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.