The lex talionis is the foundation of biblical justice. It is laid down in the Pentateuch but it is everywhere assumed. It is not only assumed in God’s special revelation but also in natural revelation. Hence, it appears in many ancient Near Eastern law codes and forms the foundation for their laws as well.
Lex talionis means “law of reciprocation.” In other words, the act of the crime must be placed back upon the criminal. He must pay the amount he took. If he took out someone’s eye, he must have his eye taken out or pay compensation equal to an eye. If he took out someone’s tooth, he must have his own tooth taken out or pay compensation equal to a tooth. And if he took a life, he must pay for it with his life. Hence, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life” is God’s justice that reveals His character and divine responsibility to address crime in the world.
And this is important to note. The lex talionis is not some arbitrary law that God decided to use. It is God’s law of justice in accordance with His character, which means that He Himself will not transgress it. If He does, we must say that God is unjust according to His own revelation of what justice looks like. Not only this but if He orders His people to transgress it and take an eye for a toenail or a life for a tooth then He is not only unjust Himself according to His own rule but He will have commanded His people to be unjust in the law, reversing the very lex talionis He told them to observe in the law.
Since God is not contradictory of Himself, nor unjust, nor a tempter of evil who tells people to break His own laws, we must conclude that every punishment given is equal to its crime. It is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life.
This means that if a crime carries the death penalty, God must by virtue of His own nature consider the crime to be akin to murder in some way. If He does not consider it to be murder, and He orders that the death penalty via execution or exile be exacted upon the criminal, He will be guilty of going against His very nature as the God of justice and good.
Now, a common objection must be dealt with here. Some will argue that because man is fallen, he is under a death penalty anyway and so God killing anyone and everyone is just since all deserve to die anyway. Hence, God can take a life for an eye because it is always an eye and a life that was taken in both the Fall and the individual sin of the criminal.
However, there arises a couple major problems with this reasoning. 1. God never says that the punishments He gives out are for the crime of Adam but rather for specific crimes. If the above were true then God should actually say that everyone who transgresses laws of non-fatal injuries, like knocking out a tooth, should be put to death, since they are guilty of taking life through Adam and a tooth. Not only is this never argued but it would set the world into a bloody chaos of death, as there would be no need to even commit a crime since everyone already is guilty of Adam’s sin. One would be justified in killing any and every human being they meet. In fact, murder would be impossible, since everyone deserves death already. 2. Although one could say that only God gets to add Adam’s sin to the crime, seemingly arbitrarily, he actually commands His people to exact these punishments on criminals and so they become the instruments through which anyone can be killed at any time. All of this is contrary to God’s own statements, however, which limit executions only to those cases that in some way take away the life of another. God states that the lex talionis is to be applied by His people to all cases that are not even mentioned but fall into the categories mentioned. This means that one cannot take a life for a mere injury. If an item that can be replaced is stolen, the thief is allowed to pay it back plus the interest of what was lost due to the item’s removal.
This means we are back at the argument before. If God requires the death penalty in the law, it can only mean that it is because He considers the crime akin to murder in some way. This does not mean that it is literal murder but rather that it is associated with murder in some way. In some form, the crime committed takes away human life, and according to the lex talionis, the life of the one who committed the crime must be taken.
So, for instance, in Leviticus 20, two laws are given that require the death penalty.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Say to the people of Israel, Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones. 3 I myself will set my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given one of his children to Molech, to make my sanctuary unclean and to profane my holy name. 4 And if the people of the land do at all close their eyes to that man when he gives one of his children to Molech, and do not put him to death, 5 then I will set my face against that man and against his clan and will cut them off from among their people, him and all who follow him in whoring after Molech.
6 “If a person turns to mediums and necromancers, whoring after them, I will set my face against that person and will cut him off from among his people. 7 Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. 8 Keep my statutes and do them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you. 9 For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.
The first law can be understood as requiring the death penalty because it kills children. However, even here, the emphasis seems to be more along the lines of the idolatry committed. Either way, however, the second law, given the lex talionis, is baffling to the modern reader.
