What is the Law of Talion?

The Law of the talion (Latin: lex talionis) is the principle of retributive justice expressed in the phrase"eye for eye"(Hebrew: ןין תחת ןין) in Exodus 21: 23-27. This law defined and restricted the scope of reprisals, thus limiting revenge. The Code of Hammurabi and the laws of the Old Testament reflected the spirit of this law.

In reference to crimes, the Old Testament opinion"eye for an eye"has often been interpreted, especially in Judaism, to apply equivalent monetary compensation. In other cultures, such as Islam, the code has been taken more literally: a thief could lose one of his hands as punishment. [1]

Law of the talion


Lex Talionis means in Latin"the law of revenge". It refers to the idea that punishment for a crime must be based in some form equivalent to the crime committed, rather than simple unrestricted or random revenge. The simplest expression of Lex Talionis is the biblical commandment of"life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth"in Exodus 21:23 [2]

The purpose of this law is generally thought of as a central element of early biblical justice. Lex Talionis, however, dates back to the twentieth century BC. C., the Code of Hammurabi.

Legal Code of Hammurabi, its relationship with the Law of Talión and its importance

In 1901, a French explorer found in Susa (present east coast of Tunis) an ancient series of Babylonian inscriptions with 282 laws. This code was promulgated by Hammurabi, Babylonian king of the twentieth century BC. Engraved on a block of black diorite almost eight feet high, it is the first known complete legal code of antiquity.

The code begins with instructions for legal procedure and the declaration of penalties for unjust accusations, false testimony and injustice, made by the judges. Then follow the laws concerning property rights, loans, deposits and debts, domestic ownership and family rights.

Sanctions were imposed for injuries sustained by badly performed operations by doctors (precedent of malpractice) and for damages caused by negligence. The rates were fixed in various forms of service.

"If a man has caused another rank man to lose an eye, one of his own eyes must be removed. If you have destroyed the member of a man of rank, you will break his own limb. If you have hit the tooth of a man of rank, your tooth must be removed."

On the contrary, the injuries caused to a man without rank, could be atoned with money:

"If (a man of rank) has caused a poor man to lose an eye, or has destroyed a member, to pay him a Maneh silver."

As regards the defense of Lex Talionis, the Code of Hammurabi reminds us of the stern Jewish law of"Eye for eye and tooth for tooth"(Exodus 21:23).

The Talmud and the Torah

The Talmud is ostensibly the Corpus juris Of Jews from the first century before the Christian era to the fourth century AD, The word Law (In Hebrew Torah), means more than its translation would imply. Judaism interpreted all its religion in terms of law.

The Divine Law was revealed to Moses, not only through the Commandments that were found written in the Torah, but also through all the rules and regulations of the days following the exile. These additional laws were transmitted orally from Moses to Joshua, from there to the Prophets, to the scribes, and then to the rabbis.

Perhaps the oldest and most difficult problem to elucidate for New Testament scholars as they investigate the second Judaism of the temple is to define to what extent the later documents - the Mishnah and the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds - represent the original spirit of ancient thought.

Exodus 21: 23-25 ​​says bluntly:

But if there are serious injuries, you should take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn by burn, wound by injury, bruise by bruise. (Leviticus 24: 17-22 and Deuteronomy 19:21).

The question is: should these punishments be applied literally or not? The preponderance of evidence suggests a non-literal application (Jackson 1973). [3]

The New Testament

For his part, Jesus [4] Corrected the literal interpretation of the passages on the law of revenge.

Matthew 5: 38-39 says,

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth'; But I tell you: Do not resist an evil person. If someone hits you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also the other cheek. (Luke 6:29).

Leviticus 19:18 says,

"Do not seek vengeance or bear any grudge against any of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself."

To avoid misinterpretations of Jesus' words in Matthew 5: 38-39, it is suggested to consider interpretative guidelines. As with all biblical passages, the historical context must be taken into account. Jesus lived in first-century Israel and, at that time, the law of reprisal appears in a legal context in the courts, not in a private dispute or revenge.

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, sent by the risen Jesus, St. Paul tells Christians in Rome that God Himself had established the application of the law and the authorities (the courts) to do justice to those who did the right thing as opposed to Those who did not (Romans 13: 1-5).

Scholars like Joachim Jeremiah, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Arthur W. Pink, agree that Christ (in Matthew 5: 38-48) does not avoid or elude the Lex Talionis As a judicial principle, but as personal revenge (Crosby, 1990) [5] .

They interpret that it is wrong for the individual to take the law into their own hands. Revenge belongs to God (Hebrews 10:30) and its delegate agents.

What is the Law of Talion?

Jesus Christ [6]

Other points of view

Criticism of the Talion Law holds that restraining only revenge is not enough, since even limited retaliation continues a potentially endless cycle of violence. Mahatma Gandhi commented:" An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and in the whole world would soon be all blind and toothless ".

Other belief systems such as the Taoist Wu wei, Urges an aggrieved individual to simply accept the offense and to take the less severe action to correct it. Buddhism emphasizes the law of karma: it can take revenge, but that action is not exempt from consequences that return to the individual who executes it.

To the Golden Rule of Ethics [7] Adhere to those who are against reprisals. Although the Golden Rule seems merciful, in the case of a crime, it eliminates the link between punishment and justice.

Lex Talionis is an effort to codify in the law how to respond to the faults that justice requires for the conviction to be limited by the nature of the crime. Depending on the Golden Rule, the aggrieved may choose forgiveness, an option not denied in the Law of Talion.

[1] New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved 6/1/2016 at newworldencyclopedia.org.

[2] Exodus 21:24 Recovered on 6/1/2017 in bibliaparalela.com.

[3] Jackson, Bernard S. 1973."The Problem of Exodus XXI 22-5 (Lex Talionis)." Vetus Testamentum 23: 273-304.

[4] "Jesus, also known as Jesus Christ or Jesus of Nazareth, is the central figure of Christendom, both as the Messiah and even more as God incarnate." Jesus of Nazareth. New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved 6/1/2017 at newworldencyclopedia.org.

[5] Crosby, Tim. 1990. Does God get angry? . Retrieved 6/1/2017 at newworldencyclopedia.org.

[6] One of the first images of Jesus with beard, 4th century. Mural found in the catacomb of Commodilla. Retrieved 6/1/2017 at newworldencyclopedia.org.

[7] "The Golden Rule is a transcultural ethical precept that is found practically in all the religions of the world. Also known as the"Ethics of Reciprocity", the Golden Rule can be translated into positive or negative formulations. Most expressions take a passive form, as the Jewish sage Hillel puts it: [What is odious to you, do not do to your companion is the whole Law, everything else is commentary"(Talmud, Shabbat 31a). In Christianity, the principle is affirmed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you"(Gospel of Matthew 7:12). This principle has for centuries been known in English as the Golden Rule in recognition of its high value and importance in both ethical life and reflection."New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved on 1/1/2017 at newworldencyclopedia.org.


  1. Lewis, C. S. [1970] 1994."The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment."In God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. ISBN 0802808689.
  2. Kant, Immanuel, and Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (Translator). Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals, Edited by Lara Denis. NY: Broadview Press. ISBN 1551115395.

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