(Post Author: Bill Pratt)
The biblical injunction to take a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – called lex talionis – is repeated several times (e.g., Ex. 21:23-25; Lev. 24:17-22; Deut. 19:16-21). Some people have read this punishment to literally mean that bodily mutilation is prescribed. Is that what the biblical writers meant?
Not according to philosopher Paul Copan, who has written about this issue in his book Is God a Moral Monster? Copan points out that the phrase “eye for an eye” is not to be taken literally. As an example, he asks us to continue reading in Ex. 21 through verses 26 and 27.
If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth.
Clearly there is no call for bodily mutilation in these verses which immediately follow the call for lex talionis. Rather, there is a call for just compensation – freeing the servant.
So what is the point of lex talionis? It is quite simple. According to Copan, “The point of lex talionis is this: the punishment should fit the crime. Furthermore, these were the maximum penalties; punishments were to be proportional and couldn’t exceed that standard. And a punishment could be less severe if the judge deemed that the crime required a lesser penalty.”
Is there ever a case where the call for lex talionis is meant literally? Yes, when a person is guilty of murder. In this case, the call for “a life for a life” is to be taken literally and capital punishment is mandated.
Lex talionis was a principle which helped protect the poor from the rich, who were prevented from dictating harsher punishments of their own. Copan adds that the principle “served as a useful guide to prevent blood feuds and disproportionate retaliation (think Mafia methods here).”
In conclusion, “When we compare Israel’s punishments with other Near Eastern legislation, the law of Moses presents a noteworthy moral development. As biblical scholar Brevard Childs points out, the lex talionis principle ‘marked an important advance and was far from being a vestige from a primitive age.’”