Robbie Low on the compensation culture

‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ is often quoted as a shorthand summation of Old Testament of legal principles. The marginally literate are likely to add a reflection, variously attributed to every peacemaker from Gandhi onwards, ‘if we follow that teaching the world would be full of blind and toothless people.’ We are presented with a grisly picture of benighted primitives poking each other in the eye and punching each other in the mouth. The implication is that we are a civilization greatly advanced on those Hebrew backwoodsmen who thought they had encountered God and consequently enshrined his legal requirements. After all, the modernist will argue, even Jesus, who was moulded by some pretty restrictive social conditioning, overturned that particular injunction, didn’t he?

Family debts

Reality is seldom so straightforward and such simplistic conclusions about the sayings of Christ must always be balanced against his own proclamation that he came to fulfil the Law.

The famous phrase, ‘An eye for an eye’ makes its first appearance in Exodus 21.23. This chapter follows directly from the gift of the Law at Sinai in the preceding chapter. It is the very beginning of the practical, social and judicial outworkings of that divine gift.

Perhaps the first thing to notice about the text is that it is much concerned with the rights of the powerless. The immediate priorities of Chapter 21 are slaves, women and livestock. It constitutes a major step in the history of mankind’s recognition of the value of the human person. For example, slaves must be set free in the seventh year. A woman slave cannot be sold to foreigners (in other words, removing her rights under Hebrew Law). If she is purchased for a man’s son, she must henceforth be treated as his daughter. If she is purchased for the man himself and he later finds a younger model, all her rights, clothing, food, sexual relations remain intact or she is to be set free altogether. It is clear that servitude, for the most part, is severely limited and seen, primarily, as a way of paying family debts. The slave trader (‘whoever steals a man, whether he sells him or is found in possession of him’) is subject to the death penalty.

The text outlines a clear differentiation between manslaughter (the culprit may flee to a city of refuge) and premeditated murder (even clinging to the altar of God cannot save the culprit from judicial execution). There is even compensation for loss of earnings and punishment for abuse of slaves.

The defence of women’s rights

Then comes the famous Lex Talionis, the measure for measure, tit for tat, and, here again, it is worth noting the context of this first pronouncement of ‘an eye for an eye’. The case is described where two men (or more) are fighting in the vicinity of womenfolk. A pregnant woman miscarries as a result. The belligerent is fined whatever the husband or the court assesses. The man whose violence caused the death of the unborn child must answer for it. However, if any consequential harm befalls the woman, then the aggressor will pay, ‘life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, stripe for stripe.’ Here for the first time is a recognition of the value and reality of the life of the unborn child and the moral seriousness of causing an abortion. The aggressor is fully culpable, although his punishment is commuted to a fine because (a) the miscarriage was a secondary result of his action and not his primary intention and (b) it is possible that he was not consciously aware of the woman’s condition when the quarrel began. The voluminous dress of a Middle Eastern woman is a far cry from today’s pot-bellied semi-naked brazenness. The fine in no way reduces the value of the life lost but is in mitigation for ignorance or lack of intent. However, should the mother, of whom the aggressor must have been aware, suffer in consequence physically (that is, her miscarriage or wounds lead to death or disability), then the culprit will pay in kind, ‘a life for life, eye for eye etc’. The primary use then of Lex Talionis is a massive statement about the value of womanhood, motherhood and the sanctity of life.

Slavery and freedom

Building on this the divine law turns from the rights of one defenceless group to another – slaves. Should the master injure a slave, even knocking a tooth out, that slave is to be given his freedom. The divine law asserts the worth of the person and awakens the conscience of man to the humanity of others. The Lex Talionis is not, in itself, a novelty of Hebrew meditation upon the divine law. A similar thread runs through the Babylonian law code of Hammurabi (c2285 BC) but is nowhere near as developed. It is possible that, as Moses prayed before the Almighty, his knowledge of such processes and his experience of Egyptian court procedures were a useful pre-evangel of the divine wisdom given to him at Sinai and beyond. But the Exodus revelation is a giant step forward and, until we see that, we cannot make sense of Jesus’ commentary upon it. If the Lex Talionis of Exodus begins to assert the true value of the human person, created in God’s image, that assertion will find its apogee and fulfilment in Christ, God’s ultimate redemption and affirmation-by-participation of our humanity.


