Vengeance belongs to God alone

“He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).

Jesus knew that some had misinterpreted the rule of “an eye for an eye.” He corrected them when he said: “You heard that it was said: ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ However, I say to you: Do not resist the one who is wicked, but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other also to him” (Matthew 5:38-39).

No, the “eye for an eye” rule does not give anyone the right to retaliate. Vengeance belongs to God, and He has also given the power to execute justice and judgment to the heads of governments, as well as instructed His people to pray for those who are in authority.

Note Jesus’ expression above: “You heard that it was said.” He was apparently referring to Jewish religious leaders who taught retaliation. It seems that some had made this law a ground for authorizing private resentments and all the excesses committed by a vindictive spirit. By encouraging vindictiveness, those religious leaders distorted the intent of God’s Law (Mark 7:13).

Jesus also emphasized that love is the dominant spirit of God’s Law. He said: “You must love Jehovah your God … This is the greatest and first commandment. The second, like it, is this: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments the whole Law hangs” (Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus taught that love, not vindictiveness, would identify his true followers (John 13: 34-35).

— Bob McClain, Living By Faith Ministry, Oxford


 It’s the opposite of what you think

Initially, “an eye for an eye” seems straightforward. However, I would like to offer two other perspectives. Even though it is found in the Torah, in the book of Exodus, and in Latin is known as lex talionis (“the law of retaliation”), the law’s intent is to place limitations and end retaliation. Scholars share that by clearly stating that the punishment for the loss of an eye is the loss of another eye, retaliation is finite: one eye and nothing more. Nothing else is necessary, nor should a grudge be carried forward by future generations. Punishment is exacted, and then the matter ceases to exist.

The second approach: The Torah is our sacred text but not the ultimate authority. It is filled with inspirational stories about our ancestors’ relationship to God and their connections to the land of Israel. And for modern Jews, it is the foundational teaching of laws and ethics, but it is not the last word. So, while our sacred text explicitly says “an eye for an eye,” it is actually incumbent upon us, as modern religious people, to recognize such limitations and use them to build a better, more compassionate future.

-- Rabbi Lauren Cohn, Temple Beth El, Anniston