Eye for Eye, Tooth for Tooth — Really?

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image of a boy protecting a girl from unjust punishment

Today’s Bible reading* includes one of the most misused passages in the Bible, “… life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, and foot for foot. Deuteronomy 19:21 (CSB)

Are we to take that at face value, or is there more involved? Anytime someone quotes the Bible to justify something that doesn’t sound quite right to us, we need to look at the passage (not just what they say about the Bible passage). Look at it in its context. Obviously, from my example above, I supplied “…” before the words, so I’m omitting part of the verse. This passage does indeed mean what it says, but it doesn’t say what many people say it says. What?

Moses isn’t telling God’s people to exact justice, requiring someone’s eye to be removed if they removed someone else’s eye. Moses isn’t giving permission for a one-eyed victim to take an eye from the person who caused his blindness.

Instead, the context tells us that the life-for-live, eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth, hand-for-hand, and foot-for-foot has to do with those who falsely accuse people of something. Moses has just told us that accusations must be verified by two or three eye witnesses before punishment can be executed. (Deuteronomy 19:15b)

He then says that if Robert falsely accuses Sam with the intent of harming Sam, (sending Sam to jail, confiscating Sam’s property, etc) the judges (not individual people and not a lynch mob) are to do to Robert what he intended for Sam. The reason why Moses included the language of life-for-live, eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth, hand-for-hand, and foot-for-foot is to ensure that false accusations would not be tolerated among the people of God. (Deuteronomy 19:19)

Note also that Moses just addressed the purposes of Sanctuary Cities in the Promised Land. (Deuteronomy 19:5-6) I also discussed the subject of Sanctuary Cities a few days ago. If someone were falsely accused, he/she could flee to a Sanctuary City and be protected from the accuser’s wrath until the accusations could be heard and judged. If the accusations were warranted, judgment would be applied after a fair hearing by responsible judges.


Is God giving license for people to exact vengeance to “get justice” for people? Before I go any further, we need to remember that God’s Word cannot and does not contradict itself. God emphatically says, “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay.” (Hebrews 10:30, referring to Deuteronomy 32:35)

Occasionally, God tells His people to exact justice on His behalf. Paul tells us in Romans 13:1–7 that God’s people are to obey our government officials because they are His representatives. Note the context: Nero was the Roman Emperor when Paul wrote these instructions!

Today’s topic is so relevant because three years and a few days ago the jury selection began for the trial of Minneapolis Police Officer Devin Chauvin, accused of the death of George Floyd in May of 2020. For days after Floyd’s death, the city of Minneapolis burned while the cries of “Justice for George Floyd” rang out. In fear for their lives, all four of the officers shown in the video hid out until the District Attorney announced he was charging them in Floyd’s death.

A law enforcement friend of mine urged calm amid the “bad optics” (his words) of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck while eyewitnesses recorded Floyd’s death. With time, more information (including multiple autopsies with conflicting determinations of the cause of death) was released concerning Floyd’s death. The jury decided that Floyd’s death was caused — or contributed to — by Chauvin’s actions.

Regardless of how the trial went, it was impossible for everyone to be happy with the trial’s outcome. But happiness isn’t the goal. Right judgment is.

We should all pray for wisdom in similar trials and how the American people respond.

* Chapters covered in today’s reading:
– Deuteronomy 16
– Deuteronomy 17
– Deuteronomy 18
– Deuteronomy 19

This devotional was originally published on March 12, 2021.

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