Loving God and Neighbor


Loving God and Neighbor


Exodus 20:22-23:19

Main Idea: Studying these ordinances helps us glorify God in our everyday lives by the way we honor Him and treat each other.

  1. Concerning Worship (20:22-26)
    1. Principle of simplicity (20:24a, 25b)
    2. Principle of purity (20:26)
    3. Principle of locality (20:24)
    4. Principle of sacrifice (20:24)
  2. Concerning Slaves (21:1-11)
    1. Laws on slaves (21:1-6)
    2. Female slaves (21:7-11)
  3. Concerning Behavior (21:12-32)
    1. Intentional and unintentional homicide laws (21:12-14)
    2. The sanctity of life and the image of God (21:12-17)
    3. Assault on parents, kidnapping, and cursing parents (21:15-17)
    4. Life-threatening injuries (21:18-21)
    5. Permanent injuries (21:22-27)
    6. Injuries associated with animals (21:28-32)
  4. Concerning Restitution (21:33-22:15)
  5. Concerning Holiness (22:16-20)
  6. Concerning Social Justice (22:21-23:9)
    1. Compassion to the foreigner, widow, and fatherless (22:21-24; 23:9)
    2. Compassion for the poor (22:25-27)
    3. Respect for God and leaders (22:28)
    4. Giving offerings (22:29-30)
    5. Consecration (22:31)
    6. Do not pervert justice (23:1-3, 6-8)
    7. Loving enemies (23:4-5)
  7. Concerning Sabbath and Festivals (23:10-19)
  8. We Need a Savior!

135In our slow jog through these chapters, we run into some intriguing passages (e.g., “You must not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk,” 23:19) as well as some contemporary hot topics such as the death penalty, slavery, premarital sex, orphan care, lawsuits, fistfights, property, the poor, loving our enemies, and more.

In Exodus, God formed a people to display His glory. He taught them how to live in community with one another. Before we pass this section off as irrelevant, think about how important this section was for Israel. They needed some guidelines for living.

We can understand this need. Have you ever had a roommate? If so, then you know proximity brings drama, even if you have wonderful roommates. I have had a number of difficult roommates, and with each problem, I insisted on some guidelines. For my snoring friend, Philip, I made him go to sleep after I went to sleep! For my friend Calvin, I asked him not to play rap music at 2:00 a.m.! For Jamie, I demanded that he stop locking me out of the room! With this in mind, you can imagine six hundred thousand men, plus women and children, living together in a desert! They needed some guidelines. They needed instruction to help them not only to get along with each other, but also to learn how to glorify God in their daily lives.

The rules or “ordinances” we find here essentially apply the Ten Words to specific situations. Is there anything more relevant than glorifying God by loving Him and our neighbor? Since all true Christians long to obey the Greatest Command, they should consider these chapters carefully. This section shows us that God is concerned with how we relate to one another in day-to-day life. God calls us to holiness, integrity, mercy, justice, and fairness in the ordinariness of life. We spend most of our days in the ordinary: going to work, seeing neighbors, raising kids, and other seemingly routine affairs. Occasionally, the Christian may attend conferences, go on a vacation, or head out on a mission trip, but these events are the exceptional times of life. How can we glorify God in the ebb and flow of our day-to-day dealings?

“Loving our neighbor” may sound like an abstract idea, but here we see some real-life examples and principles. We will seek to draw out the principles and view them in light of the New Testament’s teaching, just as we did with the Ten Words. Just like the nation of Israel, who sought to apply the Ten Words, we too must learn to apply God’s Word to our situation today.

136This section of Scripture also reveals the character of God to us. One of the most important things we ask when we read the Bible is, What does this text teach me about God? Here we see a just and compassionate God who expects His people to live before Him in humility and with justice and mercy toward others. Perhaps we could hang this verse over this section of Exodus:

Mankind, He has told you what is good

and what it is the Lord requires of you:

to act justly,

to love faithfulness,

and to walk humbly with your God. (Mic 6:8)

We should be careful to avoid two mistakes with this section: (1) throwing these laws out completely, thinking they have nothing to teach us or (2) urging our city to adopt them as they are. We should see both continuity and discontinuity here. We are not a theocracy, so we need to be careful not to make a one-to-one correlation. At the same time, God’s character is revealed in His law, and this makes these laws relevant. We should seek to learn what these laws mean, then make responsible, Christ-centered, new covenant application.

