“An Eye for an Eye” and the Sanctity of Life

While Christians generally recognize the biblical mandate of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” as part of the Old Testament Law, I suspect that most do not normally identify it with its original context—the sanctity of life, specifically that of a pregnant woman and her unborn fetus. I for one was recently surprised to read the following from Exodus (coincidently, the day after Sanctity of Life Sunday):

22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exod 21:22-25 ESV)

How remarkable that this first mandate from God of proportionate retribution of an eye for eye is in the specific context of injury to a pregnant woman and/or her fetus from men who are engaged in a brawl. If she and/or her fetus are harmed (through premature birth or a miscarriage), God demands punishment of “life for life, eye for eye, and tooth for tooth, etc.” Notice that there is no restriction on this penalty—such as, only to late term pregnancies or in cases in which the baby was determined to have no major birth defects!

The interpretive challenges of these verses notwithstanding (see any number of good commentaries for details), the message is clear—God values the lives of both the mother and the unborn child. The life in the mother’s womb is of equal value to the life of the mother. This, of course, is because God is the ultimate author of all life.  Moreover, the innate worth of each human being (born or unborn) is grounded in the fact that they are created in the image of God (Gen 9:6). The continuing devaluation of human life in our society through the shameful atrocity of abortion (as well as growing receptivity towards euthanasia) stands as a direct affront to the Creator of life. The life of the unborn is precious to God and the taking of that life through abortion is sin in the eyes of the righteous Judge before whom all will one day stand.

Interestingly, as detailed in Douglas Stuart’s commentary on Exodus (NAC, 2006), the attitude expressed toward the value of an unborn fetus varied throughout Ancient Near East (ANE) cultures as evidenced by ANE law codes—with some (e.g., the Middle Assyrian Laws) actually requiring the exchange of a life for the loss of the life of a fetus. Others, such as the Babylonian Hammurabi’s Law, imposed a fine of ten shekels for the loss of a fetus. Remarkably, the pagan Babylonians placed more value on the life of a fetus than the laws of most countries do today!  For the God of Israel every life in the womb was precious and anyone who caused harm or death to that little one was to be punished—an eye for an eye.

Several additional remarks are warranted. First, the above comments should in no way be understood as promoting or justifying individual acts of violence on abortion clinics or physical assaults on abortionists. Such acts are to be categorically condemned.  The OT law of retribution or lex talionis, which was intended to impose proportionate penalty for physical injury, was part of Israel’s legal system for the nation (notice the involvement of a judge, v. 22). It was not intended to encourage vigilante justice. The fact that the law of our land does not value the life of the unborn does not justify individual acts of retribution. Remember that the responsibility of protecting life and the enactment of capital punishment, when necessary to do so, have been given to government (Rom 13:4), not individuals.

Finally, I would be amiss when dealing with such an emotionally charged topic to not proclaim the message of forgiveness that is offered through Christ to any who have had, performed, or encouraged abortions. The wonderful message of the gospel is that Christ’s death on the cross accomplished the just retribution for our sins—all of them. Through personal faith in Christ and Christ alone one need not fear “an eye for an eye,” even in regard to violations of God’s law on the sanctity of life.


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