The eye,  lamp of the body

The ancient Hebrew’s concept of the eye was not quite like ours. To those of us who understand the biological operation of the eye, it is primarily a light receptor, but, to the Hebrews it played a more active role. By enlightening the nature of the world around them, it changed an individual’s reaction to their circumstances and hence directly impacted their surroundings.

The role of the eye in cognition is recognized in passages such as Gen 3:7, where Adam and Eve only realise the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit once their eyes are opened. Hence the eye often “represents the total process of perception and understanding” (Opperwall 2002, 249) and most biblical references to it portray it as an organ of judgement, typically with the subject of its gaze being either good or bad in the eyes of the beholder (e.g. Job 14:3, Josh 22:33; 2 Kgs 14:3).

The Hebrews also portrayed the eye as a source of illumination (Ps 38:10, Pr 15:30), it cast light on things (Pr 23:5), and was likened to a truth revealing lamp (Pr 20:20, cf 2 Sam 22:28-29), a function recalled in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:22-3). In 2 Enoch, which dates from between 30 B.C.E. and 70 C. E., Enoch likens the Lord’s eyes to the greatest of sources of light: “I have seen the Lord’s eyes, shining like the sun’s rays” (2 En 39 [Charles]). Whilst, in the imagery of John’s Revelation, Jesus is portrayed, standing amidst lamp stands, with eyes that are likewise flaming sources of light (Rev 1:14)

Such an understanding, of eyes as a source of light, was not limited to Israelite culture. For example, amongst the Egyptian pantheon, the eyes of the sky deity Horus, were considered to be the sun and moon (Morenz & Keep 1992, 262). A similar description is found on the third century B.C.E. Stela of Somtutefnakht (Lichtheim 1973a, 41), which extols Harsaphes: “Whose right eye is the sun-disk, Whose left eye is the moon” (Lichtheim 1973, 42). The Hebrew’s God, as ultimate truth revealer, is said to give light to the eyes (Pr 29:13) especially through His word (Ps 19:8), hence king David’s request that God light up his eyes so that his enemies would not prevail (Ps 13:3)

The relative state of the eyes was linked to physical wellbeing (Opperwall 2002, 249). For example, the Bible when Jonathan’s fatigued body was refreshed with honey, it is recorded that his eyes became bright (1 Sam 14:29). It follows, from the idea that a soundly functioning eye gave out light, that an eye that was struggling to make out detail was considered dim (Gen 27:1, 48:10; Job 17:7) and eyes that could not see were said to be darkened (Ps 69:23). Other examples are found at Deut. 28:65; Job 17:7; Ps 6:7, 38:10; Lam 5:17.

Amongst the Israelites in the days of Judah, Joshua or Jeremiah, the eye was an active agent, giving out rather than taking in, hence the Mishnah could refer to the outlet vent of an oven as its eye (m. Kelim 8:7 A). As the eye also gave out water (tears), the Hebrew word for eye (עַיִן = ayin) is also used of a spring (cf. Job 14:3 with Exod 15:27). The active role of the eye is also reflected in references to it bestowing pity (Deut 7:16; Ezek 5:11) or favour (Deut 24:1; 1 Sam 20:3; Jer 24:6), casting a person down (Ps 17:11), mocking (Pr 30:17), winnowing evil (Pr 20:8), and administering support (2 Chr 16:9). As an active organ it could therefore grow weak (Ps 6:7)

The Hebrew way of understanding the eye rather neatly explains some actions which might otherwise seem a little odd. For example, God does not hide offenders from his eyes, but hides his eyes from them, to graciously stop his eyes revealing their sin (Isa 1:15 ESV, cf. Job 14:3).

Possibly because the eye was so intimately related to the function of judgement, the peoples of the ancient Near-East would often put out the eyes of rebellious vassal leaders, to ensure that they could never hold a place of authority again. For more on this practice see the background on Matt 5:29-30.