These case laws were written to deal with specific situations. However, even in their specificity, they were never intended to address every possible situation. They were guidelines. Judges would take these case laws and apply them with care. The selected laws were probably stated because of how they related to Israel’s prior situation in Egypt. Israel was exploited in various ways in Egypt, and God did not free them to abuse others, either on a major life/death scale or in ordinary day-to-day matters.

Let us now look at how God expected His people to love Him and their neighbors. To help us jog through the material, I have grouped them in seven parts.

Concerning Worship

Exodus 20:22-26

God’s instructions about building idols (vv. 22-23) reflect the first four of the Ten Commandments. God’s people must worship God alone. Israel failed to obey this word in chapter 32 when they bowed down to a golden calf.

137God then told them how to worship (vv. 24-26). The reference to altars and sacrifices reminds us of the patriarchs who built altars, and points us forward to further instruction to come. God not only wanted Israel to avoid worshiping pagan gods, He also wanted them to avoid worshiping like the pagans. God told them about four particular differences in their worship, all of which apply to us today.

Principle of Simplicity (20:24a, 25b)

God told them to make their altar out of the earth and stone that He created. The Canaanites worshiped idols, and they did so on altars of finished stone. John Mackay says, “An altar made from such costly and aesthetically pleasing stone would be a tribute to human craftsmanship, but it would be defiled from the Lord’s point of view because it distracted attention from him and his goodness” (Ryken, Exodus, 692). Pagan altars were built with costly items and built high to show off. But God told Israel to build it out of earth. He did not want them to be distracted from the heart of worship. If an ornate, costly altar was built, one might be tempted to worship it! The altar was simple—just stones fitted together into a waist high rectangle upon which wood would be laid for cooking meat for the sacrifice.

Nothing in corporate worship services today should be done for show. At the church where I serve as a pastor, we intentionally avoid being gimmicky or ornate. God should be the focus of worship, not a building or even a leader. God delights in the praise of His people, as they gather in simple, modest buildings or as they exalt Him in a mud hut in a third world country. Impressive structures should never capture our hearts and take us away from the object of worship: the triune God.

Principle of Purity (20:26)

Because Canaanite worship was often obscene, God provided instruction for purity. God told His people to avoid going up steps in order to preserve their modesty (men wore robes). Later, God made the priests wear linen undergarments to avoid being exposed. God still expects purity from His people, especially among leaders.

Principle of Locality (20:24)

These verses also teach something important about the location of worship. God said, “I will come to you and bless you in every place138 where I cause My name to be remembered” (v. 24). This meant that Israel did not have to go to Sinai to experience God’s presence. There would be other places to meet God (later, in the tabernacle, then in the temple).

We now understand that through the Holy Spirit, God can be worshiped all over the world. Jesus told the woman at the well that worship was not about a location but about worshiping the living God in spirit and truth (John 4:24). We do not have to make a pilgrimage to a certain place to experience God’s power in worship. We come through Christ (our new temple) by the Spirit to meet with God. Whether we are offering corporate worship or dealing with a case of discipline, God is with us.

Principle of Sacrifice (20:24)

The most important thing about the altar was what happened on the altar. The altar was the place for making sacrifice for sin. The burnt offering was an offering of atonement for sin (Lev 1). A perfect animal was placed on an altar, and it was consumed with fire, with the smoke rising to heaven.

The second type of offering was a fellowship or peace offering (Lev 3). It also dealt with sin but had a different emphasis. These offerings were given on special occasions to give thanks to God, and they symbolized the fellowship one had with God. In recognition of God’s reconciliation with people, the offering was not consumed with fire. So they ate the animal in the presence of God. (By contrast, the burnt offering was burnt to ashes.)

Even after the giving of the law, God knew that His people would need forgiveness. Of course, these sacrifices pointed to the once-andfor-all sacrifice of Jesus, who paid the penalty for our sin by being slaughtered. His sacrifice pleased God, and now we can be reconciled to God (Rom 3:25). In fact, the author of Hebrews referred to Jesus as our “altar” (Heb 13:10). He was the burnt offering that made sacrifice for our sin and the fellowship offering that reconciles us to God.

Therefore, when it comes to worship, the most important thing we do is remember Jesus. Apart from Him, we cannot worship and know God. The only sacrifice that now remains is the sacrifice of our very lives (Rom 12:1-2; Heb 13:15-16).

