THE LAWS OF GOD
Exodus 21:1-23:33, Key Verse: 23:13
“Be careful to do everything I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips.”
In today’s passage we read more detailed and specific laws for the newly formed nation of Israel, including penalties for breaking those laws. We can see them as an application of the Ten Commandments within a specific context. These laws have exerted a great influence throughout history, an influence that can still be seen in the laws we have today. We may not be able to apply these laws directly to ourselves today; but when we meditate on them, we can come to understand God’s heart of justice and mercy that is behind them. Let’s pray for that heart understanding today. The message is divided into five (short) parts.
I. Servanthood and freedom (21:1-11)
The first set of laws given may be the most controversial, because they are about servitude. However, we first need to understand that these laws are not about the condition that we would call slavery. In fact, the Israelites were forbidden to enslave their fellow Hebrews, as you can read in Leviticus 25. But if an Israelite became too poor to support him- or herself, there was the possibility that they could sell themselves into a condition of servitude. As Chapter 21 verse 1 says, this was not meant to be permanent servitude. “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything.” This shows a fundamental respect for peoples’ freedom, within the constraints of a society where there was no other kind of social safety net. No one had a right to demand lifetime service from someone else.
There are also rules here about what should happen if family aspects came into the situation. If the servant married someone from the master’s family, and maybe also had children with them, it didn’t mean he could just run off with them when the six years were up. So he had better think about that before marrying. But if he was really sure and he loved his master and his new family, God provided a ritual in which the servant could publicly declare his commitment to the master’s family, saying, “I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,” and then his ear would be pierced as a sign. This shows us the hope than in God, love relationships can develop that transcend the human condition.
What about women servants? Verse 7 says, “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do.” Our first response to this might be, “What? That’s not fair!” But the actual purpose of this is to protect women in a society where women were given much less opportunity to make their own way independently. What this rule practically means, as the following verses show, is that the master is expected to take responsibility for the female servant’s well-being. If he does not want her anymore, he has to let her be redeemed out of servitude; he can’t just sell her off. If she marries his son, he has to give her the full rights of a daughter. If he is really not willing to provide for her, he must be a pretty faithless guy; but in that case he is to let her go with no strings attached. Here we can easily see God’s compassion for women in the conditions of those times. Despite the difference in context, these laws still teach us about the preciousness of any human being, and God’s goal for all relationships to be based on love.
II. Crimes against people (21:12-36)
In the next section, we see laws about actual crimes and the punishments for them. Why do crimes need to be punished, anyway? It’s because all crimes take away something that is valuable, and appropriate punishment teaches sinful people that value system, preserving it in society.
Of course, the most valuable thing on earth is a human life, and so in the case of intentional murder, the death penalty is prescribed. I don’t want to get into a debate about whether the death penalty is just for our society today. There are sincere people on both sides of that issue. But taking the life of the murderer is a way to acknowledge the value of the victim’s life.
If someone causes another’s death accidentally, of course that’s different. In those cases, the one who caused the death would have to flee to a place known as a “city of refuge”, of which several were designated within the borders of Israel. This was to protect the person from any revenge that the killed person’s family might try to take.
The death penalty was also prescribed for kidnapping, and for assaulting or even just cursing one’s parents. This shows that the command “honor your father and mother” is a very serious one. M. Gideon’s message last week told us the relationship with one’s parents is a reflection of the relationship with God. So keeping the honor in that relationship is fundamental for being a holy nation.
Next, there are laws about fights that result in injury but not death. If the injuries were not serious, the guilty person would still have to pay the injured for the loss of time that they were unable to work. If a pregnant woman is accidentally hit as a result of a fight—maybe a fight over who was the father?—and the baby was born prematurely but otherwise there was no serious injury, the woman’s husband could demand a fine to be paid. People were also to be held responsible for death and injury caused by their animals or by construction activities such as digging a hole.
I think the most difficult thing in this entire passage is the laws relating to injuries to slaves. Verses 20-21 and 26-27 imply that Israelite people would own actual slaves, presumably people from the nations they would conquer in taking over Canaan. These laws do provide some form of rights for slaves, since there was punishment prescribed for killing a slave, and if someone permanently injured a slave, they had to let them go free. But it’s clearly not the same standard as for a free person. Verse 21 even says, “they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.”
