“An Eye for an Eye” (עין תחת עין)
Is it Meant to Be Taken Literally?

by Melech ben Ya'aqov
5 January 2011

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Some Karaites believe that the phrase “an eye for an eye” is meant to be taken literally. As one well-known Karaite once told me, “a true Torah government will have a department which renders the appropriate bodily punishments, such as the removal of an eye or the knocking out of a tooth.” Besides finding this — on an emotional and intuitive level — barbaric, I tend to take the non-literal view of “an eye for an eye” for textual reasons. I invite you to follow along as I present my evidence based on a textual analysis of the Tanach.

Wild fennel tea, Jerusalem, Israel | © Melech ben Ya'aqov, Karaite Insights
Wild fennel tea, Jerusalem, Israel


Figurative Use of the Phrase “A Life for a Life”

There is at least one instance in the Torah in which the phrase “nefesh tahath nefesh” (a life for a life) is clearly not meant literally: Leviticus 24:18:

Leviticus 24:17-18: “[17] And a person who kills any human being shall absolutely be put to death. [18] And one who kills an animal shall render monetary payment for it, a life for a life.”

Here, if Shimon kills Levy's animal, then Shimon must pay Levy an amount of money equal to the value of the killed animal, “a life for a life”. Thus, the phrase “a life for a life” in this verse is not meant to be understood literally, since the literal interpretation would call for one of Shimon’s animals to be taken out and killed in response. That monetary payment is called for, is clear from the word “yishalmena” ([he] shall render monetary payment for it1) in verse 18.

Since we have found one instance in the Torah in which the phrase “a life for a life” is metaphorical, this opens up at least the possibility that other instances of the same phrase are also not meant to be understood literally. Further, without too far a stretch of the imagination, one could say that there is at least a possibility that a similar non-literal interpretation might apply to other related phrases, such as “an eye for an eye”, “a tooth for a tooth”, “a burn for a burn”, etc. Therefore, we can conclude from Leviticus 24:18 that all phrases of the type “A(n) X for a(n) X” have at least the possibility of being understood metaphorically rather than literally.


The Concept of “Kofer” in the Torah

Numbers 35:31: “You shall not take monetary payment (‘kofer’) instead of the life of a murderer who has been sentenced to death; but rather, he shall surely be put to death.”

This verse implies that in cases other than murder, it is possible for the offender to substitute a monetary payment (“kofer”), instead of receiving the literal punishment of “an eye for an eye” or “a tooth for a tooth”.

A linguistic analysis of the word “kofer” sheds further light on this idea: the word “kofer” means, literally, “a covering”. (In fact, the word “kofer” and the word “cover” are probably linguistically related.) In the Tanach, a “kofer” is a payment rendered by the wrongdoer to the the person who has been wronged, in order to cause the latter to figuratively “cover over” his eyes and forget the offense that was committed against him. Thus, the “kofer” is meant to pacify the anger of the offended person, with the subsequent result that he will agree to forgo revenge.

The word “kofer” comes from the same Hebrew root as the word “Kippurim” — as in the name of the holiday “Yom HaKippurim”, which is usually translated as “The Day of Atonment”. However, “Yom HaKippurim” is better translated as “The Day of Covering”, a translation which gives true insight into the meaning of the holiday: Yom HaKippurim is the day on which we attempt to persuade Elohim to cover over his eyes and forget our offenses. We do so by fasting, praying and, in the times when the Holy Temple stood, sacrificing. In order to understand the idea of Yom HaKippurim in greater depth, I direct the reader to the Karaite Insights article entitled “Yom HaKippurim: The Day of Getting Yehowah to Cover His Eyes And Forget”.


Exodus 21:22-27

There is further evidence to support the idea of a non-literal reading of “an eye for an eye”, in Exodus 21:22-27. The evidence here can be divided into two sections, verses 22-25, and verses 26-27.

Verses 22 through 25 deal with the case of a pregnant woman who is injured as an innocent bystander during a fight between two men. Although understanding the exact meaning of these verses has traditionally been difficult for both Karaites and Rabbanites alike, the most simple reading is that they are describing two situations: (a) the mother is injured in the fight but her baby is eventually born, and (b) the mother is injured in the fight and her fetus eventually dies2, as a result.

I render my own translation of the verses based on the above understanding:

Exodus 21:22-25: “[22] And if two men fight and they injure a pregnant woman, and her baby is born rather than die, then [the offender] will certainly pay monetary compensation as determined by the woman’s husband and approved by the courts. [23] And if the baby does die, then you must take a life for a life. [24] An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, [25] a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, and a blow for a blow.”

