“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” (Matt. 5:38, ESV). Jesus cites this law in Ex. 21:22-25.
22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine.
23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life,
24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
The situation here is that of a group of men fighting each other. They hit a third party, a pregnant woman, causing her either to miss-carry the unborn or give premature birth. If there is no harm, meaning, the mother or child does not die, the one who hit the woman shall pay a fine. The judges shall determine the amount of the penalty. But if there is harm, meaning, the mother or child dies, then the man shall pay “life for life.” He shall suffer the death penalty.
This is what is meant by the phrases in vv. 24-25, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” The phrases, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” therefore, means, punishment in proportion to the offense. (D. A. Hagner) It is punishment equal to the offense. It is penalty that fits the crime. (C. Blomberg)
It is a fair and just punishment. The Law does not allow two eyes for an eye. If you have caused the loss of one eye, the Law of the Lord does not require a penalty of two eyes for the loss of one. Thus, it is a fair punishment.
This Law limits the extent of personal revenge against another. In those days, even today, we tend to punish the criminal more than his offense requires. Therefore, this Law is a just law. It controls the amount of personal vengeance against the other.
Somebody once said that if we require an eye for an eye, we will all go blind in one eye. If we require two eyes for two eyes, we will all go blind. If we require a tooth for a tooth, we will all lose a tooth. If we require 10 teeth for 10 teeth, we will all be toothless.
This Law has a side effect unfortunately. If you return evil for evil, you imprison yourself with the chain of “evil action and reaction.” (Blomberg)
You have heard this Law, Jesus says. It says, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This Law gives you the right of personal retaliation. It gives you the right of personal vengeance. It gives you the right of personal payback. Jesus said, “You have heard this teaching, an eye for an eye.”
“But I say to you,” Jesus says. But as the True Interpreter of the Law, Jesus says, I say to you. But as the True Teacher of God’s will, Jesus says, I say to you.
This brings me to my second point.