"To me belongeth vengeance and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time; for the day of their calamity is at hand, snd the things that shall come upon them make haste. For the Lord shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth thier power is gone.." Dt 32:35
Too often, scripture is construed so that it portrays a bloodthirsty religon of a vengeful God, waiting to zap anyone who takes a step in the wrong direction. Preachers harangue the audience, overburdening them with guilt, shouting, "an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth.." with little or no understanding of the text or its context.
The passage lands in the center of the second aliya, Ex 21:20-22:3, of Mishpatim. before the Bible was broken into verses and chapters, the council of elders had split the torah or pentateuch into sections, each having a name: Bereshit, Noach, Lech Lecha, Vai'era, Bamidbar and so on according to the opening words. Within each portion of the weekly reading, the text was further split into seven parts, called an aliya. Why? Because in the synagogue, a certain portion of text from the Torah was read each week, but broken into seven sections so that there was a daily reading. Each of these is usually read by a different member of the congregation when they ascend/ go up to the bima/podium. An aliya is a "going up" or a "blessing" said before reciting the section of torah. Each time you read or learn a section of torah, your spirit ascends towards God. It is spiritually uplifting.
The section, Mishpatim, concerns itself with social laws and the organization of society. Without any law, there is chaos. Mishpatim begins with the domestic problems of servants and servitude. It opens with the concerns of the lowest in society to see that they have their guarantees and seurity within the larger society. It begins from the bottom and looks into the interpersonal relationships between the members of the entire society, trying to balance their responsibility and culpability equitably.
The second aliya opens, "If a man smite his bondsman or his bondwoman with a rod and he die under his hand, he shall surely be punished." Ex 21:20
That one sentence destroys all the polemics of the Confederate States justifying the abuses of slavery. All people have the rights of life and respect according to God. The law injunctions that you shall love your neighbor as yourself, Lv 18:19. Even servants have rights and bondsmen served a limited time of seven years. After that, they and their family were automatically freed, and if the Year of Jubilee or Shabbat came before their seventh year they were freed. They had to be treated with the same respect before law as the Israelites, including rest and provision for food and family. Not only that, but all debts were canceled in the seventh year. In this section gives the basic principles of financial compensation for the injury or death of a person or an animal—both are important within God's law. Injuring or killing an animal can also mean the death of the person who is dependent on that animal for transport, food or labor. It might be the only possession that the person has and so sustains the person's livelihood or hope in life.
In traditional courts, the rabbis ruled that life and injury must be compensated. You Scripture is not literatal transcription just word per word, but through the context and interpretation, hence there is the written torah-the Pentateuch and the oral torah-the interpertations, just as there are the literal laws and legal codes in the US and the legal deliberations and final sentences. So look at the last section of the aliya, "If a thief be found breaking in and be smitten so that he dieth, there shall be no bloodguiltiness for him. If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be bloodguiltiness for him—he shall make restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If the theft be found in his hand alive, whether it be an ox or ass or sheep, he shall pay double." Ex 22:1-3
There are three points here that are important: if someone breaks into a house during the night and gets killed, his crime can not be transferred onto another and the defendant of the house is not guilty of murder. The householder is not guilty of any wrong. He is protecting his property. However, if the man is found down the street with Farmer Brown's Holstein; he must make restitution. If he's caught in the act, then he shall return two Holsteins for the one taken. There is a limitation on how much restitution can be made: the two animals are to compensate for the loss and the stress that the owner has suffered. If he has nothing with which to make the second part, the second Holstein, then he can be sold/indentured for the price of the second animal. He is not sold for life, but indentured until the restitution is made. Is it fair? Actually, it is quite. He is allowed to work off his debt, but did he have any right to steal another person's property? None.
Snadwiched between these, comes the passage of "an eye for an eye." It is in the heart of the text, identifying a very important principle of restitution and compensation. Before it comes a declaration of law regarding strife and brawls and after it comes a section regarding the loss and injkury of livestock or the neglect of dangerous livestock Surprisingly, the laws are very modern. Last year or year before, there was a horrific case in the California courts regarding a high school coach who was mauled to death in front of her apartment door by the neighbor's dogs. How did the California courts rule? One dog was shot immediately by the police when they arrived at the scene and the other later, as being too dangerous for society. Witnesses were called to attest to their fierce nature and the number of complaints regarding them. The victim died in the hallway with her face and neck torn apart. The police who arrived at the scene were treated for severe trauma.
What happened? The owners were in prison, but the dogs were in care of two lawyers who represented them. Legally, the court declared them responsible. They were found guilty of victim's death. The court awarded damages and compensation to the woman who survived, the significant other. The woman who lost her partner and friend.
In light of the context, now read, "And if any harm follow, then thou shalt give life for lfe, eye for eye, tooth for tooth..." v 23-25. The intent of the law is that there must be some equitable compensation made to the person who suffers the loss so that his/her life is not utterly destroyed. There is no way to replace a finger or arm or a person killed by a drunken driver or mauled by a dog, but the victim or survivor of the crime must have some means to allow him/her to continue living.