escaping punishment

Eye for an eye


The phrase "an eye for an eye", (עין תחת עין) is a quotation from in which a person who has taken the eye of another in a fight is instructed to give his own eye in compensation. At the root of the non-Biblical form of this principle is that one of the purposes of the law is to provide equitable retaliation for an offended party. It defined and restricted the extent of retaliation. This early belief is reflected in the Code of Hammurabi and in the laws of the Hebrew Bible (e.g., , , ).

Definition and methods

The term lex talionis does not always and only refer to literal eye-for-an-eye codes of justice (see rather mirror punishment) but applies to the broader class of legal systems that specify formulaic penalties for specific crimes, which are thought to be fitting in their severity. Some propose that this was at least in part intended to prevent excessive punishment at the hands of either an avenging private party or the state. The most common expression of lex talionis is "an eye for an eye", but other interpretations have been given as well. Legal codes following the principle of lex talionis have one thing in common: prescribed 'fitting' counter punishment for an offense. In the famous legal code written by Hammurabi, the principle of exact reciprocity is very clearly used. For example, if a person caused the death of another person's child, that person who killed the child (the guilty party) would be put to death for killing the child.

Under the right conditions, such as the ability for all actors to participate in an iterative fashion, the "eye for an eye" punishment system has a mathematical basis in the Tit for tat game theory strategy.

The simplest example is the "eye for an eye" principle. In that case, the rule was that punishment must be exactly equal to the crime. Conversely, the twelve tables of Rome merely prescribed particular penalties for particular crimes. The Anglo-Saxon legal code substituted payment of wergild for direct retribution: a particular person's life had a fixed value, derived from his social position; any homicide was compensated by paying the appropriate wergild, regardless of intent. Under the British Common Law, successful plaintiffs were entitled to repayment equal to their loss (in monetary terms). In the modern tort law system, this has been extended to translate non-economic losses into money as well.


Various ideas regarding the origins of lex talionis exist, but a common one is that it developed as early civilizations grew and a less well-established system for retribution of wrongs, feuds and vendettas, threatened the social fabric. Despite having been replaced with newer modes of legal theory, lex talionis systems served a critical purpose in the development of social systems — the establishment of a body whose purpose was to enact the retaliation and ensure that this was the only punishment. This body was the state in one of its earliest forms.

The principle is found in Babylonian Law, see Code of Hammurabi. It is surmised that in societies not bound by the rule of law, if a person was hurt, then the injured person (or their relative) would take vengeful retribution on the person who caused the injury. The retribution might be much worse than the crime, perhaps even death. Babylonian law put a limit on such actions, restricting the retribution to be no worse than the crime, as long as victim and offender occupied the same status in society, while punishments were less proportional with disputes between social strata: like blasphemy or laesa maiestatis (against a god, viz., monarch, even today in certain societies), crimes against one's social better were systematically punished as worse.

Abrahamic traditions

Lex talionis in Judaism

The Torah's first mention of the phrase "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" appears.
The Oral Law explains, based upon the biblical verses, that the Bible mandates a sophisticated five-part monetary form of compensation, consisting of payment for "Damages, Pain, Medical Expenses, Incapacitation, and Mental Anguish" — which underlies many modern legal codes. Some rabbinic literature explains, moreover, that the expression, "An eye for an eye, etc." suggests that the perpetrator deserves to lose his own eye, but that biblical law treats him leniently. − Paraphrased from the Union of Orthodox Congregations

However, the Torah also discusses a form of direct reciprocal justice, where the phrase "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" makes another appearance (). Here, the Torah discusses false witnesses who conspire to testify against another person. The Torah requires the court to "do to him as he had conspired to do to his brother" (). Assuming the fulfillment of certain technical criteria (such as the sentencing of the accused whose punishment was not yet executed), wherever it is possible to punish the conspirators with the exact same punishment through which they had planned to harm their fellow, the court carries out this direct reciprocal justice (including when the punishment constitutes the death penalty). Otherwise, the offenders receive lashes (Makot 1:1; ibid., Bab. Talmud 2a based on critical exegesis of ).

