We do not have too many OT passages telling us that the death penalty in particular and these ‘eye for eye’ penalties in general were carried out. And it seems monetary compensation may have been a more usual way to proceed, and not tit for tat corporal punishment.
Most folks have heard of the phrase under question, and one need not know Latin to understand that it refers to the law of retaliation. It involves the principle of retributive justice in which the punishment of the criminal should match or correspond to his crime.
While I here deal with this in the context of the Bible, other cultures besides ancient Israel ran with it. It was a basic principle of ancient Babylonian law as well as Roman law for example. In the Old Testament we have at least three clear passages on this:
-Exodus 21:22-25 When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 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.
-Leviticus 24:17-22 Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.
-Deuteronomy 19:21 Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Here I can only give a few short remarks about all this. First, commentators are divided as to how literally one was to have taken the words about “fracture for fracture” and so on. Some, like Kenneth Mathews, argue that we should not take this literally:
Verses 17-22 establish two important principles governing the community’s policy of capital punishment. First, there was a difference between the murder of a human being and the killing of an animal. Although the killing of an animal was important, the killing of a human being was far more egregious….
The second principle to be followed regarding the death sentence was just as important. It must be practiced with evenhanded justice by matching the severity of the punishment with the severity of the crime. When the Bible calls for “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (v. 20; cf. Exodus 21:23-27), the passage is not to be taken literally. It is not calling for the maiming of a person. Rather, it removes personal vendettas (Leviticus 19:18), which inevitably escalate into excessive acts of revenge. The Law was actually designed to restrict the extent and severity of the penalty. “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19; cf. Deuteronomy 32:35). It was calling for impartial judges to an equitable penalty that fit the crime, the principle of law known as lex talionis, a Latin phrase meaning “law of retaliation.”
As other commentators have noted, while today we might be able to cleanly and surgically remove a person’s eye or tooth, if it was attempted back then it could have resulted in more than a removed body part – it could have resulted in the person’s death.
Thus something equivalent but not exact may have been used as the punishment, as the tit for tat punishment might have too easily violated the principle of proportionality and fair recompense.