Answering Biblical ‘Contradictions’: Taking Eye For Eye vs. Turning the Other Cheek

July 9, 2012 § 14 Comments


The Old Testament God requires “life for life, eye for eye” and the New Testament Jesus says to “turn the other cheek”. When would you take an eye for an eye and when would you turn the other cheek? That is two completely opposite reactions to a situation. How can these two contradictory commands come from the same God in the same Bible?

The passages in question:

God’s commands to the Israelites in Exodus 21:22-25: “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:38ff: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”


In Exodus, God laid down the groundwork for civil law, including capital punishment. We are not strangers to this principle today. When a life is taken unjustly, the law may demand life. When you break something that belongs to someone else, you are expected to pay for its replacement. If you injure someone, you are expected to pay for the medical bills related to their recovery.

What Jesus was preaching was not a different approach to the same situation, but a different approach to a different situation. “Turn to them the other cheek also” is admonition against personal vengeance. When Jesus recalls Exodus 21, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye…’”, it’s clear that He understands some may be tempted toward revenge. Legal offenders are still accountable to the law of the land, but on a personal level, Jesus instructs us NOT to respond to insults and other offenses with the same sinful action.

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§ 14 Responses to Answering Biblical ‘Contradictions’: Taking Eye For Eye vs. Turning the Other Cheek

  • Masaru Hashimoto says:

    “Answer” does not make sense at all because what Jesus was preaching is, indeed, a DIFFERENT approach to the SAME situation – what is described in Exodus is a criminal act and what is described in Matthew is also a criminal act – the same situation. Also it is important to understand that the “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” is a law of “vengeance” whereby the legal sytem punishes the criminals on behalf of the victims as fairly as possible, which is the idea based on the most judiciary systems today – in other words, the state gives an appropriate “revenge” to the criminals in place of the victims. Therefore, in the sense that both accounts are about how you deal with “criminal/wrong act” (but different means of realising “revenge”), they are based on the same situation. Secondly, it is also very important to note that what Jesus teaches completely lackes the understanding of the significance of “self-defence”, which is a necessary action to keep ourselves from further attack or offense from the criminals. Personally I do not know of anyone in my life who did not revenge and even requested for “further” attack from the crimials including Christians in this kind of dangerous situation as Jusus said. This world would be a “haven” for criminals if we were not allowed to take an action even for self-defense as Jesus instructed. And unlike the “Answer” says, self-defense is not a sinful action. What would you do if you were in a situation like the movie “The Hunger Games”?

    • Thank you for your comment, Masaru. There is always a legal sphere and a personal one. There are personal offenses that are not deemed serious enough for legal action for which people enact revenge (i.e. Jealous rage, reacting to verbal insults, etc.), and even in serious offenses, offended persons at times go above the law and take personal revenge even after an offender is legally prosecuted. So clearly we understand the presence of both spheres.

      Jesus was teaching that we ought to let go of our urge to seek revenge. Civil punishment exists to punish and deter (deterrence is something your comment doesn’t address), and we are to let God take care of the rest. God is righteous and just to avenge us, and we show a lack of faith when we take that upon ourselves.

      Self-defense is actually not included in the principal of turning the other cheek. We can see that Jesus defended Himself against verbal attacks from the Pharisees (Mat. 23:13-38), objected to being struck by the High Priest (John 18:22-23), instructed disciples to arm for defense (Luke 22:36-38), and to prepare for verbal defense (Luke 21:14-15). We should defend our arguments (2 Peter 3:15) and our physical well-being from attack, as everyone—including ourselves—is to be regarded as made in God’s image. Defense is different from retaliation.

      What would I do in a situation like the Hunger Games? I don’t know, but those participants were forced to kill or be killed. There is no opportunity to avoid death in the outcome. The story was conjured up in part to present an interesting moral dilemma, but the fact is, The Hunger Games is fiction and doesn’t portray a situation we can readily relate to in real life. Jesus was talking about real life.

  • Masaru Hashimoto says:

    It seems that you are not getting the point that I was making at all. If you use the authority or power of police/state in an attempt to solve the criminal offense that victimised you by reporting it to them, you are actually and essentially trying to give a “revenge” to the offender in a hope that he will be caught and punished with an appropriate sentence, in which sense, there is no difference between the 2 accounts in question in terms of the situation that you were talking about in your Answer. The only difference is that one in Matthew would be “direct” (or personal) revenge whereas the other in Exodus would be “indirect” revenge through a court system.

    Also with regard to your comment that “self-defense is not acutally included in the principal of turning the other cheek”, from what Jesus says in Matthew 5:38 (if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also), it is so obvious that he is suggesting us not to even defend ourselves at least in a situation where somone slaps you on the cheek because you would not turn to them your other cheek if you defended yourself.

    I know what you would do if you were in a situation like “The Hunger Games”. You would NEVER turn your other cheek when someone hit your face as you would eventually die if you do so.

