"ALL TOO OFTEN, Christians try to make a contrast between Christianity and Judaism. When making these comparisons, the goal is usually to show the superiority of "New Testament" Christianity over "Old Testament" Judaism. At times, it gets a bit unfair.
The scripture verse above conjures up brutal images of someone, perhaps even accidentally, knocking out the eye of someone else. The guilty party is hauled into a Jewish court, which orders the guilty party to have his eye knocked out. In point of fact, this commandment, quoted from Deuteronomy 19:21, was a limiting feature on vengeance, basically saying, let the punishment fit the crime.
In many ancient, and even current cultures, it was (and sometimes is) common to have a punishment way out of proportion to the crime. Even in England a few hundred years ago, the penalty for pickpockets was hanging! In many Islamic cultures, the penalty for stealing is to have one's right hand chopped off. The commandment from Torah is actually remarkably liberal. The rabbis took this commandment and made it even more liberal.
The maximum penalty stays as written for its deterrent effect. However, there was always "grace," even in Torah. For instance, the penalty for desecrating the Sabbath was death. However, the number of times that the death penalty was actually applied could be counted with the fingers on one hand.
Likewise, the "eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" was applied very liberally. According to the Mishna, the guilty party was to pay the injured party for 5 different aspects of the injury: damage, pain, healing, loss of time from work, and insult. [The VALUE of an eye for an eye and the VALUE of a tooth for a tooth.]
Even keeping the Biblical command literally, "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," looks outrageously liberal by comparison to penalties imposed by the nations surrounding Israel. The Biblical command was actually putting a limit on the punishment to be meted out."
"An Eye For An Eye" (Continuing Studies in Matthew)
Rick A. Chiamberlin