Concerning Slaves


Exodus 21:1-11

Laws on Slaves (21:1-6)

We should note first that this is not “slavery” like we think about in American history. Most people ran small family businesses, and their “slaves” were more like simple workers or employees in the business who lived at the master’s place. They were basically “contract workers.” Further, other variables made this situation different from American slavery. During the time of Moses, it was voluntary (people hired themselves into service of others, often because of debt). They worked hard in exchange for room, board, and an honest wage. Involuntary slavery was forbidden in this very section of Scripture (see 21:16). This type of service was also temporary. The slave worked for six years and then went free. Hebrew slaves were given a Sabbatical. Further, they did not leave empty-handed (see Deut 15:12-15). This form of service was also civil. The master could not abuse the slave (see Exod 21:26-27). Receiving slaves could even be seen as benevolent if the master intentionally sought to get the slave out of debt. It also was neither oppressive nor racially based. Israel just came out of slavery and God did not free them in order for them to oppress others.

A final difference of this form of service is that it preserved the sanctity of the family. American slavery often separated families, but not this system. We read, “If he arrives alone, he is to leave alone; if he arrives with a wife, his wife is to leave with him” (Exod 21:3). But if the master gave a slave a wife, in an arranged marriage situation, then the husband might have to “leave alone” (21:4). This seems unfair at first glance. But remember a few things. The female slave committed to a contract for six years of labor. She could not just up and leave if she got married before her term expired. The husband could do one of the three things: (1) wait; (2) get a good job and purchase the freedom of his wife and kids; or (3) commit himself to work permanently for the master (vv. 5-6). In the last case, the husband-slave was brought before God and a sharp object went through his ear at the doorpost (symbolizing covenant and the permanent commitment).

This piercing of the ear at the doorpost illustrates a beautiful picture of service. David might have had this in mind in Psalm 40:6 when140 he said, “In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear” (ESV). Worship without a lifelong commitment to obedience is no worship at all. David said that God desires lifelong, loving obedience to Him. We too have bound ourselves to Christ, our Master—a kind, generous, sacrificial Master—who actually became a slave Himself (Phil 2:5-11); to Him we should gladly say, “Because I adore You, I am Yours forever.”

Female Slaves (21:7-11)

After first glance, this sounds harsh. Why did God allow men to sell their daughters to service of another? We do not know all the details here, but it seems that the father was not trying to get rid of her but trying to improve her prospects for marriage (arranged marriages were common). A poor man could send his daughter to a rich home in hopes that she would be part of that family. She could also be designated for the master’s son (v. 9).

The lady received protection in three ways: (1) If it did not work out, the family could ransom her. She could not be sold to foreigners. (1) If she became engaged to one of the sons, she was treated as a daughter. She would have full rights as a free citizen. (3) If the engagement ended, the man had the duty of providing food, clothing, and marital rights. God loves His daughters and wanted them treated lovingly and fairly. God still cares for ladies physically and emotionally and expects men to defend them and treat them lovingly and justly!

Concerning Behavior

Exodus 21:12-32

As we move through this section, we see laws on injuries to people and animals. The underlying principle is that the punishment should fit the crime.

Intentional and Unintentional Homicide Laws (21:12-14)

The first and third scenario (vv. 12, 14) deal with murder and the consequence: capital punishment; the middle one (v. 13) addresses an accidental homicide and the response to it: protection of the guilty in a city of refuge. The middle scenario could be a case in which you accidently ran over someone with a wagon, hit someone with a tool, or killed an 141ally in battle. This distinction made Israel different from other cultures of the day, which did not consider intent. The covenant law anticipated the cities of refuge that would be spread throughout Israel to protect the offender from an avenger (Num 35:9-15). No such refuge existed for those who planned to murder (“willfully”). They could not run to the altar, as in some societies, for protection. There was no place one could run to escape from the consequence of such sin.

The Sanctity of Life and the Image of God (21:12-17)

Many modern readers of the biblical laws have a hard time with capital punishment mentioned here in these chapters. The specific crimes calling for it include murder, kidnapping, physical or verbal assaults on one’s parents, sorcery, bestiality, and idolatry (21:12-17; 22:18-20). It appears extremely harsh to some. But we must not forget what belief this action was based on: the value of human life, the honor of family, and the purity of worship. Concerning the value of human life, Alexander says,

The death penalty was invoked, not out of indifference for human life, but rather because each human life is of tremendous value (cf. Gen 9:6). A life for life does not express vengefulness, but rather the idea that the only payment that can be made for taking human life is a human life itself. (Paradise, 216)

God established this principle before these laws in Exodus: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, his blood will be shed by man, for God made man in His image” (Gen 9:6). Whatever you believe about the death penalty, at least grab this principle: people matter to God. They bear His image.

