The concept is nothing new to us. We have all felt the desire for vengeance. Even when level-headed, we have seen the value of retribution to regain a just equality between offender and offended.
Deuteronomy 19:21, returns to this idea previously expressed in Exodus 21:23-25 and Leviticus 24:19-20. Juxtaposed, the three read in the English Standard Version:
Context: a group of men hitting a pregnant woman
Exodus 21:23-25: “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
Context: the giving of the law, this section covering taking life both human and animal
Leviticus 24:19-20: “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.”
Context: giving false testimony with the intent to cause harm to another person
Deuteronomy 19:21: “Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
Numbers seems the odd book out in the Mosaic tetralogy. Nevertheless, Numbers 35 does address the scenario of blood vengeance, with someone seeking the death of a killer on behalf of the killed.
This system may seem barbaric to twenty-first century westerners (with people cutting off each other’s body parts all the time), but we may be over-simplifying the system. With cities of refuge established, people had a place to flee, a place of safety to await fair judgment. The avenger of blood was not permitted to follow the accused into the city, so as long as the accused remained in the city, there was safety.
One thing that this system does well that our system does less well is the limitation of vengeance. By establishing a system of retribution, the Israel could potentially effectively control the vengeance taking place.
Furthermore, while some sects have insisted on a literal interpretation of the text, Rabbinical Judaism takes the view that these instructions were hyperbole and that reparations for offences were to be made financially.
Whatever view one may have of this system of justice, remember that a form of this system is still in place today. Sharia law, the standard in a number of Muslim nations, maintains this practice of exacting punishment for a crime that is the equivalent of the crime itself. For example, this.
For a Jewish view of the “eye for an eye” law, click here.
For a Jewish take on manslaughter and cities of refuge, clack over there.
For a Jesus spin on the whole matter, clunk this.