VI. The Divine Covenant (Exodus 20:22–24:18)


VI. The Divine Covenant (20:22–24:18)

20:22-23 The people had heard God speak to them; they saw and heard a display of his glory (20:22). So the Lord commanded them not to make gods . . . to rival him (20:23). No gods of their own creation, of course, could rival what they had just witnessed (though they would soon forget this; see 32:1-35).

20:24-26 The one true God deserves appropriate worship. So the people were to make altars for sacrifices to deal with their impurity and sin. The altars were to be made of earth or uncut stones (20:24-25)—natural materials that were untouched by human hands and that reflected God’s holy handiwork alone. There were also not to be steps leading to the altar, in order to avoid any chance of them witnessing any indecent exposure in a time predating underclothes (20:26).

21:1 The next three chapters provide various laws and ordinances that were specific applications of the more general Ten Commandments. They showed Israel examples of how the commandments were to function and would provide a framework for resolving problems and disputes in the nation.

21:2-11 An Israelite, for instance, might sell himself into slavery—that is, indentured servitude—for various reasons, such as paying off debt or surviving financial calamity. He would serve a period of six years and then go free, unless he elected to stay in permanent servitude out of love for his master and family (21:2-5). Since slaves were in a vulnerable position, provisions were made to ensure their proper treatment, especially in cases involving female slaves (21:7-11).

21:12-14 The laws dealing with personal injury (21:12-36) begin with the most serious of injuries—homicide (21:12-14). The death penalty was prescribed for intentional homicide only. In the event of unintentional homicide, the person could flee to an appointed place (21:12, 14)—what would become known as a “city of refuge.” Someone guilty of involuntary manslaughter, then, could go to one of these sanctuary cities for protection from those who would seek retribution (see Num 35:9-34; Deut 4:41-43; 19:1-13; Josh 20:1-9). But there was no refuge or sanctuary for someone guilty of premeditated murder.

21:15-17 Should parents exercise their authority legitimately, they were to be respected and honored. Physical or verbal abuse against one’s parents was a capital crime (21:15, 17). Kidnapping was also a capital offense (21:16). Human trafficking of any kind was not to be tolerated.

21:18-19 Personal injuries not resulting in death still required compensation to the injured party.

21:20-27 Owners had the right to punish slaves, but such measures were not to involve violence. If a slave was struck and died, the owner was to be punished (21:20). Permanent physical harm to the slave resulted in his or her freedom and loss of the owner’s investment (21:26-27). Such laws limiting a slave owner’s power and respecting the rights of slaves were unprecedented and unique to Israel in the ancient Near East.

Compensation was mandatory for accidentally causing a premature birth, even if no injury resulted (21:22). Clearly, then, an unborn infant is considered a person with basic rights. Negligence resulting in injury or death to an unborn baby incurred consequences.

The stipulation in 21:23-24 is commonly referred to by the Latin expression lex talionis, the “law of retaliation.” The idea behind life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc. was to limit punishment given. The legal process was meant to provide fair punishment and to prevent escalation of hostilities. Penalties were to match and not exceed the damage done to the victim.

21:28-36 Owners were accountable for any injuries or deaths caused by their animals (21:28-32, 35-36). Compensation (21:27) must be made. If his animal had a history of causing harm and he refused to restrain it, the owner would pay with his life (21:29).

22:1-4 Thieves had to make compensation—full restitution (22:3). The high cost of repayment (22:1, 4) was meant to deter future thieves. If a thief was caught in the act at night and killed, the homeowner was guiltless (22:2). During daylight hours, however, the owner would be guilty if he killed a thief (22:3).

22:5-6 In an agrarian society, devastation to a man’s crops could render him destitute. Therefore, if a man’s field was damaged through the negligence of another, restitution was to be made.

22:7-15 These verses provide regulations regarding settling disputes over personal property—particularly when a man borrowed or was otherwise in possession of his neighbor’s goods or animals.

22:16-17 Promiscuity was recognized as harmful to families and not tolerated. If a man seduced and slept with a virgin, he had to pay the bridal price for her to be his wife (22:16)—regardless of whether or not the father chose to give his daughter to him in marriage (22:17).

22:18-20 These verses stipulate additional capital crimes: sorcery, bestiality, and sacrifices made to false gods. Essentially, sorcery and idolatry were rejections of the first two commandments (20:3-4). Bestiality is a form of immorality that not only rejects marriage between a husband and wife as the proper framework for sexual intercourse (20:14), but also rejects God’s created order and the distinction between humanity and animals. According to biblical classifications, man is no mere mammal.

22:21-27 Every society has its vulnerable. Israel was expected to care for these classes of people, seeing that they were not oppressed. The Israelites were to remember that they too were once resident aliens in Egypt; therefore, they were not to oppress resident aliens in their own land (22:21). God promised to hear the cry of the widow and the fatherless if they were mistreated; thus, their oppressors would not go unpunished (22:22-24). Loans of money or goods to fellow Israelites were to help the poor not to harm them by making their situations worse. Israelites were not to charge them interest or to take their life’s necessities as collateral (22:25-27).