This law was distinctive to Israel because of this principle. In some cultures, breaking and entering, stealing, or looting at a fire brought the death penalty! Some considered a crime related to possessions as more serious than a crime against a human being. In the Code of Hammurabi, if one committed murder he could pay it back with money alone (Alexander, Paradise, 184). God, however, placed a distinction here on the various objects of creation. Nothing is more valuable than human life. Further, God’s law gave safeguards to protect the innocent (cf. 23:7). In Deuteronomy 17:6-7 we read where one could not be142 executed on the basis of a single witness. To carry out this serious penalty it had to be administered justly.

A perfectly just process in a fallen world will never exist; therefore, there will be times to oppose the death penalty, even if you agree with the principle of it. What we should not oppose is a severe punishment for those who do not honor the image of God.

Assault on Parents, Kidnapping, and Cursing Parents (21:15-17)

Notice the gravity of honoring one’s parents. The verses describe ways of “attacking” one’s parents. They help to explain the meaning of “honor your father and mother.” The assault envisioned in verse 15 does not have a minor slap in view, but a serious attack—with the intent to kill, perhaps. It is a “beat down” (Stuart, Exodus, 487).

Probably what is envisioned in verse 17 is not a one-time fit of rage that leads a child to disrespect their parents, but a total repudiation of their authority and failure to care for them. Jesus understood this law and challenged the Pharisees, who were trying to sidestep caring for their parents by hiding behind religious tradition (Matt 15:3-6). The bottom line is, if you speak against your parents—or worse, strike them—you are guilty of a great sin against God. Honor them and care for them, even if the situation is not ideal.

In verse 16 the verb “kidnaps” is the same as “steal” in the eighth commandment. If a person stole another person and sold him, or if a person was in possession of a stolen person, then the death penalty was required (1 Tim 1:10). Kidnappers were to be put to death immediately. Again, in the Code of Hammurabi (around 1772 bc), the prohibition against kidnapping applied only to the upper class. Common people could be kidnapped without it being viewed as a crime (Ryken, Exodus, 712). But Israel was different. Because people are made in the image of God, they could not be treated in such a way.

Is this a problem today? Yes! Kidnapping people and trafficking them as slaves is the second largest, fastest growing international crime today. Some estimate that we have about 27 million slaves in the world today. “Nearly 2 million children are exploited in commercial sex industry” (www.ijm.org). We need people to rise up to defend the enslaved and defenseless. Recently, a team from our church spent an entire day praying for justice at the International Justice Mission Global Prayer Gathering. We went to rooms that represented particular injustices in places like Uganda, Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines. After143 hearing from field officers about the abuse of widows, land grabbing, corrupt police, the cries of orphans, taking of bribes, girls sold in brothels, and more heart-breaking cases, we prayed and learned what the church might do to respond to these awful situations. Let us seek justice for those in need, as Isaiah said: “Learn to do what is good. Seek justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause” (Isa 1:17).

Life-Threatening Injuries (21:18-21)

In verses 18-19 we see an example of a situation in which the judges would make their decisions regarding a fight. If a man got in a brawl with another man but the loser did not die, then the winner of the fight had to pay for the loss of time and see that the loser was healed. Again, we see the punishment fitting the crime. God did not say, “Put the man to death.”

In verses 20-21 we see that the master did have the right to physically punish his slave, but he was not permitted to seriously injure or kill the slave. If he did, he could be tried as a murderer.

Permanent Injuries (21:22-27)

In regard to verse 22, Stuart says, “This verse contains some wording that is without parallel elsewhere in the Old Testament and thus challenging to translate” (Exodus, 491). Assuming the HCSB or ESV translation is correct, this verse implies that there was a penalty for hitting a pregnant woman, even if she was not injured. The situation seems to be a case in which the lady was an innocent bystander of a fight and got struck in the process. The law considered both the mother and the child. Notice that the fetus was treated as a person (“life for life”).

