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An Eye for an Eye: Basic Biblical Interpretation for a Skeptical Culture, Part 1

An Eye for an Eye: Basic Biblical Interpretation for a Skeptical Culture, Part 1

One of the most common cultural objections to the Bible, and specifically to ethical stands based on the Bible’s teachings, is the Old Testament.

You bring up Paul’s teachings on, say, homosexuality, and the counter punch is the plethora of laws in Leviticus that advocate stoning for … well, things we don’t usually want to stone people for.

The attempted point is that if you are going to buy into the New Testament ethic, you have to buy into the Old Testament ethic. And since no one wants to buy into the Old Testament ethic – not even Christians – then let’s not be hypocrites. Drop the cherry-picked New Testament stuff and realize that morals change with the times.

Heard this a few times? Of course you have. This argument is brought out so frequently, one is led to believe it’s the ultimate slam dunk against Christianity.

But is it?

The word testament simply means "agreement," or "covenant." The Old Testament is the covenant God made with men and women about how to be in relationship with Him before Christ came. The New Testament is the new agreement God made with men and women about how to be in a relationship with God after the coming of Christ.

But the New Testament didn't replace the old covenants -- it fulfilled them. The better way to think of them is the first covenant, and then the final, or fulfilled covenant. All along, God's intention was to bring forth the Messiah, the Savior of the world. The very purpose of the old covenant was to prepare the people for the coming, complete covenant that would arrive with the Messiah.

Yet here is the caricature: we have two testaments with two radically different theologies -- even two radically different “gods.” In the Old Testament you get a God of wrath and judgment, but in the New Testament, you get a God of love.

Um, no.

The only way to reach that conclusion would be through a superficial reading of the texts themselves. In truth, there isn't a difference between how the two testaments picture God at all.

For example, there is enormous love and grace and mercy in the Old Testament pictures of God. The first 39 books of the Bible are more marked by God’s incredible restraint, His unbelievable patience, His undying love, than any manifestations of His wrath. 

The truth is that God is a God of love and justice, grace and judgment, mercy and accountability. Together, they form a single picture, for the story of the two testaments is one story. It tells the progressive, unfolding drama of the wild pursuit of God of those He created. From creation through to Abraham, Moses to the prophets, a relentless love was being poured out that was growing, building, revealing itself until it reached its climax in the most radical moment in all of cosmic history:

God Himself shed His glory, assumed human form, and took the place of sacrifice in order to save us. 

So is it “an eye for an eye” or “turn the other cheek”? Understanding the two testaments as a single story, we now know the answer: 

It’s “yes.”

Because it’s a singular story, we interpret the Old Testament in light of its fulfillment in the New Testament.  Jesus Himself said that He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. We all deserve an eye for an eye. We all deserve death for our sins. But Christ on the cross took on the penalty for our sin as a grace-gift to all who would receive it. The Old Testament remains the yardstick, but not the pathway.

So does the law in the Old Testament apply to us today at all? 


The law provides us with a paradigm of timeless ethical, moral and theological principles. It’s just that some laws no longer have validity because they have been completely fulfilled in Christ, such as the sacrificial system.

Here's the principle: all of the Old Testament applies to Christians, but none of it applies apart from its fulfillment in Christ.

We obey the laws of sacrifice by trusting in Christ as our once-for-all sacrifice, not by bringing sheep or goats to be slain each weekend in church.

The kosher laws were designed to set the Israelites apart from the other nations, so we obey this principle when we morally separate ourselves from sin.

And on it goes.

This is why so many misinterpret the “eye for an eye” and “turn the other cheek” passages. The “eye for an eye” passage in Deuteronomy 21 was about whether you could pursue private vendettas, to retaliate when they had been wronged. 

The answer was “no.”

That was for the judges to decide. They were to follow a principle based on an eye for an eye, meaning compensation and restitution in direct proportion to the crime. They were to match the damages inflicted – and no more. You were not to have blood feuds, or private wars.

So “eye for an eye” was just a literary device intended to give the principle for a formula for compensation. 

In the New Testament, we can paraphrase Jesus’ teaching as saying, “You have heard of ‘eye for eye’ – and that’s good – but I tell you to go farther!”

“Don’t retaliate at all!”

“Don’t harbor a spirit of resentment. If someone does you wrong, meet it by doing them something right!”

This was a pattern throughout the teaching of Jesus such as “You have heard not to commit adultery – I tell you, don’t lust in your heart!”

Jesus wanted to take the law and put it in people’s hearts. He wanted to take what was civically established, and have it burn in their souls as an internal compass. So there’s no contradiction – just an expansion, an application, a personalizing of the Kingdom of God in every human heart.

Now, some might say, “Fine. But what about the New Testament stuff that’s a bit sketchy – like headdresses for women – if it’s the fulfillment of the Old Testament, how do you deal with that? Aren’t we right back to cherry-picking what we want to follow?”

Um, again, no.

But we’ll make that part two.

James Emery White



Christopher J.H. Wright, An Eye for An Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today.

Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, An Introduction to Biblical Interpretation.

Henrietta Mears, What the Bible is All About.

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Brauch, The Hard Sayings of the Bible.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.