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Question and Answer

Why was the Law of Moses so harsh, calling for an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth? This seems so primitive and callous.

This law, frequently called the “law of retaliation,” is also found in Exodus 21:23–25, Leviticus 24:19–20, and Deuteronomy 19:16–21. It is perceived as vengeful and excessive, when in fact it was intended to restrain vengeance and excessive punishment. First, the law required that retribution was to be judicial, not personal. Fines should be paid as the judges decide (Ex. 21:22) after their investigation. The government was to carry out punishment.

Second, the law required that punishment had to fit the crime and not be excessive. If someone has injured an eye, the punishment must not be the death penalty. Moreover, the context of Exodus is about paying monetary fines, so it appears that the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” command was not to be taken literally but referred to the appropriate financial restitution for an injury. The Law of Moses did not intend to create a blind, toothless society!

The only exception to the financial application of these laws appears to be the death penalty for deliberate homicide. Since people are made in the image of God, the deliberate murder of a human being required the courts to carry out capital punishment as the only appropriate justice. That’s why Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.” The Law of Moses was not primitive or harsh. Rather, it provided for appropriate justice and restricted the sinful human desire for excessive vengeance and personal retaliation.

BY Dr. Michael Rydelnik

Dr. Michael Rydelnik is professor of Jewish Studies at Moody Bible Institute and the Bible teacher on Moody Radio’s Open Line, answering listener Bible questions on over 200 stations nationwide across Moody Radio. The son of Holocaust survivors, he was raised in an observant Jewish home in Brooklyn, N.Y. As a high school student, Michael became a follower of Jesus the Messiah and began teaching the Bible almost immediately. He is the author of Understanding the Arab Israeli Conflict and The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic? He is the co-editor of the Moody Bible Commentary, a commentary on the whole Bible by the faculty of Moody Bible Institute. Michael served on the translation team of the Holman CSB Bible and contributed to several other books and study Bibles. Michael is a regular contributor to the Day of Discovery television program and appeared in the Lee Stroebel video The Case for Christ. Michael and his wife, Eva, have two adult sons who call and write all the time. The Rydelniks live in Chicago, Ill., and enjoy leading study groups to Israel and hiking with their two collies.

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