Verses 23-25 show that if someone was severely injured or killed, the punishment should fit the crime. Here we are introduced to the Bible’s lex talionis, the laws of retaliation: “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” etc. At first this sounds barbaric, but it was actually an advance in justice compared to other Near Eastern codes. Alexander writes,

In the earliest known collection of laws, monetary fines were imposed in cases of assault and bodily injury. The weakness of such fines was that they failed to take into account an individual’s ability to pay. (For an unemployed laborer, a fine of a thousand pounds imposes great hardship; to a millionaire144 it is a mere trifle.) The law of talion removes all such discrepancies by ensuring that the punishment should be no less, or no more, than the crime demands. (Paradise, 215-16)

These laws did not allow the rich to buy their way out of criminal penalties, which continues to be a problem around the world. The powerful have often been able to buy escape from justice.

We should also keep in mind that, other than the case of the death penalty, the lex talionis was not necessarily applied literally. In verses 18-19 a wounded person received the cost of medical expenses and lost wages instead of wounding the guilty person in return.

In the next scenario (vv. 26-27), a slave who lost his eye was to be released. Nothing is said of the master losing his eye! Stuart says,

Instead, expressions like “eye for eye” were understood idiomatically to mean “a penalty that hurts the person who ruined someone else’s eye as much as he would be hurt if his own eye were actually ruined also.” The precise penalty was left up to the judges by talion law; it might involve anything from banishment to loss of property (and/or property rights) to punitive confinement to special financial penalties to corporal punishment to public humiliation, or to any combination of these. (Exodus, 493-94)

In other words, the goal was for justice to be served. Favoritism was unacceptable.

Jesus referred to the lex talionis in Matthew 5:38-42, in which He said to “turn the other cheek.” But Jesus’ point was different. These laws in Exodus provided guidelines for judges in assessing damages. Jesus’ teaching was more about guidelines for ordinary relationships. Christians should seek to imitate God’s own generosity and mercy in personal relationships, as Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount.

At the cross, Jesus cried out, “Father, forgive them,” as they crucified Him. Peter said, “[W]hen He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He was suffering, He did not threaten but entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly” (1 Pet 2:23). The heart of the Christian must be a heart of mercy, not retaliation. Paul said, “And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ” (Eph 4:32).

Yes, there are times for appealing to the authorities for just consequences, and we need the civil authorities to carry out justice, but we145 who have experienced mercy through the cross should be willing to suffer in order to show mercy in our relationships.

Finally, verses 26-27 do not allow a master to abuse a slave. If he did, he lost his ownership immediately. Once again Moses underlined the principle of mercy and fairness.

Injuries Associated with Animals (21:28-32)

Because virtually everyone farmed in the ancient world, laws had to be put in place regarding animals. If it was written in our day, it might include laws related to automobiles. If an ox killed a man, the ox was to be killed. Once again we see the value of human life. Moses explained that if the animal had a history of violence and the owner did not properly monitor it, and if the animal killed a person, then the owner was guilty of negligent homicide. If called for, a ransom could be paid. The same applied if the victim was a child.

If the victim was a slave, it was different because of the social structure (v. 32). Perhaps the slave was working closer to the animal by command of the master. If he was struck, the owner was to pay the master thirty shekels.

Concerning Restitution

Exodus 21:33-22:15

Now we move to the loss of animals and property. These ordinances show us what would happen if someone “got ripped off”—basic property laws. The offender was to make restitution. The required amount was related to the nature of the crime. The amount was normally multiples of the value of the loss.

Notice a “jail sentence” is never mentioned. Offenders had to deal face to face with the offended; they had to generously compensate the victim.

Irresponsible action, like not covering a pit or not controlling one’s wild ox, is dealt with in 21:33-36. Theft was addressed in the first four verses of chapter 22. Notice, like modern laws, there was a distinction in breaking and entering at nighttime versus the daytime. Verses 5-6 involve cases of negligence that led to the loss of someone’s property. Verses 7-13 deal with giving someone property for safekeeping, but having that trust breached (there were no banks in those days). Verses 14-15 deal with borrowed property.

146In each of these cases, the laws appear sensible. You had to respect one another’s property. Again, these laws were wonderful gifts because they showed people how to live in community, loving their neighbors as themselves. The laws also helped to solve disputes. Further, by demanding more than the value of the item, it deterred possible criminals. It also protected life—the life of the thief. As mentioned, in other cultures the authorities killed thieves. But God’s law placed primacy on life, not possessions. And the punishment fit the crime. If the thief could not pay off his debt, he was forced to work it off until the victim got what he deserved.

