In Leviticus 24:19-20, Exodus 21:23-24, and Deuteronomy 19:21, there is a system where a person can return an injury for an equal injury from another person, often referenced as “an eye for an eye”. This seems like the opposite of what Jesus said in Matthew 5:38-48 about turning the other cheek and loving your enemy. Did Jesus break the law?
These particular verses are dealing with punishment by a penal system, which required witnesses for the sake of getting justice. These were not for personal grudges, yet at the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were taking these things out of context and allowing people to abuse this for personal disputes via mob justice. In addition, the rules were given to a group of people that lived in a time when violence was used to keep peace in many cultures all over the world, so it wasn’t unique to them. Lastly, before Jesus people didn’t the holy spirit, which is God’s presence on the inside that softens man’s hard-heartedness (Ez 36:27-29), so God had to operate with them differently.
Leaven oftentimes is used as a metaphor for sin because of how fast it spreads, and if sin isn’t dealt with early, it will spread like leaven throughout the whole community. This will cause the nation to be corrupted and end up exiled from the land (which is what happens later under the Assyrian and Babylonian empires). The death penalty functions as a deterrent to an extent, but even with that human sin nature will always come out to test God. God’s mercy allows for the animal sacrifice system to substitute for the death that is deserved for sin. However, when it comes to public sins that are exposed by witnesses, these sins are often punished publicly as an act of justice for victims and their families, and a reminder of God’s holiness and the Israelite’s requirement to be holy in his presence and to keep them from spreading. This is to prevent people from abusing the sacrificial system and God’s mercy, by sinning all over the place and hurting people without a care in the world and making cheap sacrifices at the last minute to cover their debts. This is why Jesus overturned the tables of the Temple (Matt 21:21-13) because auctioneers started cheapening the sacrificial system. Furthermore, Jesus addresses this issue head-on in Matt 5:23-24 by telling to people to apologize to those they have wronged before bringing God their guilt sacrifices. Otherwise, the sacrifice is meaningless if they are not repentant. When someone gets away with sin because there were no witnesses, that can be considered an act of mercy from God, and should be thought of as an opportunity to repent, or else that person may get caught next time.
Victims of wrongdoing are typically going to bear grudges and hold hatred in their hearts for the other person. This goes against the command in Lev 19:18 to not hold grudges but rather love your neighbor as yourself. In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus called this the 2nd greatest commandment, only second to loving God with all our heart, soul, and might. Furthermore, he says following these two commandments will fulfill all the laws. The dealt penalty was one way to alleviate this, and mercy is shown through the sacrificial system by the requirement of death for sin (Rom 6:23). God made other systems of mercy beside the sacrificial system. The two systems related to the context of this discussion were refugee status and eye for eye restitution. The city of refuge system was designed to protect people from those who held grudges (Numbers 35:9-29, Deut 19:1-13). This was for someone that accidentally killed someone else, so they could escape from the victim’s family because even though it was an accident, their hard hearts prevented them from forgiving. The eye for an eye system is built on the foundations of the death penalty for murder (Gen 9:5-6). This allowed someone who was truly wronged to get immediate compensation so that they could move on and be free of grudges. Otherwise, it can turn into family feuds and cause strife between families in future generations, and this division would cause problems for the Israelites as a whole.
It also promoted equal retribution, meaning a person can’t murder someone for simply wounding them, the punishment has to match the crime. In Genesis 4:23 Lamach murders a man for wounding him and this spiraled out of control and lead to the mass violence that cause the flood of Noah’s generation. This is why, in Numbers 35:30-34, God says that murders must be put to death. Like with other death penalty sins it requires more than one witness, but in this case, no one can exchange the murderer’s death for a bribe. In fact, the murderer’s death can’t even be covered by an animal sacrifice. Murder pollutes the land spiritually and the only way to cleanse the land of murder is to execute the murderer. God chose the lesser of two evils (vengeance and compensation) to put up with spiritual darkness until Jesus and the Holy Spirit came with the new covenant which is a more permanent solution.
The holy spirit is a promise of the new covenant which was initialed by Jesus, so he is preparing people for the new covenant. This is the same reason why we don’t have the stone people to death in the new covenant because Jesus died in our place for our sins, and receiving the gospel brings the gift of the holy spirit which helps believers overcome sin. Rejecting the gospel keeps people in the same sinful state where they will not follow God’s way, but at any time, a person can come to Jesus to be born again, so there is no need to end their lives because all people are potential followers of Jesus until they die. Paul started off persecuting and executing Jesus’s followers and then he became one (Acts ch. 9).