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What is the law of retribution?

The law of retribution, also known as the law of retaliation or lex talionis, is the principle of direct reciprocal justice expressed in the phrase "an eye for an eye" found in Exodus 21:23–25 and Deuteronomy 19:21. The purpose of this law was actually to restrict the response to the crime so that it was proportional to the offence. So the phrase might be better rendered "only an eye for an eye." This law prevented the victim or the judicial courts from exacting disproportional revenge on the perpetrator.

Deuteronomy 19:19–20 explains the purpose of the law of retribution as removing the danger from society and as deterring other potential criminals. "So you shall purge the evil from your midst. And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you." Furthermore, God commanded His people, "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). Therefore, rather than being a harsh call for barbaric revenge, this law of retribution was actually a law meant to restrict the extent of the punishment and put an end to feuds and vendettas.

Psalm 119 declares that God's laws are good (verse 39), righteous (verse 75), and right (verse 137). They bring delight (verse 35), hope (verse 43), and comfort (verse 52) to those who follow them. In fact, verse 165 says, "Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble." When the concept of retributive justice is understood in the context of preventing feuds and vendettas, it is easy to see how this law is good and brings peace to societies that follow it.

In Matthew 5:38–42, Jesus calls His followers to an even higher standard of how to treat wrongdoers. He said, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you." Those who follow Jesus are to approach situations where they may be tempted to hold a grudge or seek revenge with a generous and forgiving spirit. This forgiveness and generosity reflect the mercy and grace God has extended through Jesus' work on the cross.

Paul succinctly told the Colossians, "As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive" (Colossians 3:13). Throughout the Bible we see that God is "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin" (Exodus 34:6–7). So this call for restraint, mercy, and grace is consistent with God's character.

However, God is also just. Deuteronomy 32:4 says, "The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he." God set up governments and courts to maintain justice and order in societies. Romans 13:1 and 4 say, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God… For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer." In that context, the law of retribution where reasonable punishment in proportion to the crime is administered by the appropriate authority in order to protect society from danger and prevent future crimes is still a wise law.

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