22:28-31 The people were not to curse God or one of his appointed leaders (22:28). They were also not to defraud God by withholding their offerings and firstborn—which belonged to him (22:29-30). Israel was the Lord’s holy people. So they were to eat meat only in prescribed ways (22:31).

23:1-9 These ordinances call for impartial justice. The Israelites were to deal honestly and fairly with all people. No one was to be treated with favoritism—not even the poor (23:3). And no one was to be treated with injustice—not even an enemy’s animal (23:4-5). Injustice, false accusations, bribes, and oppression are to have no place among God’s people (23:6-9).

23:10-13 Israel was to observe a variety of Sabbaths and festivals. The law regarding a weekly Sabbath of rest for people and animals (23:12; see 20:8-11) was expanded to Sabbatical years to provide rest for the land and food for the poor (23:10-11). It was a reminder that God owned the land; they were stewards on his behalf.

23:14-19 The people were also to celebrate three festivals every year in honor of the Lord (23:14, 17). The Festival of Unleavened Bread was held in conjunction with the Passover and commemorated the exodus from Egypt (23:15; see commentary in 12:1-20). The Festival of Harvest (23:16), also known as the “Festival of Weeks” or “Pentecost,” took place after the wheat harvest, seven weeks after the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The Festival of Ingathering took place at the end of the year (23:16). Each was a reminder of God’s provision for his people.

The practice of boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk may have been a pagan custom (23:19) that the Lord didn’t want his people to adopt.

23:20-26 Here the Lord stressed the need for obedience. He would provide an angel to guide and deliver the Israelites, but they must listen to him and obey him (23:20-22). When the people arrived in the promised land, they were to wipe out their enemies and demolish their objects of worship (23:23-24). If they were careful to do all these things, the Lord would grant them blessing and health (23:25-26).

23:27-33 God thoughtfully promised to drive the Israelites’ enemies out of the land gradually—or else the land would become desolate (23:27-30). He also prescribed the borders of the promised land: they would extend from the Red Sea in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and from the wilderness in the south to the Euphrates River in the north (23:31). Israel was to make no covenant with the inhabitants of the land or with their gods (23:32). Failure to drive them out of the land would result in them being a snare to the Israelites. Their idolatrous beliefs and practices would lure Israel, leading God’s people to sin (23:33). They needed the regulation of God’s laws if they were to enjoy God’s blessings—and that meant no compromising with their enemies and no idolatry.

24:1-2 God’s covenant with Israel was inaugurated with a ceremony. Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons, and seventy elders of the people were called to approach the Lord (24:1-2). This suggests that worship is not something we initiate. It begins with a divine invitation.

24:3 After the invitation, Israel received God’s revelation. Moses told the people all the commands of the Lord. This is a reminder that the only reason we can truly know God is because he chooses to make himself known to us. We learn about him because he decides to tell us.

We need God’s revelation. But the proclamation of the Word of God is not a mere opportunity for note taking. It’s a call to respond to God. The people said, We will do everything that the Lord has commanded. Hearing from God is necessary, but it is not sufficient. We must respond to him with trust and obedience, or else his Word has fallen on deaf ears. Scripture says, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (Jas 1:23).

24:4-8 Next Moses built an altar with twelve pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel (24:4). They then made offerings and sacrificed to the Lord so that they might have fellowship with him (24:5). Moses took the blood of the covenant and splattered it on the altar and on the people to consecrate them (24:6-8).

The sacrifice and offering that God requires of his people today is called “a sacrifice of praise” (Heb 13:15). He wants us to present our “bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1). In other words, you are to worship him with your words and your deeds—not merely on Sunday but every day. He’s the King, and he deserves it.

The reason we no longer need to offer bloody sacrifices to have fellowship with God is because the ultimate sacrifice has been made. Jesus Christ obtained our eternal redemption “not by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood” (Heb 9:12). Through his atoning sacrifice, the Son of God inaugurated a new covenant—one that provides complete forgiveness of your sins and grants you a new heart, so that you have the capacity to obey him if only you’ll place faith in him (see commentary on Heb 8:8-13).

24:9-11 Then Moses, Aaron, his sons, and the elders went up, and they saw the God of Israel. . . . God did not harm them, and they ate and drank (24:9-11). This means that the Lord let them see something of his glory in a manner similar to what Moses would later experience in a more dramatic fashion (see 33:18-23; 34:5-8).

Many people want to experience God; they want him to show up in their experiences. Israel, we must note, only saw God when they worshiped at his invitation, responded to his revelation, and received the blood of his consecration. If you want to experience God, then, trust in the consecrating blood of Jesus, worship him in spirit and truth, and respond to his Word with obedience.

24:12-18 God summoned Moses to the mountaintop so that he could give him the stone tablets containing the law and commandments that God himself had written for the people (24:12). Moses temporarily turned over leadership to Aaron and Hur, as Joshua accompanied him up the mountain (24:13-14). A cloud representing God’s glory covered the mountain (24:15-16). After six days, Moses saw God’s glory was like a consuming fire (24:17). He remained there forty days and forty nights (24:18).