• “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth” – Deuteronomy’s Justice

“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth” – Deuteronomy’s Justice

My journey through Deuteronomy continues, Dojo readers.

Today I read through Chapter 19, which covers the laws governing justice in the most severe cases according to Torah—the taking of human life by another human.

It’s popular for people to quote the KJV’s translation of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill.”  However, the Hebrew Bible does not say this. It says, “You shall not murder.”  There is a big difference between the two—which Deuteronomy 19 (among other places in Torah) speaks to.

We find in this chapter that sometimes one could “kill”, without it being “murder.”  That is, what happens if “any one kills his neighbor unintentionally without having been at enmity with him in time past” (Deut. 19:4 RSV)…or what we might call “manslaughter.” Deuteronomy even gives an example (which fans of shows like “Ax Men” or “Swamp Loggers” might be surprised to find embedded in 2nd millennium BC Hebrew Covenant law!):

“as when a man goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down a tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies.” (Deut. 19:5 RSV)

That’s quite a specific example…especially for a people who’ve dwelt in the desert for an entire generation! I’m guessing their lack of lumberjack skills at this point in their people’s history would undoubtedly lead to this happening more regularly than one might imagine!

Regardless of the reason for the specific example, the principle that lies beneath it is easy to discern: God is concerned that truly innocent people are not unjustly judged or punished.

God provides cities of refuge for such persons to flee to in order to avoid the potential tribal vengeance that would be the expected result when someone is killed within close-knit honor & shame societies…and which, if left unmitigated, would lead to blood feuds among families/clans that could quickly spiral out of control.

However, we see that God is very much concerned with the opposite case as well—that of premeditated murder:

“But if any man hates his neighbor, and lies in wait for him, and attacks him, and wounds him mortally so that he dies, and the man flees into one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die. Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may be well with you.” (Deut. 19:11-13 RSV)

But wait…what if the person who accidentally kills someone is charged with actual murder? And what if the person who actually murders someone claims it was merely an accident? How can there be justice??

Ultimately God is the final Judge, and in the meantime, people can (and do!) break His commands and commit many unjust and evil acts. Likewise, many courts have been (and still are!) corrupt and the innocent are unfairly punished for the crimes of the guilty. However, Deuteronomy did provide one caveat which was intended to severely curb such behavior:

“A single witness shall not prevail against a man 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 sustained. If a malicious witness rises against any man to accuse him 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 the midst of you. 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.” (Deut. 19:15-21)

Think about this…a person who came forward with capital charges against someone had to be ready to literally stake his or her life on their testimony!

This is actually why the other famous commandment (commonly cited as “thou shalt not lie”) was given as well. It actually says: “You shall not bear false witness”, and is referring specifically to lying about someone else in an official or public format (particularly in a capital trial!).

The God of Deuteronomy is a God who desires TRUTH.

He’s a God who desires JUSTICE.

He’s a God who upholds the INNOCENT.

The final line, the famous “eye for an eye” phrase is one of the most misunderstood sayings in the Bible. Once again I will allow Christopher Wright (who’s marvelous little commentary I’m using throughout this study, which I highly recommend!) to explain:

Possibly no other OT text has been the victim of more misunderstanding and exaggeration than this one, the lex talionis, or law of retribution. This verse, understood in its most literal and vengeful sense, has entered popular imagination as the summation of all OT ethics… Yet it is abundantly clear to any reader of Deut. Alone that such a view is a misunderstanding that totally ignores the ethos of compassion, generosity, concern for the weak, and restraint of the powerful that pervades the book… Contrary to the popular view, the law does not condone rampant physical vengeance but has precisely the opposite intention. It is designed to ensure that penalties in law are strictly proportionate to offenses committed—a perfectly proper and still valid legal and ethical principle. It is very likely that the phraseology was standard and stereotypical, expressing the principle of proportionality, not necessarily intended to be followed literally in all cases (except that of deliberate taking of human life). Other forms of proportionate compensation for injury (e.g., monetary) may well have been acceptable. In Exodus, this seems certain, since injury to an unborn child would not include its teeth! Historians of ancient law suggest that the lex talionis, which is found elsewhere in Semitic cultures, represents a legal development that was actually an improvement on an earlier practice of uncontrolled vengeance… (Wright, NIBC: Deuteronomy, p.226)

But wait…didn’t Jesus quote this passage and overturn it in His famous “antitheses” section of the Sermon on the Mount? Wasn’t He saying that it was time for a NEW standard of justice? Didn’t he do away with the OT law as archaic and unloving?

This is a common stereotypical misunderstanding by many Christians. I suspect that it’s due to people reading the New Testament without a solid foundation in the Old Testament (as is the case among too many NT readers unfortunately!). Jesus in no way abolished or rejected Torah. He even explicitly said so Himself in the very same Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17 in case you’re curious).

No, Jesus was not doing away with Torah…rather, He was calling people back to its core message in preparation of Him bringing it to final completion and inaugurating the long-awaited New Covenant whereby Torah would be written on the hearts of God’s people (for more on this, see my video “Do Christians Keep the Ten Commandments” over on the “Tough Questions” section of Disciple Dojo’s resource page).

So what about Deut. 19? If Jesus wasn’t contradicting it, what was He saying? Again, Wright offers great insight:

The antithesis set up by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:38-42) was not, then, an attack upon “OT ethics” as a whole. He was saying that the principle governing legal decisions in court cases (which was the legitimate goal of strict equivalence) should not be taken as the model for all behavior in personal relationships and attitudes. It was possible to suffer wrong without seeking personal or legal retaliation and to extend generosity even to one’s enemy. Such transformed behavior within the kingdom of God had roots in the OT (e.g., Lev. 19:17-18). (ibid)



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  1. Steve Johnson

    Great piece, JM. I appreciated the last quote, where he pointed out a difference between the prescribed behavior for our personal relationships and the responsibility of human government. A misunderstanding of this distinction is the root cause of much confusion.


    jm Reply:

    Thanks man. I agree completely. That’s why I can’t embrace a total pacifist position (though I have great respect for that tradition!).


    Comment by Steve Johnson on May 13, 2012 at 7:59 pm

  2. Gordon

    Finally got into cjhWright. Im loving Knowing Jesus throught the OT. He is fast becoming a go to guy for me.

    Great post. I love it when you speak to common misconceptions in scripture. Im still shovelling tons of folk theology out of my head.


    Comment by Gordon on June 13, 2012 at 2:08 am

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