“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind” is a claim frequently attributed to Mohandas Gandhi. But while the quote might fit the attitude of a non-violent civil rights leader, it misses how the concept of “eye for an eye” changed the world for the better.
The phrase “eye for an eye” is taken from passages in the Old Testament that refer to what is often called the lex talionis, the “law of retaliation.” While it sounds harsh, it was a radically progressive and humane advancement of the law.
In the ancient Near East, when a person felt they were wronged it was their obligation to seek personal justice by retaliating in kind. As might be imagined, this seeking of justice would often escalate into a private vendetta and eventually into a blood feud between families or tribes. The suffering that resulted in such cases would be far out of proportion to the original injustice.
The Mosaic Law, however, placed limits on personal vengeance to exact retaliation that was directly proportional to the injury done to the wronged person (see Exodus 21:23-24; Deuteronomy 19:21; Leviticus 24:20-21). The phrase “eye for an eye” doesn’t literally mean you could poke someone’s eyes out (as Exodus 21:26-27 make clear) but only that the compensation had to be in exact proportion to the damages. We should also note that verses are given to the judges, Israel’s version of the civil magistrate, to adjudicate the matter. The vengeance, therefore, was required to be mediated by a third party.
As Dennis Prager explains in the latest video for PragerU, the lex talionis is the ultimate statement of human equality.