Many know the biblical injunction of retributive justice, derived from Exodus 21 and called by the Latin expression lex talionis: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, etc. To many readers of the Bible, this seems like a brutal and barbaric legal system, one in which punishment mirrors the crime in an unending cycle of violence and retribution.

However, there's plentiful evidence that the text was never meant to be taken literally. Our Sages established quite early on that lex talionis taught us not about literal physical punishment, but instead about torts– financial compensation meant to be issued to the victim of a crime. In doing so, our rabbis are unwittingly engaging in a much older debate, which predates the Torah by some 700 years at least.

In the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, we do in fact read the same statement: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. However, in the contemporaneous text, the Laws of Eshmuna, we read a slightly different version: "If a man bites the nose of another man and thus cuts it off, he shall weigh and deliver 60 shekels of silver; an eye — 60 shekels; a tooth — 30 shekels; an ear — 30 shekels."

This should give us some pause when we approach the Bible and immediately respond with disgust and distance. Perhaps these texts can afford us some perspective and more than a little bit of humility; helping us to realise that we are neither the first, nor likely the last, to raise concerns and debate the meaning of our ancient legal texts. In debating and discussing our holy texts we are engaging in a debate that goes far beyond our own traditions, and one which can only help to illumine our religious life today.

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