Was "eye for an eye" law in the O.T. permissive or imperative in its nature?

What I mean here is that if somebody took my eye in that time and I were one of the Israelites, then I could have taken his eye too in an act of revenge, and later I would have no feeling of guilt as according to the law it would have meant that I had acted righteously, i.e. according to the law.

However, what if I failed to act in that way (for example, I was physically very weak and I just couldn't go to my offender and take his eye, or let's say I was simply a coward), would it be then considered that I didn't act according to the law? Would I then be considered a violator of the law? If not, then this law is only permissive, if yes, then the law is imperative.


The Lex Talionis was actually restrictive in it's nature. The remarkable thing about the law was that it set a maximum punishment, equal to the damage inflicted. In contrast, prior laws had said the equivalent of "a life for an eye." It was quite remarkable that limitations were being placed on revenge. This was not an imperative, but a restriction on the one demanding vengeance.

To answer you question, no it did not demand that an equal punishment be meted out if the victim did not desire the punishment be inflicted. Instead, it was saying, the victim may not demand any more than this.

The case law cited draws it out:

 20 “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, 21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.

 22 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely[e] but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

That women were property, for instance, would have been taken for granted. That a man might be put to death for killing someone's property is rather progressive for it's day.

Note also, it is the court here that is in charge- not the aggrieved party. If the victim did not wish the court to act, the court was obliged to do so. If the husband makes no demand, there is no case.

Indeed, the concept of judicial mercy itself was rather unique, and was developed over the course of the OT. The prophets over time called out for mercy. To hear the God of the Bible saying things like, "Vengenance is mine (I.e not yours!) says the Lord" is remarkable progression.

Additionally, unlike, say, even the Code of Hammurabi, Leviticus is clear that the principle is to apply regardless of social class. In contrast, the Hammurabi Code, while having the same principle, was clear that this didn't apply, for example, if a master plucked out his slave's eye. (The slave might be freed, but there was no such thing as equal compensation)

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    Thanks for your answer. What is Hammurabi Code? – brilliant Feb 26 '12 at 6:12
  • The Code of Hammurabi is one of the oldest known set of laws we have. It's Mesopatamian, I forget which empire- but the king was Hammurabi, and it's a really, really old set of laws. – Affable Geek Feb 26 '12 at 6:34
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    @brilliant: You can find the Code of Hammurabi online here. Here's an example from it: "8. If any one steal cattle or sheep, or an ass, or a pig or a goat, if it belong to a god or to the court, the thief shall pay thirtyfold therefor; if they belonged to a freed man of the king he shall pay tenfold; if the thief has nothing with which to pay he shall be put to death." – Bruce Alderman Feb 27 '12 at 4:57

I would say that neither are true and that the premise of the question is incorrect.  Although the mosaic law has much to say about the proper response to an offense, it is important to understand who is the proper responder.

The "eye for an eye" command is given within the context of a pregnant woman who has been injured during a quarrel between two men.  It explains that "...if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." (Exodus 21:23-25).  Verse 21:22 also explains that judges (ie governing authority) are responsible for determining the proper "payment".

Therefore, it would be wrong to take revenge on one's own initiative.  The "eye for an eye" command basically boils down to "the punishment should fit the crime". Its important to note that the punishment is given by the government, not vigilantes.

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