Looking at my Zondervan’s Exhaustive NIV Concordance, I find three places in the Bible’s Old Testament that refer to an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth. I want to address third because it can be relevant today.
The first two are what people reference when they argue that religions are inherently harmful. I won’t answer that question. Those passages are about retribution for injuries caused by one person on another. They’re pretty graphic to drive home the point. For example, in the Common English Bible, Exodus 22:23-25 refers to a “burn for a burn.” Its Leviticus 24:19-20 mentions “broken bone for broken bone.”
The third use of the phrase “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” is in Deuteronomy 19:16-21. This verse is in a different context, as it addresses false accusations. I can argue that it applies to modern times. Not the harsh penalties described, but rather that false testimony is a very serious offense. However, currently, officials with power can be rewarded for false testimony without fear of any reprisal or penalty.
In the Common English Bible, the passage is “Now if a spiteful witness comes forward against someone, so as to testify against them falsely, the two persons who have a legal suit must stand before the Lord, before the priests, and before the judges that are in office at that time. The judges will look into the situation very carefully. If it turns out that the witness is a liar–that the witness has given false testimony against his fellow Israelite–then you must do to him what he had planned to do to his fellow Israelite. Remove such evil from your community! The rest of the people will hear about this and be afraid. Show no mercy on this point: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
The King James Version in its classic style reads “If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong; Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days; And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you. And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you. And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
Although, the described remedy for the false witness is much too harsh for modern times, what is the sentiment and who can it apply to?
In the United States criminal justice system, the incentives for the police, district attorneys and prosecutors are heavily weighted toward getting a conviction not toward finding the truth. The prosecutor can have an incentive to withhold exonerating evidence from the accused to not “lose” a case. The district attorney may use animus against a person, group of people or race when they decide who to prosecute. The police officer can be rewarded by their number of arrests not the more difficult-to-measure goal of making the community safer. Bad cops are willing and at times successful when they plant drugs on a person to arrest and convict them.
The incentives are so skewed so that even if a conviction is proven to be false, some state governments are required to protect the conviction and prosecutor but not the falsely accused. If a false conviction is made, there very few consequences for the powerful and limited venues for revealing the truth for the weak.
The gist of this version of an “eye for an eye,” is that falsely accusing someone is a serious offense. If the reason for the false accusation is animus and prejudice, all the more reason to take action against the accuser, especially if they occupy an elevated position of power and responsibility.
In addition, the exhortation “look into the situation very carefully” should allow the situation to be repaired after a trial is over. The justice system should be rebalanced to diligently find justice and the truth, not get and save convictions.
Deuteronomy 19:16-21 indicates that it is important that a false accuser be held responsible. By describing harsh penalties, it strongly emphasizes that point. Legislation toward that aspiration for the criminal justice system is worthy of consideration.