Why would the Lord have given retributive law to the children of Israel?
August 1981

“Why would the Lord have given retributive law to the children of Israel?” Ensign, Aug. 1981, 29

I don’t understand aspects of the Old Testament injunction, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” (Ex. 21:24.) Why would the Lord have given such a retributive law to the children of Israel?

Ermel J. Morton, patriarch, Rexburg Idaho East Stake, Rexburg, Idaho. Interestingly enough, this passage was not meant to sanction vengeance and retaliation. As given by the Lord in the Old Testament, the phrase is a metaphor meaning “like for like.” The idea is expressed succinctly by Paul: “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” (Gal. 6:7.)

In Old Testament times, the concept of “an eye for an eye” was given as a principle to guide judges, so that their judgments might be just, and so that retribution might be taken out of the hands of individuals.

As Alma explains to his son Corianton, the operative principle was restoration: “to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or … good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous.” (Alma 41:13). Or, as the Savior put it in the Sermon on the Mount, “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (Matt. 7:2.)

In the final judgment, eye shall be restored for eye, tooth for tooth, mercy for mercy, kindness for kindness—and significantly, evil hereafter for evil life.

When the Savior gave the Sermon on the Mount, he quoted, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” then added, “but I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt. 5:38–39.) The Lord was not withdrawing the principle of divine justice he gave to Moses on Sinai; rather, he is remonstrating against the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees of his day, whose understanding of the intent of the scripture was in error. Instead of confining judgment to those in authority, they interpreted the principle of “an eye for an eye” as a justification for an individual taking vengeance whenever he received an injury or insult.

The children of Israel had been specifically commanded, as part of the Law of Moses: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Lev. 19:18.) Thus, they were forbidden not only to take revenge but also to bear any grudge which might lead to retaliation. Instead, their duty was to love, leaving vengeance to the Lord. (See Deut. 32:35; Ps. 94:1.)

Thus when the Savior taught the people not to seek revenge in the Sermon on the Mount, he was merely restoring a principle he had given through Moses and was seeking to eliminate a tradition of worldly teaching that had departed from it.