Lex talionis, "law of the tooth," or the so-called law of retaliation, is found here in Exodus 21:23-25….
Simply stated the talion principle was "life for life." But in actuality this rule functioned as a stereotyped expression for the judges who had to assign compensations and amounts of restitution in damage cases. If the law were pressed too literally, it was misunderstood and became an unmanageable concept conjuring up images of the most gross and barbarous infliction of recriminating justice on a society gone mad!
But if one jumps to the conclusion that the Bible authorized physical mutilation, the biblical rejection and proscription against any such personal vendetta is clearly set forth in Exodus 21:26-27, the very next verses of our passage.
The expression eye for eye and tooth for tooth simply meant that the compensations paid were to match the damages inflicted—no more and no less. The modern version would be, "bumper for bumper, fender for fender"—don't try to get two years' free tuition added on the insurance claim by some phony story about whiplash or imagined ailments.
In modern law, such terms as damages or compensation usually replace the term restitution. In modern law an offense is seen as against the state or one's neighbor; in biblical law the offense was seen as against God as well.
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Hard Sayings of the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), pp. 72-73
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