The major question is whether compensation is permitted in this law, whether “eye for eye” means that the eye of the offender must be gouged out, or whether he might pay a sum of money and redeem his eye. Some modern scholars tend to believe that a literal, physical enforcement is in view in this law, because it is “early” and “primitive.” This is an evolutionary argument, and is incompatible with the Christian faith that God Himself gave these laws. More to the point is the fact that it is not until Exo. 21: 29-30 that commensurate compensation is mentioned, in the case of a notorious bull’s goring someone to death. Also, to the English reader, Lev. 24:19-20 certainly seems to demand a literal enforcement. W. F. Albright argues that lex talionis is not the least primitive. In ordinary Ancient Oriental jurisprudence, men who belonged to the higher social categories or who were wealthy simply paid fines, otherwise escaping punishment. So the lex talionis is the principle of equal justice for all.
At the same time, Num. 35:31 specifies that no ransom is to be taken for a murder, implying that commensurate compensation might be possible in other cases of lesser harm. Also note that the verb “to give” is used in Exo. 21:23. In the surrounding verses, “to give” (nathan) always is used in connection with money (Exo. 21:19, 22, 30, 32), and in the sense of compensation (v. 30). This contrasts with the verb “to make whole” (shalam), which is used everywhere else in the Ordinances for paying back, and always in Scripture means to restore in kind, or in money exactly equivalent. The preposition meaning “in the place of” is used both in cases of retaliation and in cases of compensation and restitution. In v. 23 we read “life in the place of life,” and we know that no compensation was permitted. This is criminal law, according to modern classifications. In Exo. 22:1, we read, “he shall pay five oxen in the place of an ox,” clearly a case of compensation or restitution. This is civil law according to modern classifications. Literal retaliation is, thus, not required by the formula, but compensation or composition can equally fit its requirements. The formula, then, applies to theft as well as to assault. Since this law of equivalence applies both to the preceding and the following verses, the fact that compensation is not explicitly set out until Exo. 21:29-30 does not rule out compensation in the case of wounds and blemishes.
Also, while Lev. 24:19-20 emphasizes equivalence of punishment, there is no compelling reason to assume that physical blemishing is the only way the law could have been obeyed. Contrary to Albright, paying back in physical terms in all cases does not put the rich and the poor on equal footing. Suppose a singer got angry at a pianist and stabbed him through the hand. Is it equivalent punishment to stab the singer through the hand? Hardly. The equivalent punishment would be to damage the singer’s vocal chords, if the wound to the pianist’s hand were such as to prevent his playing recitals permanently. Thus, to be fair, “hand for hand” would have to be modified conceptually to “means of livelihood for means of livelihood.” This might be seen as substantiated by Deut. 25:11-12: Cutting off the palm seems to mean not chopping off the hand at the wrist, but splitting the hand through the middle fingers, so as to incapacitate the hand. Since the woman has no private parts to be crushed, “eye for eye” means that her hand is to be ruined instead. However, an almost exact correspondence of physical mutilation is prescribed in Deut. 25:11-12. The genitals were not cut off, so the hand is not. The genitals are incapacitated; so is the hand, so that it can never grasp again.
The idea that monetary compensation would favor the rich is a logical error. The same standard of punishment — commensurate compensation – would apply to all; thus there is no favoring of any class in society. Both rich and poor resent having their money taken away. The fact that the poor assailant might have to endure slavery in order to pay his fine, which the rich would not, is a reflection of their previous socio-economic condition. A man’s socio-economic background or condition is irrelevant in considerations of Justice, which views all men equally. If we do not favor the rich, neither may we favor the poor.
All the same, there is no reason to believe that society maintained then, or should maintain now, a schedule of monetary equivalences for bodily parts, so that a hand is worth so much, and an eye so much, etc. The payment is “as the judges determine” (Exo. 21:22), and it is quite likely that the rich man would be made to pay a larger amount than would a poor man.