What Does an Eye for an Eye Really Mean?

In one of the Bible’s more horrific stories, Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, is taken by force and raped by the outsider, Shechem. When Jacob hears of this he does nothing, perhaps because all his boys are in the fields tending their livestock.

Then, despite his barbaric act, Shechem decides he loves Dinah and wants to marry her. He demands his father bring this about. The two dads talk about a wedding.

What Does an Eye for an Eye Really Mean?Dinah’s brothers are furious when they hear what Shechem did to their sister. They pretend to go along with the marriage talks but insist the men in Shechem’s village all be circumcised first. As the men recover from this painful procedure, Simeon and Levi, two of Dinah’s brothers, massacre the city, killing every man there to avenge their sister’s mistreatment.

Though they are right in responding to Dinah’s defilement, they overreact. While the rape of one girl is terrible, wiping out an entire town is a disproportionate punishment; it is excessive.

This is the type of thing Moses seeks to stop when he says an “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Leviticus 24:19-20). In this Moses does not give permission to seek revenge. Instead he seeks to curtail excessive retaliation, a response unequal to the crime. An “eye for eye” is a command of moderation not the authorization to pursue vengeance.

Jesus later takes this principle one step further. He says “do not resist an evil person” and then go the extra mile (Matthew 5:38-42). This is even more countercultural than Moses’s original “eye for eye” command to make the punishment fit the crime.

May we learn from Moses’s words and follow Jesus’s.

What do you think of Moses’s “eye for eye” command? What about Jesus’s instruction to go the extra mile? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

[Read through the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Genesis 33-35, and today’s post is on Genesis 34.]