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