Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Lex Talionis

The Old Testament has many passages that I, inspired as I am by humanism, have difficulti in reconciling with the concept of a loving God. However, it has always bothered me when critics use the 'eye for an eye' principle, prescribed by God in the book of Exodus, as an example of the vengefulness of God.

Exodus 21,23-25, which reads: "But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise," (NIV) is all about proportionality, not vengeance.

I was therefore quite pleased when I came across this passage by Professor Schabas:

"It is surely a general principle of criminal law that penalties must be proportionate to the crime. This was expressed in ancient times by the maxim 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth', or lex talionis, a concept that more recently is understood (or rather misunderstood) as one of retributive justice."*

*W. Schabas, "International law and the death penalty: reflecting or promoting change?", in Capital Punishment: Strategies for Abolition (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 45.


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