How do these property laws relate to us? Let me ask you, can you think of a biblical character that went from a thief to a generous slave after experiencing salvation in Christ—who went to make things right with others? A wee little man comes to my mind: Zacchaeus. After encountering Christ, he said, “‘Look, I’ll give half of my possessions to the poor, Lord! And if I have extorted anything from anyone, I’ll pay back four times as much!’” (Luke 19:8). He wanted to give to those in need and return four-fold what he owed others. Why? Because the gospel changes us—it creates in us a new heart of love for God and neighbor. The gospel creates not just a heart to make things right with others that we have offended, but to go beyond—to lovingly serve and to generously give.

Concerning Holiness

Exodus 22:16-20

Verses 16-17 relate to premarital sex and to the seventh commandment. The details seem to focus on mutual consent, not rape. If it had been rape, the penalty would have been death (Deut 22:25-27). The man here “seduces” the lady to have sex. The text shows us that anyone who committed this sin violated the purity of ladies, showing blatant disregard for their worth.

Here the man had the responsibility to provide for the lady, both through marrying the woman (unless the father utterly refused) and by paying her father (Deut 22:28-29). So the consequence of premarital sex was huge! These verses show us two important concepts: (1) the value of the lady (you could not run around and have sex with anyone without facing consequences) and (2) the family’s involvement in marriage.

147Do you see how much God values purity? Today we live in a sexsaturated culture. Reportedly, more money is spent on pornography than on pro baseball, football, and basketball. More are exposed to pornography than ever before. Premarital sex and cohabitation are commonplace. People think little about modesty.

God still calls His people to a life of holiness and purity. Now we have great power with the Holy Spirit to live out this calling (see 1 Cor 6:18-20; 1 Thess 4:3-5).

In verses 18-20 Moses broadly surveyed capital crimes. God called Israel to be holy and worship Him alone; therefore, these rules carried the ultimate consequence. Each of the three cases mentioned made Israel unclean. Further, they involved the reasons God was about to judge the nations in Canaan (Lev 20:22-26). This seems too severe, but in one sense it was gracious. Anyone engaged in these activities was turning from the real God, hence God graciously warned them; and anyone engaged in them was also leading others astray.

Concerning Social Justice

Exodus 22:21-23:9

As most commentators suggest (e.g., Alexander, Paradise, 184), there are three reasons these verses form a new section with a different emphasis: (1) The section is framed by verses related to the treatment of foreigners (22:21; 23:9). Alexander also notes that the material is presented in a form more like the Ten Commandments than those in the previous section. (2) There are no penalties enforced from a human court (the only statement of a penalty is from God who says He will “kill you with the sword” [v. 24], which may refer to Israel’s enemies being used as means of judgment). (3) The subject matter differs. It encourages a caring attitude toward the vulnerable and disadvantaged. God’s people are called not just to obey the laws, but to care for those in need.

Compassion to the Foreigner, Widow, and Fatherless (22:21-24; 23:9)

The call to care for foreigners was rooted in this idea: “you were foreigners in the land of Egypt” (22:21; 23:9). God called Israel to show the same type of care they received from Him.

148This principle of caring for strangers also applies to internationals that flood our city, either for school, for work, or as refugees. Let us be quick to welcome them, as Christ has welcomed us.

We also read, “You must not mistreat any widow or fatherless child” (22:22). Taking advantage of the weak continues to be a huge problem today. The text adds that if anyone mistreats the widow and fatherless, God will “kill [them] with the sword” and make their wives “widows” and children “fatherless” (v. 24). God expected His people to care for those in need. Widows and orphans were in great need in that society. They were alone and had a hard time surviving.

God expects us to care for those in need because He cared for us when we were in desperate need. When you were fatherless, He adopted you; when you were a widow, He became your groom; when you were a stranger to His grace, He welcomed you. Those who know such love should be the very ones showing it to this broken world. Notice also that it said God would “hear their cry” (v. 23). God hears the cry of the desperate.

