This is part 2 of the Eighth Commandment, which reads, “You shall not commit adultery.” There is much more on each of these commandments in the book Ten Essential Words, available at most online retailers.
As we return to this Galilean hillside and the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus continued to address many of the well-known commandments. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not murder’; you have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery’”, Jesus would remind them. He continued to move each commandment beyond the bounds of the people of Israel to the wider audience of the people of the kingdom of God. Jesus did not directly quote the Eighth Commandment, but he began referring to it in the same way he spoke of the other commandments:
You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”
“You have heard that it was said… but I tell you…” The people were getting used to that phraseology by now. But this time instead of addressing the commandment itself, he addressed the generally held response to the crime of stealing: “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.”
When Jesus brings up this phrase, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth,” he is quoting from the Hebrew Scriptures:
If people are fighting and a pregnant woman is hit and gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
The people of Jesus’ day would have been well-versed in this principle of justice, so they would have been familiar with these words. “Eye for eye” literally meant that whatever crime was perpetuated against another person, that crime would serve as the punishment for the offender. So if a person started a fight, and in the process put out someone’s eye, the perpetrator would have their own eye put out. It did not only apply to fighting around pregnant women, but was the principle of justice behind most of the punishments prescribed in the Hebrew Scriptures.
While this principle may sound barbaric to our ears, Jewish scholars tell us that it actually served two important purposes. First, it mandated punishing a person who harmed another – the principle of justice. Second, it also limited the retribution that could be exacted from the perpetrator – the principle that the punishment must be proportional to the crime. As one Rabbi stated it, “The verse meant that it was forbidden to take ‘two eyes for an eye.’” This served as an important restraint at a time when injuring a person or stealing from a family of one village often meant a full-scale massacre in retaliation. Wars have been fought over less! There is also the question of whether or not this principle was actually ever carried out literally. There are no examples in scripture of this actually happening. Based on the earliest known Jewish legal records, courts did not, in fact, blind those who caused blindness in others. Scripture and early legal records seem to indicate that offenders were forced to pay financial compensation instead.
Whether it was taken literally or figuratively, the phrase “Eye for eye” served as the everyday catchphrase for the previously mentioned legal principle of restitution. This was little doubt, what Jesus was alluding to when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’” In other instances where this phrase is used in the Hebrew Scriptures, restitution is brought up along with it:
Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution—life for life. Anyone who injures a neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.
Whatever the crime, be it murder, personal injury, or stealing, restitution was the legal principle that determined the punishment.
So once again, when Jesus brings up this well-known principle, the people listening would have immediately responded affirmatively, “Yes, of course. There has to be justice in this world.” Surprisingly then, Jesus would astound the people by calling them to forego restitution, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.” This went against everything conventional wisdom held as just!