“But 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.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
We very naturally yearn for justice. We want things to be set right when they are wrong. The simplest reason for this is that we were created in the image of a God who is just.
But, as much as we long and even work for justice, there is something that has always gotten in the way: Sin. Sin takes our natural longing for justice and perverts it into something entirely different and inferior. It transforms our natural reach for justice into a desire for vengeance; into an insistence on retribution.
For hundreds of years of human history, this resulted in a mess. Worse perhaps, it resulted in a flourishing of injustice–just the opposite of our aim.
Living where we do on this side of the cross and after 2,000 years of the Gospel shaping the undergirding worldview of most of the West at least, we really don’t understand what this would have been like. As a result, some folks are primed to look at early limitations of our sin-twisted attempts at policing ourselves with derision.
This scorn, however, is thinly veiled chronological snobbery. The truth is that this idea here was a huge leap forward in human justice. Normally then, when someone took an eye, the other person went for their head. A life went for a whole family or even a whole village of lives. Consider when the sons of Jacob learned their sister, Dinah, had been raped by Shechem. They responded by tricking his entire village into circumcising all the males, and then murdering all of them when they were recovering. This was not justice (and the narrative of Genesis never presents it as such). It was a travesty. The rape of Dinah was awful. This didn’t make things any better, though, but many times worse.
For God to tell the people of Israel to respond merely in kind rather than responding with the kind of overwhelming force that is intended to discourage further offenses was a huge leap forward. No one else in the world was doing anything like this then.
More importantly, it laid a theological and philosophical and moral foundation to let Jesus’ advancing the standard to where we think of it today make sense. We serve a God who is just and calls us to the same. He had to move us there slowly and build a strong foundation on which our modern Gospel-tinged notions of justice can stand, but this has always been His aim. Commands like this one were sign pointers along the way.