An Eye for an Eye or Turn the Other Cheek?

If anyone injures his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. (Leviticus 24:19-20)

“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. (Matthew 5:38-39)

It is probably the most famous "contradiction" in the Bible, and one that I have been asked about on several occasions. It also touches on one of the most important issues of life - how do we react when someone does us wrong?

So which is it? Turn the other cheek or an eye for an eye? And if it is one why does the bible contradict itself by also mentioning the other?

As with so many matters of biblical interpretation it is very important to understand the context. If the context of these two passages were the same it would indeed be a profound contradiction. But they are not the same and so we are not comparing apples with apples but apples with oranges.

In the Leviticus passage the context is social justice. God is giving the people the laws of the land which they are to live by and which the courts and judges among them are to apply. The principle of "an eye for an eye" is a very important one here. It basically means this: Justice should be just! The punishment should fit the crime. Most people have inbuilt sense of justice and understand the moral outrage when a vicious criminal who has inflicted callous hurt to his victims is allowed to walk out of the courtroom with a smirk on his face. Equally we know the pain we feel when we hear of travesties of justice where people are imprisoned or executed by the courts of the land for "crimes" that are trivial or in most people's view no crimes at all!

This sense of justice comes from God. He feels the same.

He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord. (Proverbs 17:15)

Strong words! And ones that illustrate how important the issue of justice is the the Lord. He is after all the Judge of all men. He is the one who will ultimately settle all scores, right all wrongs, issue recompense or punishment where it is due and give to all men according to their deeds. It is God's heart that his heavenly standard of justice be represented in the earth. That kings and rulers, courts and officials execute their duties without corruption or bias.

However when Jesus is talking about turning the other cheek the context is different. He is not speaking about making just laws for the land but about interpersonal relationships. Specifically he is dealing with the issue of how we should react when we are wronged, hurt, upset or in any other way aggrieved by someone we are in any form of relationship with.

When we are wronged or hurt unfairly by someone it is very easy to feel a "righteous anger" about the injustice of it all. Our natural inclination is to take matters into our own hands; to treat the other person in the same manner as they have treated us (or worse!). However, as the bible points out, a man's anger when he has been wronged is very rarely righteous!

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19-20)

Jesus is saying that we should not try to be the source of our own justice. Just as it is wrong for a lynch mob to try to enforce their own interpretation of the law of the land and the justice that is due, it is wrong for us to try to enforce the justice we feel we are due in our relationships with others. It's not for us to try to bring them to account. Instead we should trust in the justice that God himself will provide.

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)

Another common reaction when we are wronged or hurt is to put up our defences. We may not actively seek retribution but we avoid, ignore and generally go out of our way to not be anywhere near the person who has hurt us. Whether we acknowledge it or not we are thinking, "I'll never let them make me feel that way again."

This is the powerful impact of Jesus' words to turn the other cheek. Because he is not just telling us not to seek retribution on the ones who have hurt us. He is telling us not to raise our defences too! Don't shun them. Don't cut them out. Don't ignore them or blank them. Stay vulnerable. Stay open. Stay in touch. Continue to show them love and kindness even if it means they have the opportunity to hurt you again!


I'm not saying it's easy. I'm certainly not claiming that I've got it all right. To be honest I struggle in these areas too. But I do believe this is the standard that God wants us to live by. Lord, by your grace enable us to do so. Amen.