The next appearance of ‘an eye for an eye’ is in the book Leviticus 24.20 and it is very specific. It is to do with disfigurement. If a man deliberately disfigures another man the same shall be done to him, ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth’ etc. It is a penalty for random violence as well as for deliberate torture. But it is also a massive sanction against tribal practices of disfigurement which left the victim a social outcast. Blinding, neutering, mutilation of limbs and noses have, in various societies, automatically debarred from office or even excluded totally from the tribal assembly. Such deliberate wickedness is, therefore, visited with an equal and apposite punishment.

In all of these cases, it must be remembered, that the Lex Talionis was, for ancient societies, an imposition of mercy. In its attempt to be just and to be seen to be just it signified the limitation of vengeance without diminishing the value of the human person. In prescribing a visible, realizable and equitable response to injustice, the Lex Talionis sought to prevent disproportionate response and the pattern of unending retribution. The blood feuds of the southern Balkans and the tribal massacres of the Scottish clans give an insight into the alternative to this relative mercy. In stipulating a proportional punishment on the individual transgressor it removed the temptation to escalate into corporate, limitless and wholesale revenge.

False Witness

The final appearance of the Lex Talionis in the Torah is in Deuteronomy 19.15–end. Here it applies in another radically different circumstance. Originally promulgated against the unintended effects of violence on women and children, it comes into its own in matters of evidence and witnesses in court. Lex Talionis is invoked on false witnesses. If you give false evidence against a man which, had it been true, would have condemned him to suffer the death penalty, then that will be your fate. If your lies would convict him and sentence him to prison, beating, massive fines, then that will be your sentence. Whatever penalty your intended victim was due becomes your punishment, and a proper response to a peculiar wickedness. ‘The rest’, says Deuteronomy, ‘shall hear and fear and shall never again commit any such evil among you.’ Today, when false accusation is the nightmare scenario of every professional, we may have some sympathy with this invocation of the Lex Talionis. Currently, while the cost to the falsely accused, their families, parish, business, school, communities, friendships etc is incalculable, the false witnesses, the liars simply walk away unpunished, angry that they have been found out. The Lex Talionis was in place specifically to eradicate that kind of pernicious character assassination. Now we have nothing comparable as a deterrent. Whether this is a more just society as a result will be a matter of historical judgment.

In seeking to assess guilt, responsibility and punishment the law must assess the injury inflicted, the pain caused, the cost (financial, physical and emotional) of healing, the loss of earnings and or dignity involved to the victim. The law must also weigh the damage to the social order and seek to impose a penalty which has both elements of punishment and deterrence. Without this human beings will begin to circumvent the law and dispense their own ‘justice’. This is to invite a journey back into the wilds of merciless retribution. The Lex Talionis is a part but not all of the wisdom of divine mercy.

Mountain Problems

In the light of all this the New Testament poses something of a problem at first glance. Jesus’ words in Sermon on the Mount seem to turn all this carefully balanced individual and social justice on its head. But before we rush to simplistic and precipitate judgment we should note that, at the same time, Jesus prefaces his teaching with this completely orthodox declaration:

Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these Commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.


It is in these last few words that the key to the Christian community lies. The Law is God’s gift to sinful man. In the midst of our iniquity and fallenness it is a guide, target and arbiter focusing us back on the justice and mercy of the Father. In Christ that sinfulness is overcome in man. Moreover, it is in him that we are taken back into the very origin of the law which is the heart of God’s love for man. It is from this prospect of redemption that we can understand what Christ says next. Law is a deterrent to sin and a guide to righteousness. It cannot, of itself, bring holiness or reconciliation with the All Holy himself.

So it is that Jesus takes us deeper with every phrase. We know that to kill is wrong but we often forget that anger and our contempt for our fellow man is the very seedbed of both personal, corporate, institutional and state violence. We may not kill but the road to violence is paved with abuse of our fellow man, degrading and dismissing him with our words. Once we have dehumanized and depersonalized the man, it is easier to attack him. It is how propaganda works. Jesus does not, note, criticize righteous anger which is a natural response to injustice, corruption or cruelty but rather that deep, burning unforgiving anger which corrodes the heart. The Greek of the New Testament differentiates quite clearly here.

Deed and Thought

Christ turns his attention to adultery and goes deeper again. We may have avoided the deed but have we overcome the soul-rotting lust, greed and idolatry that lies at the heart of infidelity? There will be very few who walk away with their head held high after such a self-examination. It is no accident that entertaining evil thoughts, giving place to the contemplative enjoyment of wickedness, weakens the soul and diminishes the will to resist. The influence of television, popular culture and pornography, which encourage lust of the eyes and heart, run but a pace ahead of a society fractured by rampant infidelity.