I have written on this subject elsewhere (see Orphanology in “Works Cited”), and I do not have time or space to say everything that could be said here. The Old Testament and New Testament consistently give attention to these weaker groups (Exod 22:21-22; Deut 10:18; 14:28-29; 24:17-22; 27:19; Pss 10:14, 16-18; 68:5-6; 82:3-4; 146:9; Isa 1:17-18; Zech 7:10; 1 Tim 5:3-16; Jas 1:27). Tim Keller points out this biblical emphasis:

When people ask me, “How do you want to be introduced?” I usually propose they say, “This is Tim Keller, minister of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.” Of course, I am many other things, but that is the main thing I spend my time doing in public life. Realize, then, how significant it is that the Biblical writers introduce God as a “father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Psalm 68:4-5). This is one of the main things he does in the world. He identifies with the powerless, he takes up their cause. (Generous Justice, 6)

Remember that God calls us to imitate Him (Eph 5:1). One important way we can do this is by caring for the vulnerable.

Compassion for the Poor (22:25-27)

Borrowing and lending are not forbidden in verse 25. God simply forbids exploiting the poor with exorbitant interest. Other verses in the 149Pentateuch show that God told His people not to charge excessive interest to any other Israelite, not just the poor (Deut 23:19-20). Once again, this was a command to show mercy and compassion.

The law addressed the properties people might put up for collateral for loans (vv. 26-27). God made a distinction between a poor person and the non-poor. Some of the poor might have to give “the shirt off their back.” If they had to pledge an item essential for survival to obtain a loan, then they were to be exempt from the requirement of putting up a surety, or were at least permitted to have it returned to them at night. God provided amazing detail here, especially for the sake of the poor. Why did He do this? We read, “And if he cries out to Me, I will listen because I am compassionate” (v. 27). Again, we are to imitate God by showing compassion to the poor. Jesus referred to this and other ideas found in these case laws in Luke 6:27-36. He said that even those who do not know God love those who love them; so be different! Love your enemies. Give without expecting a return. Granted, there may be times that it is more merciful not to give to someone in need if you are supporting a lifestyle that is not pleasing to God; but there are times simply to give a gift. In short, “Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

Respect for God and Leaders (22:28)

Ancient people understood the power of the tongue, perhaps more than those who live in a country with “free speech.” They took the Proverb seriously, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue” (18:21). One daily way that you live out a just life, with compassion and integrity, is by watching what you say about God and others, especially leaders. In the New Testament, Paul and Peter both echoed the call to respect those in leadership (Acts 23:5; Rom 13:1-7; 1 Tim 2:1-2; 1 Pet 3:13-17). Paul also spoke of the calling of Christians to respect those in leadership in the church as well (1 Thess 5:12-13).

Giving Offerings (22:29-30)

A love for God means that we give Him those things that belong to Him, including our gifts and offerings. Israelites may have been tempted to withhold these things, like people today, but such an act would not please God. “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7). We also find another reference here to the consecration of the firstborn son, as explained in Exodus 13.

Consecration (22:31)


This prohibition from eating flesh that was torn by beasts in the field probably was due to it being considered ritually unclean as well as it being unhealthy. God still wants pervasive holiness from His people (Mark 7:20-23).

Do Not Pervert Justice (23:1-3, 6-8)

These laws expanded on the ninth commandment. They spoke against “following the crowd” if that meant you had to pervert justice. Notice how verses 3 and 6 cover both temptations: to side with the rich or to side with the poor. Verse 3 says not to be partial to the poor in a lawsuit, and verse 6 says not to pervert justice against the poor in a lawsuit. Verses 7-8 tell us that God expected justice, not partiality, and forbade taking bribes (which are a worldwide problem today).

Loving Enemies (23:4-5)

These verses show us that loving our neighbor includes our enemies. Instructions are given here for helping your neighbor, not just being civil. This makes us think of Jesus’ instruction to love those who hate you (Luke 6).

Concerning Sabbath and Festivals

Exodus 23:10-19

As the “covenant scroll” continues, we come to laws regarding the Sabbath and three specific festivals. Concerning the Sabbath, the law said it should be a day in which all rest—including the animals, the slaves, and the foreigners (v. 12). Not only this, on the seventh year the people were also to rest from sowing and gathering so that the poor might benefit from the land (vv. 10-11). God then reminded the people to “Pay strict attention to everything I have said to you. You must not invoke the names of other gods; they must not be heard on your lips” (v. 13). God is not interested in partial or half-hearted obedience.

To commemorate what God had done, He established three feasts. First, the Festival of Unleavened Bread was established to celebrate Israel’s liberation (vv. 14-17). Second, the Festival of Harvest would celebrate God’s provision for His people. Third, the Festival of Ingathering, 151which is also the Festival of Booths or the Festival of Tabernacles, would celebrate God’s salvation.

