'An eye for an eye': Justice and mercy in the Old Testament

In the four weeks between the New Year for Trees and the carnival festival of Purim, the Bible lays out the ways in which the Jewish people can cope with each other when strife abounds.

To people who aren't Jewish these are some of the most misunderstood sections of the Bible. However, when analysed properly, these laws are still relevant today.


One of the key passages discusses the punishment appropriate for injury caused to another.

Exodus 21:23-25 states: 'A life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.'

But from earliest times, Jewish oral law and all the major Bible commentators interpreted the verses as meaning that financial compensation should be paid in all cases. If a life is taken unintentionally, you should not take another life. If someone puts out your eye, you should not take revenge, but receive adequate compensation.

And for nearly 2,000 years Christian commentators have also known that this is the Jewish interpretation of how to deal with injuries or even death, caused by another. The major Christian commentators read all the key Jewish commentaries on this text.

So why perpetuate a lie that has seeped into western civilization such that Jews are deliberately depicted by those who know better as vengeful brutes who murder, gouge out eyes and cut off hands with impunity?

To answer this enigma, let's look at possibly the greatest writer of all time, in any language, ie our very own William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Just before 1600, Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, the most famous piece ever written about Jews by a gentile.

In this play, a Venetian Jewish money-lender is made by Shakespeare to demand 'a pound of flesh' as payment for a loan on which his Christian debtor defaults.

But let's look at this all in context.

Jews were officially banned from England from 1290 until Oliver Cromwell allowed them back in 1656. But there were Jews living unofficially living in Tudor England. These were Marranos (secret Jews) originally from Spain and one was doctor to Queen Elizabeth I.

PixabayWilliam Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice.

Shakespeare was aware of this. He was also aware that the plot for his play came from an incident that had taken place some centuries earlier in Italy. Except in that case a Christian merchant had demanded 'a pound of flesh' from a Jew. Shakespeare deliberately twisted around the entire story to suit his public.


Apart from anything else, this idea of Jews and gross physicality stems from the writings of St Paul. In the New Testament Paul reinterprets the idea of circumcision. Paul now thinks that physical circumcision is no longer needed for converts to his newly-minted religion of 'Christianity'. For Paul, it is now only 'circumcision of the heart' that matters. G-d has made a new covenant with adherents of the new religion based around the person of Jesus.

In other words, for Paul, intentions are more important than acts. For Paul, true religion should be of the spirit and not of the flesh. For Paul the flesh is at best of secondary importance and the word can be used by extension to designate a range of sinful or self-oriented attitudes. Therefore all outward signs, such as physical circumcision, can henceforth be regarded as null and void.

We know that Shakespeare himself was going through his own religious crisis in an ever-changing religious landscape in Tudor England. And much has been written about whether Shakespeare was actually a closet Catholic.

So in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare gives the best speech to Portia, the female judge chosen to adjudicate in the case of the 'pound of flesh'.

Portia chooses to contrast so-called 'Jewish justice' with the far superior Christian attribute of 'mercy'.

'The quality of mercy is not strained: it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.'

But the Bible itself states 'justice shall you pursue' (Deuteronomy 16:20). The repetition of the word tsedek (which in Hebrew connotes both justice and mercy) is telling the reader that justice simply isn't possible if it isn't accompanied at all times by the attribute of mercy.

And in fact, Judaism insists that the prerequisite for every society (whether Jewish or not) should be the establishment of law-courts and the practice of equity.

When I was 11 years old and in the first year of secondary school, my class put on The Merchant of Venice. Who was going to play Shylock? This was a girls' only school and everyone looked at me (I was the only Jew in the class), so me it was.

I was so excited. Never for one moment did I associate the character of Shylock with me. At that time my prototype Jewish man was my father – the epitome of generosity beyond all bounds. Whereas the epitome of Christianity at the school was the RE teacher, an Anglican vicar who always insisted in every Old Testament lesson that the Jews had killed Jesus, until one day I complained to the head teacher and he was fired.

So when I read the play, I knew it wasn't based in reality. But what was real to me was Portia's speech. Didn't she resemble the Jewish judge, Deborah, wise beyond understanding? And didn't some deep part of me know that 'the quality of mercy' was all about Judaism and not about Christianity at all? And that the end of her speech was simply not worthy of a Jewish judge?

So years later, when I was teaching Jewish literature at Liverpool University, I researched the origins of that speech, and found that an early Hebrew poet, Eleazer ben Kallir, had written the original 'rain as mercy' poem based on the need for rain in that drought-ridden part of the Middle East. And Kallir's own poem was itself based on the blessings Jews say after meals.

In Hebrew there are very many words for the precious commodity we know as rain: there is 'gentle' rain and the fiercer rain, and if these do not appear in their time, the Sea of Galilee dries up even further and Israel regards itself as in severe crisis.

And Shakespeare would have known all this, since these poems by Kallir made their way to Italy and were reproduced just in time for him to utilise their subject matter and turn them into the beautiful speech by Portia which ends by condemning Judaism to the dustbin of history.

So was Shakespeare being deliberately antisemitic, or is there more to it than that?

With many other Jewish thinkers I have pondered that question for decades. But the answer may also lie in the verse that follows the biblical 'eye for an eye' quote.

At Exodus 21:28, we start to investigate the very famous case of the 'goring ox', which constitutes a core part of any course on Jewish law.

What the 'goring ox' teaches is that we should always ask ourselves: when does behaviour become so habitual that it can be regarded as no longer simply an aberrant act which is 'out of character', but is actually a characteristic of the species?

We have already examined that question in a previous article on Pharaoh and the hardening of his heart. Pharaoh's stubborn insistence on not heeding Moses' plea to 'Let My people go', becomes so entrenched within him that his 'hardening of heart' becomes second nature and no longer simply a 'one-off'.

The idea is that a person can act unreasonably from time to time, but we can still give them the benefit of the doubt. But when this behaviour becomes more habitual than other behaviour, then we can start thinking that maybe this is the nature of the person and take appropriate action ourselves.

But giving the benefit of the doubt always comes first. Does Shakespeare stand the test of time?

My own view is that, given the evidence, looking at the question from every possible angle, and trying to be fair, Shakespeare demonstrates that antisemitism is engrained in western civilization.

Western civilization wouldn't be western civilization without antisemitism.

As Jonathan Sacks has stated, the virus of antisemitism simply mutates and the way in which Jews and Judaism are attacked changes depending on era and context. But antisemitism is always with us and there is nothing we can do about it except point it out from time to time and get on with our lives.

And this is why the two major winter festivals adored by Jewish children the world over – the New Year for Trees and the carnival festival of Purim – act as bookends to the emphasis on justice and mercy which come in between.

Because, as we will see in a couple of weeks, Purim re-enacts for us the first attempted genocide of the Jews in history. And one month after that we celebrate Pesach, the festival of freedom from slavery.

If we are not to be slaves, we have to learn how to live with each other in both justice and in mercy. And this is why the Bible at this juncture enacts laws for life and sets up judges and scholars who can interpret these laws in ways relevant for the times in which we live.

These laws and their interpretations have never been more needed than they are today.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible.