If a malicious witness rises up against a man to testify against him of wrongdoing, then both the men who have the dispute shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who will be [in office] in those days. The judges shall investigate thoroughly, and if the witness is a false witness [and] he has testified against his brother falsely, then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you. The rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you. Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Jesus quoted the last bit of this passage to a crowd. He told them that they had heard that it was said eye for eye, tooth for tooth, but that He said something different (Matthew 5:38-43). I have often heard that passage in Matthew taught in the context of not seeking vengeance or trying to get your own back. But the context of the phrase in Deuteronomy seems to put Jesus’ statement in a different light.
The full context of the old eye for eye, tooth for tooth thing is that the justice system of the time was to administer the punishment that would have fallen on the falsely accused on his accuser. That is to say that a person accusing his neighbor of theft would have the punishment for the alleged theft leveled at him if the charge was false. Since the punishment for theft was often a repayment with some serious interest — up to seven times the value of the original item stolen — a person falsely accusing his neighbor of theft would have a lot to think about before making the accusation. I suspect that the modern justice system would look very different if a similar law were in force. The passage says The rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you. And there is good reason to believe that it is true. Once word got out that suing your neighbor could result in you paying the proposed damages if the suit was frivolous, there would be some serious thought going into whether or not to sue someone. I have heard that the modern British courts have a law similar to this on the books and that the results are as described. I have not researched the topic, though. Perhaps I should.
As I reflect on this, I think that the application for me is not in the jurisprudence of the thing, but in the spirit of it. Of what am I accusing people? Not necessarily in courts — I have only ever been to court as a potential juror and as a mock attorney —but in conversation. Have I accused people of wrongdoing in my conversation? If yes, then I had better make sure that what I have said is true. And, in future, I had best be certain that anything I plan to say is true — especially as pertains to leveling accusations. It may seem a draconian requirement, but the alternative is to potentially destroy a person’s reputation … possibly my own.
Father, thank You that You act in mercy if only I ask for it. Thank You for this reminder that words are dangerous things. Please bridle my tongue and teach me to speak the truth in love.