The blood of the sacrifices was not to be offered with leaven, which represented sin (v. 18). Thus, getting rid of the leaven represented getting rid of sin. Also, the firstfruits were to be used during the feasts (v. 19). The first and best of one’s harvest was given to God. God still deserves our best, not our leftovers. These feasts point us to God’s salvation. They ultimately point us to Christ. Ryken says,

The three major Old Testament feasts were rich in their teaching about salvation. Jesus Christ is the Savior God always planned to send; so already in the Old Testament he gave his people experiences that would help them (and us) understand the meaning of their salvation. Jesus is the source of our sanctification, the firstfruits of our resurrection, the Lord of the harvest, the water of life, and the sacrifice for our sin. This is the gospel according to Moses, as recorded in Exodus 23. (Exodus, 761)

The end of verse 19 is odd (cf. 34:26; Deut 14:21). It may be a word against the creative order: do not take that which is source of life and use it as a source of death. But I think it probably forbids this act because such a practice occurred in magical arts and fertility religions. God’s people were to trust their Creator and Redeemer to make a flock strong. Even though surrounding countries practiced pagan rituals, Israel had to abstain. They were to glorify God alone for the giving of life and strength and health.

We Need a Savior!

In the exposition on the Ten Words, we noted that the law drives us to Jesus, and Jesus empowers us for obedience. If these laws demonstrate ways in which Israel was to live out the Decalogue, then we can make the same application again. We cannot keep God’s law. But there is One who lived the life we could not live and died the death we should have died. Jesus obeyed for us and died in place of lawbreakers.

Because Jesus saves sinners and gives us His Spirit, we can now glorify Him in our ordinary, daily lives in each of these seven ways (in a new covenant sense). Concerning worship, because of Jesus, we can now worship Him in spirit and truth anywhere around the world (John 4:24).152 Concerning the workplace, all of our work is to be done as an act of worship to the Lord (Col 3:22-25). Concerning behavior, God’s people should demonstrate an ethic that is characterized by integrity and sacrificial love (Rom 12:9-21). Concerning restitution, we should seek to make all things right and be generous since Jesus has changed our selfish hearts. Concerning holiness, because God has given us His Spirit, let us bear the fruit of the Spirit and not gratify the desires of the flesh (Gal 5:16-26). Concerning social justice, we should desire to care for those who are weak and vulnerable because God cared for us when we were the orphan, the widow, the foreigner, and the poor. Concerning Sabbath and Festivals, we should remember God’s grace by worshiping Him, obeying His Word, resting in His promises, and enjoying the Lord’s Supper. This supper points us back to the Passover, to our Lord’s death, and then forward to the new kingdom to come. There, in that kingdom, we will finally know what it is to live in a perfectly loving and just society. There, the lion will lie down with the lamb. There, peace and righteousness will dwell (2 Pet 3:13).

May God grant His fresh strength through the Spirit to love Him more passionately and love neighbor justly and compassionately.

Reflect and Discuss

  1. What are some bad experiences you have had with roommates? What rules, if enacted and obeyed, might have prevented those problems?
  2. Why should we not expect to enact all of these biblical ordinances in the country where we live? What value do the ordinances have with regard to civil laws?
  3. How do we balance the principle of simplicity with the idea of giving our best to God? Compare honoring God by building a simple chapel or a magnificent cathedral.
  4. How was Israelite servitude different from slavery, especially Western racial slavery? What aspects of these ordinances demonstrated grace and benevolence? How is the gospel even more gracious?
  5. How should the fact that humans are created in the image of God influence civil legislation?
  6. How would you respond to someone who said that Israel’s laws and ordinances were based on earlier Near Eastern law codes? How were Israel’s laws better than the others?
  7. 153What would be a strictly literal enforcement of the lex talionis, the law of retaliation? Why would such an interpretation be impractical, unfair, and unenforceable? When is mercy appropriate?
  8. Was the call to holiness specific to Israel, or does it have application to church bylaws and civil ordinances?
  9. Who are the weak, disadvantaged, powerless, and vulnerable people today? How can we help them?
  10. How are the three Festivals—Unleavened Bread, Harvest, and Booths—fulfilled in the work of Christ? How do all these laws point out our need for a Savior?