I’m very uncomfortable with how this talks about a human being as property. What can we say to the fact that this is in the Bible? Well, we can point out that this passage does not say that slavery is good, it simply states the fact that in that society, slaves were property. And realistically, a law that forbade slavery outright would been too difficult for the people of that time to follow. Jesus even said that Moses gave some laws, such as the laws of divorce, because the people’s hearts were hard. In other words, these were laws given to people who had fallen very far in sin from God’s original intention. You can see God’s original intention in Genesis Chapter 1, where it says that God created human beings, male and female, in his own image. Clearly, someone created in the image of God cannot be considered property. Moses was not able with the Law to fully restore fallen humanity. To do that, we needed Jesus. It took Jesus to reveal God’s full law of love, which doesn’t make any distinction between race or nationality or gender.
In the meantime, it was good for the new nation of Israel to have laws that planted a sense of value and responsibility through proportional punishment. Verses 23-25 say, “But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” Jesus also had to clarify the intention of this saying, because sinful people tend to twist its meaning to justify taking personal revenge. That’s not what it’s about at all. In the context, this verse is about having laws in society that impose a fair and proportional penalty for crimes. When it comes to people who hurt us personally, Jesus said, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” (Mt 5:39-40) When people take revenge into their own hands, it only escalates in a vicious cycle until the world is filled with violence. In contrast, having a society where proportionate punishment is given by the rule of law actually helps break the cycle of revenge. As for us individually, if we have faith, we can trust God to handle all the repayment that we may be owed, so we are free to focus on doing good works for him.
III. Protection of Property (22:1-15)
The first half of Chapter 22 can be seen as an application of the commandment “You shall not steal,” and it’s extended to the various kinds of responsibility we have for others’ property. In this part, a key vocabulary word is “restitution”, which means restoration of something to its owner or repayment for a loss.
If someone stole an animal and slaughtered it, they would have to pay back four or five times what they stole. If the stolen animal was found alive, they would only have to pay back double. Why does the thief have to pay back more than what they stole? I guess it’s obvious, but stealing is not just a kind of “renting without permission.” When someone steals from someone else, they are violating the fundamental covenant between people in society to respect others’ property. Also, practically speaking, society has to try to make sure that criminal enterprises are not profitable. What if a thief had nothing they could give to make restitution? That’s a case where someone would be sold into servitude.
If someone does something irresponsible that causes damage to others’ property, like setting a fire, they also have to make restitution. If someone is taking care of someone else’s property and it’s destroyed or stolen, the person taking care of it is responsible, unless they can prove they were not at fault.
We also read that there is a regulation about self-defense against burglars. If someone broke into your house in the middle of the night, and you killed them in self-defense, you were not held liable, but you can’t kill someone in broad daylight just because they are carrying off your stuff. Maybe the most important thing we can learn in this section is that material possessions are not as valuable as human life.
IV. Mercy and justice for others (22:16-23:19)
The laws in the next section are somewhat miscellaneous, but many of them share a common theme of being responsible to treat others with justice and mercy—of being our brother’s and sister’s keeper.
First, it says that sleeping with someone is not meant to be separated from the responsibility of marriage. It also teaches that one of the quickest ways to bring God’s wrath and anger down on ourselves is by taking advantage of the helpless. That includes widows and orphans. One of the main ways greedy people have always taken advantage of the needy is by giving them loans with predatory terms. Verses 26-27 say: “If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it by sunset, because that cloak is the only covering your neighbor has. What else can they sleep in? When they cry out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.” God’s compassion is the motive force of everything he does. Thank God for this reminder of his nature of compassion.
We also have a responsibility for keeping right relationships with those above us. That includes how we speak both about God and about human leaders. And it includes giving offerings generously to God and God’s work. As we know, the Israelites were also called to dedicate their firstborn sons to God, redeeming them with a sacrifice, so they would remember the price God paid to bring them out of slavery in Egypt.
