This retaliatory law appears in slightly various meanings and limitations. An eye for an eye, or the “law” of retaliation, is the principle that a person who has injured another person is penalized to a similar degree; or in softer interpretations, the victim receives the value of the injury in compensation.
In the Torah, this law is literal. Similar to the Code of Hammurabi in the Babylonian law code of ancient Mesopotamia, it sets a fixed standard with no room for interpretation.
“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, bruise for bruise”
“Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done back to him”
The retaliatory principle is sometimes referred to using the Latin term ‘lex talionis,’ or the law of talion, a retaliation authorized by law in which the punishment corresponds in kind and degree to the injury. This principle exists until this very day in the legal systems of many countries. Just as we saw in the two verses above, the need for retaliation is perhaps driven by an inherent human urge.
Despite having been replaced with newer modes of legal theory, lex talionis systems served a critical purpose in the development of social systems — the establishment of a body whose purpose was to enact the retaliation and ensure that this was the only punishment. This body was the state in one of its earliest forms. It is surmised that in societies not bound by the rule of law, if a person was hurt, then the injured person (or their relative) would take vengeful retribution on the person who caused the injury. The retribution might be worse than the crime, perhaps even death (Wikipedia).
Here, too, as we see in the ‘mark of Cain’ (see related Hebrew Word of the Day), the law serves also as sanctuary and not only as a punishing instrument.