1. What could be more natural in our relationships with others than the principle of retaliation? In its finest sense, this concept is understood to mean "If you are nice to me, then I will be nice to you;" or "If you'll scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." It is the very essence of what has come to be known as The Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
2. Of course, the principle of retaliation also has a darker side. It is expressed most simply in the contemporary context as "What goes around comes around." When a person is wronged by another, it is fully expected that he or she will "get back" at the offender, especially when the offense is considered to be arbitrary, uncalled for, or particularly vicious. In such cases the retaliation is seen as understandable -- even necessary -- and is referred to as "justice."
3. Primitive communities sometimes lived in virtual states of escalating retaliation wherein the settling of each score led to yet another response from one's adversary or his family and friends. These "blood feuds" or "vendettas" could become the central point of reference for generations of descendants. In some cases entire families were wiped out long after the origin of the feud was forgotten. The societal development of entire civilizations could be retarded -- if not paralyzed -- by the cruel prevalence of the rule of personal vengeance.
a. According to our history books the earliest attempt by a civilization to limit retaliation to that which is "just" was established under Hammurabi, who ruled Babylon from B.C. 2285 - 2242. Part of "Hammurabi's Code" is called in Latin lex talionis -- the law of "tit for tat" or quid pro quo.
(1) Lex talionis specified the maximum punishment allowable. It was, in fact, a merciful law, at least in the context of the barbaric nature of primitive civilizations.
(2) It is still in effect in some Middle Eastern countries
b. The same law was given by God to His nation Israel, and it contains the same "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" specific references found in Hammurabi's Code.
(1) Leviticus 24:19-20 [ NKVJ ]
If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him -- fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him.
(2) ref: Exodus 21:23-24
(3) "The original intent was to restrict unlimited revenge: it was understood as [only] eye for eye and [only] tooth for a tooth. Further, it was never intended as an excuse for individual retaliation; it belonged in the law court and was allowed by a judge." - Robert H Mounce: Matthew ( Volume 1, New International Biblical Commentary )
ref: Leviticus 19:18 [ NIV ]
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
(4) William Barclay reminds us that lex talionis was rarely carried out literally, and soon gave way to the award of financial damages in the place of exact retribution. There were five counts of liability in such cases.