Presidential candidate Donald Trump was asked to reveal his favorite Bible verse. He answered, “Well, I think many. You know when we get into the Bible I think many, so many. And ‘an eye for an eye,’ you can almost say that. It’s not a particularly nice thing, but you know when you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, you see what’s going on with our country how people are taking advantage of us and how they scoff at us and laugh at us an laugh in our face and they’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our money, they’re taking our — you know, they’re taking the health of our country. And we have to be very firm and we have to be very strong and we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.”
Trump’s interpretation of that phrase is false. It is not, as he supposes, approval from God for us to enact revenge on people who are taking advantage of us. But I don’t think too many people are expecting Donald Trump to handle the Word of God rightly. The Biblical ignorance does not end with Donald Trump, however. John McCormack, the Senior Writer at the Weekly Standard, tweeted this in response:
— John McCormack (@McCormackJohn) April 14, 2016
McCormack is also wrong. And so is the author Allahpundit over at HotAir who writes, “The whole point of Christianity, I thought, is to resist vengeance and embrace forgiveness, and it’s captured nowhere more succinctly than in the rejection of “an eye for an eye.” (Source)
Jesus’ problem was not with the original law. Jesus was confronting a distortion of that law which happens to be the same error these men make.
The phrase “an eye for an eye” appears numerous times in the Old Testament. When we survey its use in its context, it is not difficult to understand the point of the phrase.
Now an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel. And the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel fought in the camp, and the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed. Then they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. And they put him in custody, till the will of the LORD should be clear to them. Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death. Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the LORD your God.” So Moses spoke to the people of Israel, and they brought out of the camp the one who had cursed and stoned him with stones. Thus the people of Israel did as the LORD commanded Moses. (Leviticus 24.10-23 ESV)
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. But if there is harm, then you shall pay 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 21.22-24 ESV)
A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (Deuteronomy 19.15-21 ESV)
The first detail to recognize is that this law of an “eye for an eye” was given as a principle to guide the civil authorities of Israel. The exacting of this principle was to occur in the court of law! God never gave this law to the individual citizen for the purpose of personal vengeance. Seizing on this law as a pretext for personal revenge was precisely the distortion Jesus confronted in his Sermon on the Mount.
The second detail to recognize is that the point of this law was to demand fairness in punishing crimes. The phrase “an eye for an eye” is a figurative way of saying that the penalty needs to fit the crime. A “body for an eye” or a “head for a toenail” is inequitable. Contrary to Donald Trump’s claim that this law is “not a particularly nice thing”, I can not think of a law fairer and nicer than this one. This law demands that a criminal receive just treatment. People are not to be punished more severely than their offense deserves nor are serious crimes to be taken lightly.
What is not “nice” and cruel to people is to ignore this principle of justice. For when the wicked rule, the people mourn. (Prov. 29.2) Fairness is thrown out the window, and people are arbitrarily punished according to the whims of a power hungry tyrant.