How can God require the death penalty for cursing one’s father or mother? There are two things that could be said here. The first is that when a person does not honor his father or mother, it detracts from the household in some way, threatening the household and its livelihood. A son, for instance, who refuses to work in the field, or take care of his parent’s financially when they are in need, etc. threatens their lives and works toward the destruction of parents and their household. Likewise, a daughter who ignores her parents and whores around, threatens not only the reputation, and therefore, financial stability of the household, but also marriage prospects that also threaten the finances of the household.
The second component to dishonoring or cursing parents, however, is far worse and more likely the cause for the death penalty. Many scholars have noted before that the command to honor one’s father and mother sits in the first five laws of the Ten Commandments. Whereas some may divide the law into four laws concerning the worship of God and six laws concerning one’s relationships between people, it may be instead divided between five and five. This would mean that one’s father and mother represent God and are a means by which a person worships God. Notice the contrast in consulting mediums for information vs. being under the guidance of one’s parents. To curse or dishonor or shun them in some way is to curse and dishonor or to shun God and to do so is to lead people to disregard the fear of God as their source of life. To cut off the source of life from the covenant community is to kill those influenced by such rebellion. It is to teach a different religion, and as such, is a type of murder (cf. Rom 3:10-18). Hence, the penalty is not a fine of some sort but death.
Similarly, in Leviticus 24, a curious episode is given to the reader as an example of this very thing.
10 Now an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel. And the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel fought in the camp, 11 and the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed. Then they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. 12 And they put him in custody, till the will of the Lord should be clear to them.
13 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 14 “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. 15 And speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. 16 Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.
17 “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. 18 Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. 19 If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. 21 Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. 22 You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.” 23 So Moses spoke to the people of Israel, and they brought out of the camp the one who had cursed and stoned him with stones. Thus the people of Israel did as the Lord commanded Moses.
We often don’t think of blasphemy laws as being akin to murder. Instead, we simply understand that God is the king and should not be spoken against or treated poorly in any way. But we tend to fail to understand why one should get the death penalty for treating God this way. The text above does not merely give a circular reason for the death of this man. It does not say that he should be put to death because God is God and should not be cursed. Instead, God gives the lex talionis as the reason.
17 “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death . . . 19 If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.
The strange thing about this text is that the reason given that the man is to be killed for cursing God is because the Israelites are to take a life for a life. But what life did the man take that he must now pay for it with his own life?
Instead, if we understand that treating God poorly undermines His appeal to His people to seek Him as the only life source, and therefore, to live, we understand that this man’s act worked toward murdering everyone who would be influenced by his degradation of God. Hence, he is paying with his life because such an act is akin to murder, even though he did not visibly murder anyone.
The same can be said of texts that demand the death penalty for breaking the Sabbath (Exod 31:14; Num 15:32-36). To observe the Sabbath was to communicate one’s allegiance to YHWH as the sovereign King of Israel, the Creator who gives life to all who are in Him, but to ignore it was to communicate the opposite of that, that YHWH was not the ultimate source of life and that Israel did not need to have to give their allegiance to Him. It is therefore a preaching of a false religion to not observe the Sabbath in the old covenant. Hence, it is akin to murdering those who are influenced by this evil testimony, and the individuals were, therefore, to be put to death.
What this all means, therefore, is that God is just, the lex talionis is justice, and if God demands a particular punishment upon a particular crime, it is because in some way it is akin to the unauthorized taking of human life. It is murder in God’s eyes whether it is murder in our own or not.
It may be extreme and crazy for some to think of false religion this way in our day of inclusivism where differing religions are merely various expressions of the one God manifested through cultural differences but that God considers the practice or preaching of false religion as a knife in one’s hand (or rather in one's mouth) with which he slays another man is made clear from these texts. God is just, the lex talionis is justice, and if God says that one must be put to death for practicing or preaching a false religion, it must be that He considers it akin to murder.
So when you read these penalties you must also understand the severity of the crime by the nature of those penalties.
The remedy of this, of course, is to confess one’s evil and the depth thereof, to turn away from being advocates of these deadly ideas, and to come to the cross where all of the heinous sins of God’s people have been punished by the execution of the Son of God who died in our place.