law. It is part of a judicial system. Adam Clarke observes:
Nothing, however, of this kind was left to private revenge; the magistrate awarded the punishment when the fact was proved, otherwise the lex talionis would have utterly destroyed the peace of society, and have sown the seeds of hatred, revenge, and all uncharitableness. (ACC)
When Jesus mentioned this law in Matthew 5, some suppose that He was contrasting His will with Moses’ Law. This is not the case. Earlier in the chapter He spoke against any who would teach men to do other than what the Law says (Matthew 5:17-19). Did He say such a thing, and then proceed to teach people to do something that was different from Moses’ law? To do so would be hypocrisy. Jesus was addressing a misuse of the “eye for eye” law. John Wesley observed:
The tradition of the elders seems to have put this corrupt gloss upon it. But magistrates had an eye to this rule in punishing offenders, and doing right to those that are injured. (JWN)
God has never permitted, let alone commanded people to take personal vengeance. The “eye for eye” law is part of a judicial system, not an opportunity for payback. In fact, if folks would thoroughly read the context of the law (Exodus 21; Leviticus 24 & Deuteronomy 19), it would become clear that the purpose of this law is equitable justice, not personal retaliation.