We are given the key to these teachings in the following few verses about the prospect of hell. If your eye is a source of evil, Jesus tells us, pluck it out. If your hand leads you to corruption cut it off. Better to enter life like that than go to hell in your entirety. These extreme statements bring the whole of Christ’s teaching into sharp focus. He is talking not just about the divine gift of the Law for social order but about nothing less than salvation. The quest for heaven is about more than the avoidance of hell, though it involves that too. Reconciliation with God is about having his image restored in us – ‘to be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect’. This is a tall order, but it is the centre of the Christian faith. As God participates in man in Christ, so, in Christ, our humanity is to be taken back into God. Our repentance and participation in Christ, by the Holy Spirit of God at work in his saints and in his Church, begin our transformation.

The citizen requires, for his safety and equanimity, a system of law that does not depend on his own ability to apprehend, prosecute, punish, restore or recompense. He requires a Law that balances the powerful and the powerless, that meets his need for justice yet restricts his baser desires for disproportionate revenge. The Christian remains a citizen but is required also to turn his heart heavenwards and see with the eyes of God and respond with his mercy.

Measure for Measure

The Lex Talionis that will be uppermost in a Christian’s mind will be the ‘measure for measure’ which he prays daily in the Lord’s Prayer. ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.’ Our forgiveness and our forgivingness are bonded together in the divine equation. The unforgiving, as Jesus reminds us in one of his most alarming parables (Matthew 18.21–35), fails to reflect the forgiveness of God in his dealings with others with terrifying consequences. It is the same parable that reminds us of our true position before the judge of all. We stand before the King with an unpayable debt. The gulf between his holiness and our profligate sinfulness is unbridgeable except by his redemption. It is the Cross that is at the centre of this mystery and this absolution.

The Cross is the place where the sinless one takes upon himself the sins of the world and pleads, before the courts of heaven, not vengeance but mercy. In Christ the primary concern is for the salvation of the sinner and his incorporation into Christ, the Son of God. In him the Son of Adam, doomed to die, is restored to imago Dei, a child of God. The sinner does not get what he deserves and we should be grateful beyond words that it is so. The sinner does not have the wherewithal to pay for his own or indeed anyone else’s redemption. God’s mercy alone can manage that. In facing the Cross of Christ the sinner views a terrifying but glorious out working of the Lex Talionis – ‘wound for wound, hand for hand, foot for foot, life for life’. It is Christ who recompenses the otherwise unpayable damages of human sinfulness. It is only by his perfect holiness, his infinite goodness, his divinity in fact that the sum total of the squalor and depravity of man’s deceitful and unfaithful heart, past, present and to come, can be purged. By his stripes we have been healed (Isaiah 53)


So when Jesus says, ‘You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you…’, he is not abrogating the Law but rather pointing us beyond it to its origin and its end and to our vocation in Christ, the Word of God incarnate. The divine justice is more terrible than the mind of man can endure and yet more merciful than the heart of man can conceive.

The Sermon on the Mount takes us a giant spiritual step beyond Law and quantifiable damages. The Christian faith moves us beyond the dreadful ‘compensation culture’ mentality. Jesus Christ points to the far end of the Law – that men may live in peace with one another and with God, fully reconciled. The path to this is repentance, generosity and forgiveness. It is a hard road and deeply unpopular in today’s society. An act of will is required to take it. Yet, paradoxically, it is the forgiveness, generosity and repentance, the seeking the good of the other, that ends the bitter burning fire of our anger and resentment in a way that no compensation ever can. The deepest hurts to man are to his soul. I may rejoice at the downfall of the wicked man who has caused me untold anguish but my soul is not healed. I may spit on his grave in triumph but my wound festers. In the end what he has done to my body or my soul is as nothing beside the constant torture of my unforgivingness. It is this, in the end, that disables me and disfigures me and destroys my future more than any cruelty my oppressor has devised. It is this that will drag me further and further from the Law of God’s love in Christ and unfit me for heaven. In Jesus Christ the measure for measure has been weighed and where I have been found grievously wanting, he has not. ‘Life for life’ he has given. My acceptance of the great gift of redemption must be manifest in me. As his forgiveness is my life, so, in my turn, the forgiven servant must bring life to others. Law transforming into grace, the final covenant with God.

Robbie Low lives and writes in Cornwall.