God is the God of justice and truth. How can we become people of justice and truth? Chapter 23 says how, in some applications of the ninth commandment, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Chapter 23 verse 1 says “Do not spread false reports.” This shows us that the commandment to not give false testimony includes not participating in malicious gossip. Also, to keep truth and justice, we have to avoid the temptation to follow the crowd’s opinions. For judges in court, it’s always a temptation to rule in favor of the rich, because the rich can “scratch their back” later, so to speak. Taking bribes is strictly forbidden. But it’s also important for judges not to show favoritism to someone just because they are poor. Another group that can often be exploited more easily is foreigners. God tells his people to remember how it felt when they were foreigners in Egypt.
Our obligations to our neighbor are not just negative, to avoid hurting them; we also have a positive obligation to help them when they need it. Look at Chapter 23 verses 4 and 5. “If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. 5 If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it.” Does that mean that we only have to help our enemies and people who hate us, so if someone we like is in trouble, we don’t need to help them? If we don’t help them, they might hate us after that! Of course, this is just a memorable way of teaching us that we should not discriminate but help anyone who needs it, as Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Mt 5:44-45) None of us have oxen or donkeys, as far as I know, but applications for us might be returning a lost wallet or phone that we find, or letting someone use our phone to make an emergency call.
The section has a reminder of the command to do no work on the Sabbath, with an additional law stating that fields where crops are sown should be given a “Sabbath year” every seventh year to lie unplowed and unused. I imagine this would be very good for the soil and the broader environment, just like the air quality in many cities improved this year when business was reduced due to COVID. It’s also another way of providing for the poor, as the poor could get food from whatever grew naturally that year.
Finally, to end this section of laws, God gave Israel three national holidays to celebrate each year: The Festival of Unleavened Bread, to commemorate the Exodus; the Festival of Harvest, to celebrate the beginning of harvest time and its firstfruits; and the Festival of Ingathering, when all the crops were brought in. All three were meant to be reminders of God’s goodness in saving and providing for his people. The people of Israel could show their thankful hearts to God by attending the festival and bringing offerings from the best of their produce.
All the laws we’ve read about human relations can be summarized under the great commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Thank God for showing us many practical ways to work this out. A good summary is the key verse, Chapter 23 verse 13, which says: “Be careful to do everything I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips.” Though we are not justified by works of the law, and we know that no sinner can keep them all, meditating on God’s holy standard can only be good for us, especially if it spurs us on to more deeds of love for our neighbor.
V. God’s desire to bless (23:14-33)
After giving them so many detailed laws and directions, God reciprocated by telling Israel some details of how he would fulfill his remaining promises to them—how he would give them the promised land of Canaan. In verse 20 the Lord says, “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.” There is some difference of opinion on exactly who this angel is, whether it is an angel of the traditional definition, or a human leader who serves as God’s messenger, or possibly the pre-incarnate Christ. Regardless, the angel is the representative of God’s authority. It’s how God assured his people that he would provide the power to drive out all the powerful nations that were already inhabiting Canaan. The Israelites just needed to listen to the angel God sent.
God also explained that he would drive out the nations of Canaan, not all at once but little by little, so the land would not become desolate. I feel that often God gives us victory over our sinful nature also in a gradual way, so that sometimes we don’t even notice how much God has changed us over time to set us free from our fears and sinful habits. I hope every believer can say that they live more victoriously now than they did five years ago.
Verses 25 and 26 say, “Worship the Lord your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, 26 and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span.” God wanted to give his people a blessed life in the promised land, where they had enough food and their children were healthy and they lived full life spans. Living according to God’s law would make this a reality. God has already told Israel about the spiritual blessings he wants to give them of being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Maybe most of the people Israel were not spiritually mature enough at this point to grasp all that. Nonetheless, God wanted them to be assured that when they worshiped God alone and did not bow down before the gods of the nations, their lives would be really good. God’s laws are indeed the foundation of peace and health and long life, not to mention all the spiritual blessings.
Thank God for his good desire for us. As I was thinking about how to summarize the intention of all these laws, the verse James 1:27 came to mind. It says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Let’s pray to practice God’s justice and compassion for our neighbor. Let’s keep ourselves from falling into the idolatry of the world. And let’s believe that God’s power in Christ goes ahead of us to prepare the way for the works he has for us to do.