Blind and Toothless?

Speaker's Chaplain the Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin

Speaker’s Chaplain the Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin – quoted ‘Blind and Toothless’.

Deuteronomy 19:21 And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

By Stephen Green

In an episode of Sunday Morning Live (on 17th July 2016), the broadcaster Nagalakshmi Munchetty Chendriam was discussing the Nice atrocity of three days earlier. Her guests were Aurelien Mondon, lecturer in French and Comparative Politics at the University of Bath, Julie Siddiqi, who converted to Islam, dresses in Muslim clothes and is involved with Hope not Hate’, journalist Peter Taylor, who has written both on the Troubles of Northern Ireland and on Al Qaeda and Islamist extremism, and the Speaker’s Chaplain, the Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin.


Naga Munchetty wanted to know if the events of Nice ‘unite us or divide us’. That question was never answered, with all the panel wanting to be nice and positive and ignoring the inherent propensity for violence in Islam.

M. Mondon deplored French politicians talking of ‘waging war’ on terrorism, in which he has a point, but probably not the one he was making. It is inappropriate language not because it will divide us and upset Muslims but because a real war is waged to gain territory, not ideology. ‘War on terrorism’ should be a like sentiment as ‘war on drugs’, except that as there are people here about to kill us, we assume our government is going to kill them first when such language is used. It won’t. It can’t.

Mr Taylor said France’s participation in the anti-IS coalition and its ban on the Hijab made it a valid IS target, whilst Julie Siddiqi had to bring up the murder of Jo Cox and deplore ‘hatred dividing us’.

Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin responded to a suggestion that political leaders were using inflammatory language to speak against retaliation. She encouraged leaders to ‘take a step back’. She thought it was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said ‘this eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth – we’ll all end up blind and toothless.’

That set me thinking. Did he say that, if so in what context, and was it true?


As it happens, His Grace did not say it, although if he had, it would have been in the context of his position in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. With multiple grudges abounding in that land, it could have made sense.

In Bishop Tutu’s absence, the person responsible appears to have been Mahatma Gandhi, although there is another candidate, the fictitious Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. Here is the quote as attributed to Ghandi: ‘If one applies an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, the world will soon be blind and toothless.’

And here is the exchange in the musical:

FIRST MAN: ‘We should defend ourselves. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’

TEVYE: ‘Very good. And that way, the whole world will be blind and toothless.’


‘The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind,’ wrote Martin Luther King, Jr., echoing them both. ‘It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert.’  (As quoted in “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece: Practical Wisdom for Living an Exceptional Life” by Michael Lynberg, 2001, Andrews McMeel Publishing, page 94.)

In 1950 Louis Fischer used the saying while explaining the Hindu concept of ‘Satyagraha’, or non-violent resistance.
‘Satyagraha is peaceful. If words fail to convince the adversary perhaps purity, humility, and honesty will. The opponent must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy,’ weaned, not crushed; converted, not annihilated.
‘Satyagraha is the exact opposite of the policy of an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye which ends in making everybody blind.

‘You cannot inject new ideas into a man’s head by chopping it off; neither will you infuse a new spirit into his heart by piercing it with a dagger.’ (1950, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer, Chapter 11: Gandhi Goes to Jail, Page 77, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper))


All those quoted misunderstand the purpose of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.

It is not there to humiliate or crush anyone. Equally it is not an overt tool of evangelism. It is a judicial penalty cum remedy based on the Biblical principle of restorative justice. The Biblical command does the very opposite of what Ghandi and Tevye claim. It does not widen or amplify the original offence. Instead it limits the response to an injury.

When parties take matters into their own hands, trouble escalates. But when parties come to court and the judges give an appropriate ruling, the violence calms down.

Many of us in the summer have been in a water fight. It starts with water pistols. Then someone throws a cup of water at somebody else. Before long buckets of water are flying. There is a human tendency to retaliate and give a bit more for good measure.