    And I know the reason why you indirectly answered to me “I do not know” because that is the common way of avoiding the direct answer by apologists when they cannot defend their quibble in order to protect something false in the Bible and to ultimately protect their status and/or money among their own believers as well as their religious identity and belief, which is shameful and pity as we are to seek the truth objectively.

    Further, you said “There is no opportunity to avoid death in the outcome” in the story of the film, which is totally false. The game rule of the story of the film is that initially there will be only one survivor/winner of the game. And also you must remember that, in the story, the Gamemaker changes the rule toward the end of the game that “2” participants will be survivors/winners.

    Finally, with regard to your poor excuse “but the fact is, The Hunger Games is fiction and doesn’t portray a situation we can readily relate to in real life. Jesus was talking about real life”, you hear about a lot of incidents these days that would be hard to dream up, which really backs up the old saying that “fact is stranger than fiction”. A good current example would be what is going on in Syria right now – most people in Syria have only 2 options – to be attacked to be killed or to attack their opponent to survive – harsh reality.

    • You seem to be pushing for an understanding of vengeance that is pretty unique. What do we think about the state’s prosecution of, say, a murdered homeless man with no next of kin? Who is the in one taking revenge on the murderer? Do we apply that thinking also to lesser crimes like speeding and jaywalking? Who is the avenger when fines are levied?

      There is a link between vengeance and civil punishment in that they are rooted in an intuitive understanding that justice must be satisfied. Civil penalties are the best we can hope for in a world flawed by sin, but it is inadequate; neither it or vengeance ultimately satisfies. Even Adam Lanza, who killed himself after his shooting spree last year in Newtown, Connecticut, had only one life with which to pay for the 27 lives he took. How many of us felt satisfied with that, even though we had no personal connection with the victims? God’s ultimate judgment is righteous and just, and we wait for that.

      The point Jesus was making in Matthew 5 was to wait for His judgment. Paul later reiterates this is Romans 10:19: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Pay attention to context, specifically who Christ was speaking to. “Jesus was talking about real life” for the people He was addressing (and probably most who read the Bible today). Jesus wasn’t speaking to soldiers in wartime, or anyone in a coerced situation as in The Hunger Games. This is in fact a weak analogy—specifically an argument from spurious similarity. Some do unfortunately live in a war zone and that situation may be real life for them, but that isn’t in view in the text. Swords and stones and other weapons were well-written of at the time, so if Jesus wanted to instruct on passivity in a truly dangerous or life-threateing situation, He probably wouldn’t have used a slap in the face, synonymous with an insult, as an illustration. Someone who bears a slap in the face can likely bear two, and this isn’t worth retaliation. A return slap to “get even” accomplishes nothing.

      Admitting “I don’t know” isn’t a dodge, it’s honesty. I might conjecture as you have about how I’d respond if I were in some fictional situation, but I can’t honestly say for certain how I’d respond having never been in it. I can say that one’s moral responsibility for whatever he does, kill or let himself be killed—neither honoring God—would be diminished since competitors would be forced into the arena. And when I said “there is no opportunity to avoid death in the outcome” in the Hunger Games, I was talking about others in the arena. Even if I avoid death, there is no way to avoid killing others. Death is inevitable.

      It’s good to hear that you are interested in objective truth. What exactly do you mean by that? And how do you “seek the truth objectively” without allowing your own worldview to influence your decision? And do you ever say “I don’t know” when you aren’t sure of an answer? (Or do you have them all? 🙂

  • Masaru Hashimoto says:

    1) Re: “You seem to be pushing for an understanding of vengeance that is pretty unique.”

    It is not unique. It is common-sense though I pretty much understand that it is your business as apologists to make it sound “unique”. You report to police if you are beaten by someone because you want the crimial to be caught and punished so that hopefully it will not happen to you and other people.

    2) Re: “What do we think about the state’s prosecution of, say, a murdered homeless man with no next of kin? Who is the in one taking revenge on the murderer? Do we apply that thinking also to lesser crimes like speeding and jaywalking? Who is the avenger when fines are levied? ”

    To be honest, I really feel pity for you…How long have you been working as a typical deceptive apologist? I can really see even from the way you put this kind of stupid questions that you are kind of desperate to defend your warped thought and religion… It is common-sense that the police needs to prosecute the criminal on behalf of someone killed. You may want to trick me to say that the state/police would be the avenger in this scenario so that you could say to me something like they cannot be the avenger because they are not even the victim’s kin so they do not have any hatred to the offender. I am also familar with another trick often used by the apologists like you – throwing a “seemingly” relevant question, which is irrelevant to the point of the discussion to sidetrack. Anyway, in a democratic society, the police/state would need to catch the criminal/offender on behalf of the victim for justice and according to the criminal law passed in a parliament by the MPs selected by those majority citizens who would want to see the punishment/revenge on them if they were the victims. I though that it is a common-sense, but obviously it is not a common-sense for deceptive apologists like you.

    I do not have time to waste to go through all other quibbles and poor excuses and a lie that you put, but thank you for giving me all the confirmations that there is something (and I know that there “ARE” – plural – actually lots more) totally wrong about the Bible like Koran and any other religious books.