Since there is no form of punishment in the Torah that calls for the maiming of an offender, there is no case where a conspiratorial false witness could possibly be punished by the court injuring to his eye, tooth, hand, or foot. (There is one case where the Torah states "…and you shall cut off her hand…" . The sages of the Talmud understood the literal meaning of this verse as referring to a case where the woman is attacking a man in potentially lethal manner. This verse teaches that, although one must intervene to save the victim, one may not kill a lethal attacker if it is possible to neutralize that attacker through non-lethal injury {Sifrei; Maimonides' Yad, Nezikin, Hil. Rotze'ach u'Sh'mirat Nefesh 1:7}. Regardless, there is no verse that even appears to mandate injury to the eye, tooth, or foot.) Thus, it is impossible to read "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" literally in the context of a conspiratorial witness. discusses the only form of remotely reciprocal justice not carried out directly by the court, where, under very limited circumstances, someone found guilty of negligent manslaughter may be killed by a relative of the deceased who takes on the role of "redeemer of blood". In such cases, the court requires the guilty party to flee to a designated city of refuge. While the guilty party is there, the "redeemer of blood" may not kill him. If, however, the guilty party illegally forgoes his exile, the "redeemer of blood", as an accessory of the court, may kill the guilty party. Nevertheless, the provision of the "redeemer of blood" does not serve as true reciprocal justice, because the redeemer only acts to penalize a negligent killer who forgoes his exile. Furthermore, intentional killing does not parallel negligent killing and thus cannot serve directly as a reciprocal punishment for manslaughter, but as a penalty for escaping punishment (Makot 7a–13a). (According to traditional Jewish Law, application of these laws requires the presence and maintenance of the biblically designated cities of refuge, as well as a conviction in an eligible court of 23 judges as delineated by the Torah and Talmud. The latter condition is also applicable for any capital punishment. These circumstances have not existed for approximately 2,000 years.)

Based on the literal reading of , Obadiah Shoher argues that "an eye for an eye" punishment only applies for harming the pregnant women. Taken literally, prescribes only reimbursement of medical costs and work income for the harm done to men.

Objective of reciprocal justice in Judaism

The Talmud discusses the concept of justice as measure-for-measure retribution (middah k'neged middah) in the context of divinely implemented justice. Regarding reciprocal justice by court, however, the Torah states that punishments serve to remove dangerous elements from society ("…and you shall eliminate the evil from your midst," ) and to deter potential criminals from violating the law ("And the rest shall hear and be daunted, and they shall no longer commit anything like this wicked deed in your midst", ). Additionally, reciprocal justice in tort cases serves to compensate the victim (see above).

The ideal of vengeance for the sake of assuaging the distress of the victim plays no role in the Torah's conception of court justice, as victims are cautioned against even hating or bearing a grudge against those who have harmed them. The Torah makes no distinction between whether the potential object of hatred or a grudge has been brought to justice, and all people are taught to love their fellow ().

Lex talionis in Christianity

Christian interpretation of the biblical passage has been heavily influenced by the quotation from Leviticus (19:18 above) in Jesus of Nazareth's Sermon on the Mount. In the Expounding of the Law (part of the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus urges his followers to turn the other cheek when confronted by violence:

You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (NRSV)

The passage continues with the importance of showing forgiveness to enemies and those who harm you. This saying of Jesus is frequently interpreted as criticism of the Hebrew Bible teaching, and often taken as implying that "an eye for an eye" encourages excessive vengeance rather than an attempting to limit it.

It was one of the points of 'fulfilment or destruction' of the Hebrew law which the Church father St. Augustine already discussed in his Contra Faustum, Book XIX.

The opinion that seems to prevail among Christian theologians is that such an interpretation is a misunderstanding of this section of Matthew. But scholars of Christianity have found particular pride in this commandment and others from the Sermon on the Mount, as in badges of distinction for the religion; and Leo Tolstoy went so far as to keep only the Gospel and especially this part of it, and throw the rest of the Bible out.

Lex talionis in Islam

In Islam the Quran permits exact and equivalent retribution. The Quran, however, softens the law of an eye for an eye by urging mankind to accept less compensation than that inflicted upon him or her by a Muslim, or to forgive altogether. In other words, Islam does not deny Muslims the ability to seek retaliation in the equal measure. But it does, however promote forgiveness and the acceptance of blood money not as a mandatory requisite, but rather as a good deed that will be eventually rewarded (Quran 5:45).

Non-Abrahamic traditions


Some alternative penalty systems exist which primarily concern the impact of the punishment on the sanctioned offender and/or on society, while demanding non-parallel penalties.

For example the "correctional" prison system (first instituted in the USA in the early 20th century) is based on the idea that the purpose of law enforcement is to correct the deviant nature of criminals by compelling them to reflect and regret their crimes during a lengthy incarceration; another alternative, the reformatory, was invented to "reform", i.e. re-educate, young offenders etcetera.—


The vengeance-based non-biblical forms of Lex Talionis have been criticized; its critics maintain that merely limiting vengeance is not enough as even limited retaliation continues a potentially endless cycle of violence. Mahatma Gandhi remarked: "An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind."