More seriously, let us propose that a member of one family knocks out the tooth of a man from another in a fight. He is set upon by members of the second family and his leg is broken. The first family seek revenge and a member of the second family dies. The second family plot a massacre of the first. In a matter of weeks, it is all-out war which may last for generations.  And that happened just because the limiting ‘tooth for a tooth’ was not there. ‘An eye for an eye’ does not make everyone go blind. God’s justice prevents everyone going blind. It stops the incessant Montagues versus Capulets feuding which wreaks such havoc and pain in Romeo and Juliet and in real life as well.


It would be remiss not to cite our Lord’s mention of eyes and teeth in the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 5:38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

This is a personal injunction to ‘resist not evil’. It does not strike down the ancient judicial remedies which the Lord himself wrote as a member of the Godhead. Nor does it abolish God’s principle of restorative justice. All it says is ‘Don’t retaliate.’ The theologian Walter Wink went further.  He argued Jesus is urging us to use the system against itself. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, he has given you a back-hander, in a right-handed society. He has treated you as an inferior. By turning the other cheek, you are inviting him to treat you as an equal. More could be said on this subject, but it would be a digression.


Let us also mention that before we speak of ‘an eye for an eye’ we have to admit to the preceding: ‘life shall go for life’. That injunction is part of the whole principle of restorative justice in the verse.  It is similarly present to maintain law and order.

In the United States, the absence of life going for life when unarmed mainly black men have been unlawfully killed by mainly white police officers has done exactly what I say it would do. Those men who thought they could take a life at will have gone unpunished. As a result, a man named Micah Johnson took matters into his own hands in July 2016 and killed five police officers in Dallas. Days later, another man, Gavin Long, murdered three officers in Baton Rouge. Such an escalation simply does not happen when Biblical justice is being applied.


Another point to make is that under ‘an eye for an eye’ etc, people were not blinded or their teeth knocked out. What if a blind man blinded another? The law must be equitable. So money changed hands instead. In the case of offences against the person lower than homicide, the penalty was invariably commuted to a financial one. In Bible times, an eye’s worth would be paid. We can see a requirement to restore an adversary to health from this scripture:

Exodus 21:18 And if men strive together, and one smite another with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keepeth his bed: 19 If he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed.


Contrary to the popular belief that Biblical justice is blood-thirsty and full of retribution, there is actually an emphasis on restoration, on putting things right.  That  tendency to mercy is missing in our system today. Society as a whole suffers when these elements are absent.

If a ransom could be paid instead of an eye or tooth or foot forfeited, how far would that go? Deuteronomy 24:1-4 indicates that an adulteress could remarry, and yet the law says she should be put to death. So a ransom could be paid for adultery as well. Even where there was accidental loss of life, a ransom could be paid. The example the Bible gives is where a known rogue ox has killed a neighbour:

Exodus 21:29 But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death. 30 If there be laid on him a sum of money, then he shall give for the ransom of his life whatsoever is laid upon him.


We are seeing that a ransom could be paid for offences in general. There was no routine stoning and putting out of eyes in Bible times, although those maximum penalties surely acted as a deterrent. Having said all that, there was and is one and only one crime the penalty for which can never be ransomed for money. That is homicide:

Numbers 35:31 Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death. 32 And ye shall take no satisfaction for him that is fled to the city of his refuge, that he should come again to dwell in the land, until the death of the priest. 33 So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.

The word above assumes that the penalty for crimes can in every other case be ransomed or satisfied with money. Excluding murder and manslaughter specifically makes no sense otherwise. The penalty for murder was death. ‘Life shall go for life’. But the penalty for manslaughter was a term effectively of house arrest. The perpetrator had to remain in the city of refuge until the high priest died. The Talmud argues that the death of the high priest formed an atonement for the innocent life. If so, that forms yet another prophetic word looking to the atoning sacrifice of our great High Priest, the Lord Jesus himself.


Yet again we see the wisdom of the law of the King of kings. ‘A life for a life’ may not prevent terrorist acts by those whose mission in life is to die for Allah. But an ‘eye for and eye and a tooth for tooth’ will not send the whole world blind and toothless, it will prevent it.

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