In the first case, described in verse 22, the offender is to pay a fine. Thus, we learn from this verse that if the mother’s injury does not result in the baby’s death, but only in injury of the mother (and perhaps the baby), then monetary payment is indeed acceptable compensation. In the second case, described in verse 23, the offender is to be put to death under the literal interpretation of the doctrine of “a life for a life”, and monetary compensation cannot be substituted. In other words, the law here is very similar to that of Numbers 35:31: as long as death does not result, then monetary compensation can be rendered as a replacement for the literal carrying out of the doctrine of “an eye for an eye”.

The subsequent verses in Exodus 21 also confirm our theory. Verses 26 and 27 describe the situation in which a master injures his slave:

Exodus 21:26-27: “[26] And if a person should injure the eye of his male or female servant and render it completely useless, he shall set him free in return for his eye. [27] And if he should knock out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall set him free in return for his tooth.”

Once again, we see that the punishment for injury of the slave is, in a sense, monetary — the slave is set free. What happens in the case of the slave’s death? Exodus 21:20 gives us the answer:

Exodus 21:20: “And if a person should strike his male or female slave with the staff and (s)he dies at his hand, then this shall surely be avenged.”

Although the death of the master is not absolutely required in response for his killing his slave, the language used here, נָקֹ֖ם יִנָּקֵֽם (this shall surely be avenged3), implies a harsh response: a master could not just go about indiscriminately beating his slaves. That a specific punishment is not mentioned implies that it is to be determined by the judges who hear the case, based on the particular circumstances of that case. The punishment could, ostensibly, include the death of the master, if the judges decide that this is what is warranted in that particular case. (Let’s say, for example, a case in which the master continued to mercilessly beat his slave after he was already unconscious.) The reason that death is not always prescribed as punishment is that, in ancient Israel, the head of the household had the right to discipline all the members of his household, his slaves included, by any appropriate means he deemed fit, including the use of physical force. (See, for example, Genesis 38:24.) Therefore, the death of the slave is not always the result of murder on the part of the master, but is similar to a situation in which a person is injured or dies at the hands of the police. The opinion rendered by some, that death is not prescribed as punishment for the master because the slave is considered in some way to be sub-human, or mere chattel, is completely incorrect, and goes squarely in the face of the great respect for all human life that the Torah shows.


Yes, But What About Leviticus 24:19-20? It is So Clear!

In Leviticus 24:19-20, there seems to be crystal clear textual support for the literal understanding of Lex Talionis (The Law of Retaliation, i.e “An Eye for an Eye”).

Leviticus 24:19-21: “[19] And for a person who has caused a permanent injury to his fellow: as he did, so it shall be done to him. [20] An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; as he injures another human being, so it shall be done to him. [21] And he who kills an animal shall render monetary payment for it, and he who kills a man shall be put to death.”

Indeed, these verses do call for a literal application of the Law of Retaliation. And so it would be carried out, if it were not for the fact that “kofer” is such a central concept in the Torah. Let’s return to Exodus 21 to explore this point in greater depth, this time by looking at verses 28-30.

Exodus 21:28-30: “[28] And if an ox gores a man or a woman and (s)he dies, then the ox shall certainly be stoned to death and its meat shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. [29] However, if this ox has gored regularly in the past, and his master was aware of it but did not keep the ox in a safe place, and it kills a man or a woman, then the ox is stoned to death and its owner is also put to death. [30] But if a monetary payment is levied against [the owner], then he shall pay this ransom for his life according to all that is levied against him.”

So there we have it. What could be a clearer statement than in verse 29 that the owner of the ox who has regularly gored in the past must be put to death? Yet the very next verse speaks of the monetary payment (“kofer”) that the owner can make as “ransom” for his life, in place of his being put to death. So what is going on here? Was the Torah written by a madman who contradicts himself a moment after he makes a statement?4

No, of course not. This is merely the language of the Torah when dealing with the concept of “kofer”. The formula is as follows: First, the Torah states the punishment which should be carried out against the guilty party — and which is indeed carried out if the guilty party does not pay the “kofer”, in full, without arguing against the amount, as implied by the words “according to all that is levied against him”, in verse 30. Next, the Torah goes on to mention the possibility of substituting monetary payment for the original punishment. Sometimes, this second part of the formula is omitted from the text, but it is nevertheless understood implicitly, as often is the case in the Torah once a general principle has been established.

Therefore, we could re-translate verses 29-30 to better express the intention of the Torah, as follows:

Exodus 21:29-30: “[29] However, if this ox has gored regularly in the past, and his master was aware of it but did not keep the ox in a safe place, and it kills a man or a woman, then the ox is stoned to death and its owner also deserves to be put to death. [30] But if a monetary payment is levied against [the owner], then he shall pay this ransom for his life according to all that is levied against him.”

Thus, the Torah is expressing the idea that the owner of the ox is deserving of death, but, since Yehowah is a merciful Elohim, and since the owner (a) did not actually kill the man with his own hands, and (b) did not kill the man out of hatred (see Deuteronomy 19:45) but rather through (gross) negligence on his part, then the owner is not actually put to death but, rather, he is given a “way out”: he may appease the surviving relatives with a monetary payment as a tangible recompense for their loss and as a sign of remorse on his part.