Even though it may be hard to do in practice, certain belief systems (such as Christianity) teach individuals to forgive those who wrong them, rather than seek retribution for a wrong. Other belief systems adhere to similar concepts, such as the Taoist wu wei which encourages a wronged individual to simply accept the infraction and to take the least "resistive" action to correct it, if any action need to be taken at all. Buddhism stresses the weight of karma: one can take retributive action, but that retributive action is not without its consequences, and living on a finite planet guarantees that the suffering incurred by a retributive action will return to the individual who was wronged (as well as the one who did the wrong-doing). Some subscribe to the Golden Rule of ethics rather than any law of retaliation.

It can also be seen as an extension of the informal logical fallacy, two wrongs make a right.

References in books and popular culture

  • Mahatma Gandhi used the phrase "An eye for an eye, and soon the whole world is blind", in reference to his Satyagraha philosophy of nonviolent resistance.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. used this phrase (probably inspired by Gandhi) by changing it to "An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind", to show what violence between races cause.
  • The book AN EYE FOR AN EYE by John Sack
  • An Eye for an Eye is a novella in the Noughts & Crosses series by Malorie Blackman, written for World Book Day 2003.
  • The Creedence Clearwater Revival song "Bad Moon Rising", after recounting the narrator's parade of horribles, says, "one eye is taken for an eye".
  • Charlie Daniels's song "Simple Man" includes the line, "Well, the Good Book says it, so I know it's the Truth: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."
  • Harold Bishop, a devoutly Christian character in the Australian soap opera Neighbours, used the expression "an eye for an eye" when confronting tyrannical manager Paul Robinson.
  • For more motion pictures and TV productions, see IMDb references
  • British band Editors song is called "An Eye For An Eye", which is a b-side off the single Smokers Outside The Hospital Doors.
  • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds's signature tune, The Mercy Seat, contains the chorus "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth/And anyway I told the truth".
  • The Bruce Springsteen song "Empty Sky" has lyrics "an eye for an eye."
  • The self-titled Soulfly album features a song called "eye for an eye."
  • The Bright Eyes song named "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and be Loved)" contains the lyrics: "we'll take eye for an eye/until no one can see/and we will stumble blindly forward/repeating history"
  • Villanova University's athletic fight song includes the line, "It's an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."
  • G-Unit feature a song called "Eye For Eye" on their Beg for Mercy Album
  • The Audioslave song, Wide Awake, contains the line "were it an eye for an eye"
  • The Temptations 1969 song "Ball of Confusion" has the line, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth vote for me and I'll set you free."
  • In the Justice League Unlimited episode "Panic in the Sky", Flash mentions that Grammy Flash always used to say that "the trouble with an eye for an eye is that everyone ends up blind."
  • The band UNKLE has a song titled "Eye for an Eye".
  • The musician Derek Webb has a song titled "I for an I" from the album "The Ringing Bell" with the lyrics, "An eye for an eye / will never satisfy / 'til there's nothing left to see."
  • Eye for an Eye, a film where a mother played by Sally Field seeks revenge against the just paroled killer of her daughter, played by Keifer Sutherland
  • In the game World of Warcraft, "Eye for an Eye" is a name of a Paladin (World of Warcraft) talent in the Retribution tree
  • On the May 17, 2007 edition of TNA Impact!, James Mitchell mentions lex talionis, but mistakenly translates it as "the law of the jungle."
  • The Greece based black metal band Rotting Christ has a song called 'Lex Talionis' from their 2002 album Genesis.
  • The Daemonarch project has a song called 'Lex Talionis'
  • The British progressive blackened death metal band Akercocke has a song called 'Lex Talionis' on their 2005 album Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone.
  • In the movie Lucky Number Slevin, the Boss (played by Morgan Freeman) cites 'Lex Talionis' as a law for the crime family that both he and the Rabbi are a part of, and that the Rabbi's son must suffer the same fate (death) as his son.
  • American thrash metal band Exodus (band) mention 'Lex Talionis' in the song 'Riot act' on the 2008 album 'The atrocity exhibition - exhibit A'
  • In episode 18 of the English dubbed version of Death Note, L attacks Light in response to an assault saying "An eye for an eye, my friend." In the Japanese version, it is translated loosely as "one for one".
  • Eye For An Eye is the title of an episode of the Nickelodeon animated series Danny Phantom.
  • The television court show Eye for an Eye features a concept where the guilty party is punished by the television court by having a prized possession of theirs destroyed in an unusual way (a large screen television being cut in half with a chainsaw, for instance) instead of the usual monetary compensation.
  • In an episode of Veronica Mars, Veronica and her father, Keith, are talking about a revenge that Veronica took on an enemy. Veronica says, "You know me, I'm old school, an eye for an eye." Keith replies, "I think that's Old Testament."
  • In the fictional World of Darkness the Lextalionis refers to the system of capital punishment used by the vampires.

See also


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