    • My goal isn’t to deceive you, Masaru, it’s to make things clearer for you. I’m flattered, but I’m really not clever enough to engineer apologetic “tricks”; these are honest questions to help you think deeper on ideas you seem to just assume. For example, you call “common sense” the innate need to punish criminals “so that hopefully it will not happen to you and other people”, that state prosecutors “want to see the punishment/revenge on them if they were the victims.” That “common sense” is also a Biblical principal found in Matthew 7:12 and other places, to “do to others what you would have them do to you.” Beyond the self-centeredness of revenge, we have a common sense of the need for justice for all, even when it’s an interest in crime that has no apparent contemporary effect on us, such as recent prosecution of Nazi war criminals (i.e. Siert Bruins, age 92). And justice is not only about punishment. What about the vindication of the innocent? The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles just cleared the names of 3 men wrongly convicted of rape in the 1930s, men who are no longer even living. Where does revenge enter in, where something hangs over our moral conscience compelling us to right an 80-year-old wrong? We recognize timeless, objective moral law and justice because we are all made in the image of a moral and just God (Gen. 1:27).

      Why do you think this universal intuition for justice, which pre-dates democracies and parliaments, exists if atheism or agnosticism is true? From where does such common sense derive in a universe born only of matter in motion? What in your religion/belief system accounts for the “common sense” of objective truth and law, something that we simply take for granted? Thinking about fundamental presuppositions is not always comfortable, but of course fundamentals are where arguments stand or fall. My examination of justice reveals that we are all hopelessly in need of a Savior. Jesus Christ was God’s answer to that dilemma. Your intuitions about justice may be why you wish to avoid the discussion. My chief interest is introducing God to you, my neighbor, which of course you are free to reject. But since you came here offering a reason-based argument, I’m hoping you’ll want to follow through. If not, maybe you could take advantage of the Christmas/Advent season and look into the Bible’s claims about Jesus and what He did for you with an open mind. Either way, I thank you for the discussion!

  • Felicia says:

    So, the “law” is to be an eye for an eye. But us common folk should turn the other cheek?

    Kind of sounds like we shouldn’t defend ourselves and let the law take care of it. If we did that, we would all be dead. This would give the “law” all the power to do as it pleases. I guess that was the plan, to make us all victims. The law played out well for Jesus. I call bullshit!

    • Hi Felicia, thanks for your comment. In the comments above, Masaru also confuses the concepts of legal consequence and personal vengeance. You might benefit from reading through the first couple comments in the discussion.

      • Chris says:

        Based on the comments above, I believe (and I stand corrected), that those two persons are not Christians or firm believers of the bible. I gather this from their approach to the topic. Not so much their disagreement, but moreso the malice and lack of respect used.

        GodandNeighbor was insulted over and repeatedly by Masaru. However he didn’t do the same in return, though he could. Because insulting someone is one of the easiest things to do.
        In fact, it takes real self control, discipline and heart to do otherwise.

        I believe this is what Jesus meant by when He said to turn the other cheek. Its crazy how the example was shown right in this very discussion.

        GodandNeighbor had a greater good to accomplish. A greater good involving sharing the message of our Saviour. As a result, he endured the persecutions hurled at him and not once retaliated. He turned the other cheek.

        Lets be sensible. Surely if he was walking down the road with his wife and kids, and someone attacks his family, he’ll not just stand there and watch it happen because “one must turn the other cheek.”

        What many people fail to realise is that the bible also teaches about wisdom… wisdom and understanding. It says “In all thy getting, get understanding.”
        And wisdom is simply the utilization of knowledge at the right/perfect time.

        Turning the other cheek has its place.
        There’s a time and place for everything the bible teaches.

        Allow the wisdom of God to come in and show you when the appropriate timing is.

        Lastly, insulting people during a respectable conversation is very distasteful. Something the bible teaches and something I would want my children not to do.
        So if I had to make a decision on what to believe and teach my kids just by reading the above conversation, I’ll tell my children to follow the teachings of the bible. At least that way I’d know that they would have respect for others and their beliefs.

        God bless.

  • Peter Slavov says:

    It is only through education and understanding of the concepts of the Bible that people will reach the point of full harmony.

    The old ways said an eye for an eye as it is in civil law, but Jesus’ teachings point that only through humbleness and turning the other cheek we can achieve balance.

    The point that Jesus is making is that when all people believe in him and his teachings, the old ways will be obsolete as there will not be the need for civil law – if we reach this point we no longer need to turn the other cheek as well as there will be no harm to us from others, but until that moment comes, the old ways will need to exist as most people today are far from believers.

    To sum it up, my interpretation of this dilemma is “protect yourselves and your loved ones at all times from evil, BUT do not seek revenge if evil harms you. If your loved ones are hurt, improve security for the future, but do not seek vengeance from the police and courts as this is what the devil wants you to do, but not Jesus, who will reward those who suffer but NOT the aggressors in the afterlife.

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