But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life,
eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
Moses was instituting a mediating principle for Israel where the previous experience of the nation lacked fundamental societal laws. This was meant to be a PRINCIPLE that mitigated excess violence. How strange that today it might be used to justify violence. The following two paragraphs condensed from an article at bible.org, shed light on WHY God would bring this principle out to Israel in the desert of Sinai.
Blood revenge had been the previous experience of the patriarchs to this point. Imagine for a moment a situation where you lived in a place with no police force, no courts, no local, state, or federal government – no king or other authority ruling over you or the people around you. There is no authority to report any crime to – to seek justice. If someone you cared about was hurt or killed, vengeful feelings would have no legal restriction. You would probably want to take the matter into your own hands and seek retribution, maybe even to the point of blood revenge. Perhaps you would try to impose the same type of injury on the attacker that he imposed. Maybe you would even want to punish him in greater degree than his offense. After you take revenge, the attacker’s family may feel that they have been mistreated and may want to respond, setting up a cycle of retaliation and revenge between you and them – blood feuds were common in the Old Testament. Genesis 34 records an actual incident like this between Jacob’s family and the family of Shechem. After Jacob’s daughter Dinah is abused, Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, seek revenge by first deceiving Shechem’s family into getting men circumcised, and then they take the retaliatory action of killing all the males. Of course, it is clear from later in Genesis 49:5-7 that God did not approve of this action.
So the institution of the lex talionis (an eye for an eye) into the Mosaic law for Israel and the ruling authorities was actually quite an advancement for justice designed to prevent arbitrary retaliation and revenge. The injured person or relative of the injured person could go to the governing judicial authority in Israel to seek justice. These verses were to instruct the judge in a matter of this kind with guidance for handling a verdict on the matter. The punishment must fit the crime to the tee: no more than the crime but also no less. It was strict yet fair. It was also designed to prevent and deter such crimes. It successfully removed punitive actions for crimes from the hands of the victim and his family and put them into the hands of the governing judicial system, which was supposed to be a fair third party. This was proportional justice that appropriately punished the offender.