Retaliation is the first thought in our minds when we think of this phrase. We think of getting back at others for what they’ve done to us. Our society has inserted its own meaning into it as well. But the original meaning and purpose were far from it.
The people of Israel were coming out of 400 years of slavery. They were treated brutally without any human value. After several generations of this, imagine their condition. Consider how they would have treated each other.
In such violent conditions and generations of brutal oppression, their behavior towards each other would not be pleasant. They would become angry, revengeful, and violent towards each other as well.
This law was intended to limit punishment to a value equal to the crime. For example, someone who steals bread should not lose his hand as punishment. The punishment should be equivalent to a loaf of bread rather than something extreme.
“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.” (Exodus 21:23-25)