Following sixteen hours of deliberation in the penalty phase of the Boston Bomber trial, the jury unanimously called for the execution of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. For the U.S. government, the verdict represented a major victory in the biggest terrorism prosecution since 9/11. But for some of the victims, the application of the death penalty is a matter of simple justice. Bombing victim Sydney Corcoran who nearly bled to death and whose mother lost both legs is reported to have said: “Now he will go away and we will be able to move on…’an eye for an eye.’”
While many may sympathize with Corcoran’s emotions, no educated Jew can agree with his Biblical analysis.
That the Bible includes the well-known passage “an eye for an eye” is true (Exodus 21:24). But there is absolutely no such record in the Bible or Talmud that any such punishment was ever applied. That is because it is evident, from a comparison with other Biblical passages, that the meaning was never assumed to be physical mutilation. The stipulated punishment of the owner of a habitually violent ox that gored a human being to death is death (Exodus 21:29). But the owner is permitted to redeem himself through monetary payment. According to the verse in the Book of Numbers (35:31), monetary payment for damages applies to all cases except for murder. So in the case of causing another to lose an eye – or for any other civil tort – we must deduce that monetary payment was the rule. Thus the Talmud insists with good cause that “an eye for an eye” – what scholars call lex talionis, the law of retaliation – was never intended to be taken literally. Hence, adducing this phrase as evidence of Biblical barbarity only reveals an absence of familiarity with text.
Moreover, were the words “an eye for eye” actually intended to mean retaliatory mutilation, it would result in terrible injustices. Consider the case of a felonious blind man who puts out the eyes of an innocent victim. According to the interpretation that the guilty must lose his eyes as a penalty, this criminal would go unpunished since he has no functioning eyes to blind. It is only when “an eye for an eye” is read to mean compensatory punishment that the law can apply fairly. Likewise, if a childless man rapes another man’s daughter nothing could be done to him in retaliation since he has no daughter for the authorities to rape (assuming they were intent on carrying out such a penalty).
Capital punishment in Judaism remains an unresolved issue. A case can be made for or against and based on authoritative sources. But insisting that the execution of criminals is soundly supported by the Biblical “eye for an eye” is a terrible misunderstanding of the text.