“You Are a Son of Death”

The idea of a person who is — on some level — deserving of death, but who has not actually done enough evil to warrant being put to death, is expressed movingly in the story of David and Bathsheva. After Bathsheva’s husband, Uriyah the Hittite, is killed indirectly at the hand of David, Natan the prophet comes to David with a parable:

Second Samuel 12:1-3: “[1] … There were two men in a certain city, one rich and one poor. [2] The rich one had many sheep and cattle, [3] and the poor one had nothing except one small lamb which he had bought, and which lived with him and grew up with him, and which ate from the same food as his children, drank from his cup and slept in his arms, and was like a daughter to him.”

The prophet goes on to tell of a traveler who comes to visit the rich man. Instead of slaughtering one of his own flock to prepare food for the visitor, the rich man takes the poor man’s lamb, slaughters it and serves it to the visitor. Upon hearing this, David’s reaction is as follows:

Second Samuel 12:5-6: “[5] David became very angry at the [rich] man and said to Natan, ‘As Yehowah lives, the man who did this is deserving of death! [6] And he shall pay fourfold for the lamb for doing this thing and not having mercy.’”

Notice that the phrase “deserving of death” in verse 5 (in Hebrew, בן מוות, literally “a son of death”) expresses an idea similar to that of Exodus 21:29, where the Torah calls for the owner of the ox to be put to death. Like Exodus 21:30, the following verse here goes on to clarify that the rich man is not actually put to death (because, at the end of the day, he did not murder a human being or commit some other capital crime), but that he should give the poor man four lambs as restitution.

Of course, the denouement to the entire parable is that David is the “rich man”:

Second Samuel 12:7-9: “[7] And Natan said to David, You are this man! So says Yehowah the Elohim of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel and saved you from the hand of Saul, [8] and I gave you the house of your master, and the wives of your master into your bosom. And I gave you the houses of Israel and Yehudah. And if this were too little for you, I would have added to it over and over again. [9] Why have you despised of the word of Yehowah, to do this evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriyah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife as your wife. You killed him with the sword of the Children of Ammon!’”

But, even though it turns out that David is “the son of death” that he himself was talking about, David’s sentence of death is commuted:

Second Samuel 12:13: “[13] And David said to Natan, ‘I have sinned to Yehowah.’ And Natan said to David, ‘Yes, and Yehowah has commuted your sin: you will not die.’”

Why was David’s “deserved” punishment of death commuted? For the same reason that the punishment of the owner of the ox in Exodus 21 is commuted: David did not commit the murder with his own hands, and it was not done out of hatred for Uriyah the Hittite. Rather, David’s murder of Uriyah can be thought of as a crime of passion (for Bathsheva.)6



We have presented textual evidence in the Tanach to support the adopting of a non-literal reading of the phrase “An Eye for an Eye” (and other similar phrases). Nonetheless, this is a huge topic which requires extensive further study. It is my hope and prayer that this article will serve as a springboard for such study.

May Yehowah Be With You,
Melech ben Ya'aqov,
Jerusalem, Israel

1Or, "he shall make good for it".
2This understanding of the verse has traditionally been used as a polemic against abortion. The reasoning goes that, if the killing of the fetus is punishable by death, the Torah considers such an act to be murder.
3Or, alternatively, "this shall certainly not go unipunished".
4Or, alternatively, was the Torah was written by multiple authors? So posits the false Documentary Hypothesis of the German Wellhausen school of thought. Of course, this error comes from a complete lack of understanding of the way the Torah uses the ancient Hebrew language to express ideas.
5Deuteronomy 19:4 introduces the laws of non-premeditated murder: “And this is the issue of the murderer who shall run there and live, who slayed his fellow man without intention, not having hated him previously.” The place to which he is to run is one of the Levitical cities of refuge. Notice that although the offender is called a “murderer” (רוצח), he is not put to death in this case.
6Therefore, it is closer to the concept in American jurisprudence of Second Degree Murder, which includes crimes of passion, than it is to that of First Degree Murder, which is premeditated murder. In the United States the death penalty is only carried out in cases of conviction for First Degree Murder.

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This Article Has 2 Comments

Eye for an Eye
Shoshana, NM
Thank you so much for this article and for making it clear how very merciful our God is.
an eye for an eye
maurice feldman, huntingdon valley, pa
It is amazing how much we take some translations for granted. This appears to be one of them.'Takhas' means 'under'. Maybe in this context, it means 'less than'. Therefore the punishment should be less than the crime. It does not mean 'equal', 'level', or anything resembling that translation. There is no need to claim a non-literal translation here. A more creative translation, to me, seems better than the original.