The law of retribution, also called the law of retaliation or lex talionis, was part of the Old Testament Law given to Israel through Moses. Retribution was one of the cornerstones of Israel’s penal code. The punishment was supposed to mirror the crime. The principle of lex talionis is clearly stated in Leviticus 24:19–21: “Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a human being is to be put to death.” Monetary damages are to be paid for killing an animal belonging to someone else, but, if a person is murdered, then the murderer must forfeit his life in return. Exodus 21:23–25 and Deuteronomy 19:16–21 echo the same stipulations.
In ancient Israel, part of the law’s enforcement fell to the family of the murder victim. According to Numbers 35:16–21, in some cases the “avenger of blood” (normally a close family member of the deceased) would be charged with carrying out the death sentence, possibly even tracking down the murderer if the murderer had fled. There was no police force in ancient Israel, so kinship posses were called upon to enforce the law. It is important to keep in mind that this system of retaliation operated within the legal system as it existed. The law of retribution was not a simple pretext for revenge, although it is easy to see how it could descend to that level. “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, and life for life” was the penal code and was never intended to justify a personal code of revenge or vigilantism. In fact, the Law warned against personal hatred: “Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:17–18).
In the New Testament, Christians in the Roman Empire lived under a different penal code. In Romans 12:17–13:4, Paul warns believers that they must not take the law into their own hands, but he also maintains that the government has the right and responsibility to enforce penalties, including the death penalty, for criminal acts. In that passage, quoted below, you will notice how Paul moves from personal vendettas to governmental enforcement of justice. Because the switch happens at a chapter break, many readers may not realize the connection. (Remember, the chapter and verse divisions are not inspired. They were added later to help facilitate easy study and reference, but sometimes a chapter break can obscure the connection with the previous chapter.)
Do not repay anyone evil for evil.
Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
On the contrary: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
It is easy to see how, in ancient Israel, personal revenge and penalties administered under “due process” might be somewhat mingled. That’s one of the reasons God chose the cities of refuge in Joshua 20:7–8. In New Testament times, Paul tells believers that they cannot take personal revenge. They must love and even serve their enemies, allowing God to retaliate in His time as He sees fit. Divine retribution may come through some “act of God” in this life (or certainly in the next), but it is also possible that the government functioning in its God-given role will be the agent God uses to bring about justice. It may be morally right for a government to execute a murderer, but it would be morally wrong for a family member of the victim to ambush the murderer and kill him, even if he had already been convicted and sentenced to death in court. The personal response is to offer love and forgiveness while the governmental response is to enforce justice.
In Matthew 5:38–48 (during the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus rejects the “eye for an eye” principle as applied to personal ethics. As is clear from the explanation He gives, He is not rejecting or even commenting upon penalties administered by the government after “due process.” He is rejecting a personal code of revenge that would “do unto others as they have done unto me.” Rather than enforce the law of retribution in personal matters, Jesus requires individuals to love their enemies, “go the extra mile,” and “turn the other cheek.” In Matthew 7:12 He says, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” This code of conduct leaves no place for personal revenge or even resentment.
In summary, the law of retribution or the law of retaliation may be a legitimate guide for criminal penalties administered by governmental authorities, but it is not to be used as the basis for personal revenge. Personal revenge puts the avenger in the place of God as Judge and Executioner making the avenger a usurper of divine authority.