What does the expression “An eye for an eye” mean?
I will begin with some of the Jewish texts that explain this passage and concept, and then I will provide an explanation beyond the Jewish sources.
The answer begins with the fact that understanding the Bible requires more than reading one verse in order to understand a passage. G-d wants us to search Him out. We remember what we learn when we “seek His face” so to speak. This is seldom the practice in Christianity, its members who seem to take pride in reading the Bible in 365 days. The most simple and literal meaning in Hebrew is “an eye’s worth for an eye.” Here are a couple of examples we’ll use to make the point.
The Jewish texts include the Mechilta on Exodus 21:24, and the Talmud in Ketuvot 32b, and Bava Kamma 83b. I also referred to the Hebrew/English Old Testament and the Chumash in which the Sages refer back to the Talmud.
1. When two people fight and one strikes the other with a stone or fist so that the injured party, though not dead, is confined to bed, but recovers and walks around outside with the help of a staff, then the assailant shall be free of liability, except to give for the loss of time, and to arrange for a full recovery.
2. When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined… If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Ex. 21:18-19, 22-25).
3. Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. Anyone who kills and animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. Anyone who maims another, what he inflicted will be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; what injury he gave to another will be given to him. One who kills an animal shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. (Lev. 24:17-21).
Let’s look at the passages in Exodus first. Two individuals are fighting and one injures the other. This is a case of intentional damage. What is the punishment for intentional damage? If the injured party survives and this is not the case of murder, then the punishment is that “the assailant shall be free of liability, except to pay for the loss of time, and to arrange for a full recovery.” In the case of intentional damage the punishment is purely financial. (Verses 20-21 discuss intentional damage to a slave which is a different topic).
Verses 22-25 discuss the case of two people who are fighting and accidentally hurt a third party. In this case of accidental damage, the punishment is as “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, and for hand…” Is it possible that an intentional injury is only punished with monetary damages but an accidental injury is punished more harshly with an actual physical punishment? I think not!
Besides, the passage regarding the accidental injury of a pregnant woman reads very smoothly. If there is only a miscarriage then the injurer is fined for the miscarriage. If the woman is injured, then the accidental assailant is additionally fined for the woman’s precise injury.
Therefore we may conclude that the phrase “eye for an eye” does not refer to actual physical punishment. But let’s look at the Hebrew that provides the essence of the literature.
The phrase in Hebrew “an eye for an eye” is ayin tachat ayin, which is a very unusual usage. The word tachat never means that one party has to give or suffer something because another party has. Rather, it means that one party must give or suffer something that another party cannot do. When a king dies his son succeeds tachat his father the previous king (1 Kings 1:30). The new king rules in the place of the previous king who can no longer rule himself. More relevant is Joshua 2:14; ” The men said to her, ‘Our lives for (tachat) yours!”‘ The spies told Rachav that if she keeps their secret then they will place their lives to be killed in order to save hers. They will die so she will not!
A parallel verse can be found in Judges 15:11. Shimshon (Samson) said regarding the Philistines, “As they did to me, so I have done to them.” However, he did not do the exact same thing to them as they did to him. The Philistines had taken Shimshon’s wife and given her to another man. In response, he burned their fields. We see that the phrase used does not imply exact equality between the two actions. There is no reason to believe otherwise in the verse under investigation.
In the passage we are discussing we find the word “give” used in reference to payment. “The assailant shall be free of liability, except to give for the loss of time.” Here, give refers to paying the victim for lost time. Similarly in or case, “give” refers to paying for the injury inflicted.
Rabbi Tamah Davis-Hart