Exodus 21:1-22:15: Slaves, Donkeys, and Holes
We have come to that part of Exodus which appears to be of little value unless you are a Hebrew slave in your sixth year of servitude, or your master just knocked out your tooth, or your neighbor's bull just gored your daughter, or you borrowed your friend's donkey and it died while you were using it. Our text is Exodus 21:1 - 22:15. Here we find an assortment of case (casuistic) laws in the format if . . ., then. . .. These are various communal regulations that grew out of cases that have arisen in the community. The decision made by a judge or leader at some point in the past had become a precedent for similar future case within the community. Yet, we also have to keep in mind here that these laws are encompassed within the instructions that Yahweh gave to Moses to give to the people. This indicates that no matter how the regulations originated, they are now subsumed under the covenant between Yahweh and the people. They are a part of the expected response required for living as God's people.
In general, these particular laws have to do with the rights of Hebrew slaves, personal injuries and the loss of life, and the protection and compensation of damaged or stolen property. While this is case law, we need to understand that it would have been used paradigmatically. They were as aware as we that there would always be new cases. These case laws would be applied to whatever new cases arose within the community. Another way to see them is as specific applications of the Ten Words.
By the way, not to justify any form of slavery, but the slavery spoken of here was different from that practiced in many Western and European countries. Whereas slavery was often a matter of skin color for Europeans, in Israel's context these regulations primarily related to indebtedness. One might become so in debt that the only way out was to sell oneself as a slave. The good news of the law is that no matter how indebted one was at the time of entering slavery, one was to be given debt-free freedom at the end of six years.
What do all these laws have to do with us, especially since they are essentially from Israel's civil law and we live under our own civil law? One answer is to say that they have nothing to do with us - but that is to view them from a very limited perspective. When we step back to see the big picture, these laws have something very important to teach us. Remember, Yahweh had brought Israel out of slavery to Himself on Mount Sinai. His purpose was to dwell in their midst and to transform them into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. They were to be a people that mediates His Presence to all nations and all creation. Israel's part was to listen to Yahweh's voice, to obey His instruction for living, to keep His words. Thus, the real issue is about living in the Presence of Yahweh. The concern is how to live so that the Yahweh relationship is not violated, but continues and grows. While the Yahweh relationship is a grace relationship it is also a demanding relationship.
When reading through the long list of "If . . ., then's" it becomes apparent that Yahweh is concerned about every aspect of life, not just religious life. That is something that we need to hear, for our tendency is to compartmentalize life, to separate family life from work, work from play, etc. It's all too easy to attempt to place God in such a compartment.
Or, to switch to computer metaphors, our lives are full of files and folders that we use to separate and order the data and events of life. We tend to have a religious folder into which we think God will fit. In these civil commands God is saying, "I cannot be squeezed into a compartment. I cannot be relegated to a religious folder. I have to do with all of your life. For this relationship to continue aright, you need to listen to Me in every civil matter, from servants to goats to fields." God is not satisfied with just being at the center of our "spiritual lives" if that means being quarantined off from the rest of our lives. If we are to grow in our relationship with God, it will be necessary to surrender all of life to Him, to open all files to Him, to yield all compartments to Him. His Presence demands it.
These laws also reveal that Yahweh is concerned about "neighbor" and justice. Yahweh requires that neighbors must be treated fairly, even if they are slaves. Where a wrong has taken place, it must be righted. If you steal your neighbor's sheep, you must pay back double. If you borrow his ox to plow your field, and it steps in a hole and breaks its leg, you must make restitution. The core point is that the Yahweh relationship cannot be isolated from the neighbor relationship. One cannot worship Yahweh in sincerity and do wrong to a neighbor at the same time. Yahweh's Presence demands doing neighbors right.
From these commands we also see that Yahweh is concerned with the well-being and integrity of the community. Wrong must be dealt with, it must be acknowledged and punished, or there will be no basis for trust and respect in the community. Relationships and disputes will simply boil down to a matter of power rather than be compelled and resolved by gratitude to Yahweh for exodus life. Justice is the Yahweh-ordained expression of that gratitude.
But these laws are not just given for the sake of punishing wrongdoers. They are first given to prevent wrongdoing. The wellbeing of the community, the wellbeing of the neighbor is at stake. Exodus 21:33 reads, "If a man uncovers a pit or digs one and fails to cover it and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit must pay for the loss. . .." There is an implied responsibility towards the welfare of the neighbor's animals. You cannot live with just yourself in mind. Life in the Presence of Yahweh means keeping your neighbor in mind, taking a measure of responsibility for his/her wellbeing. There is no freedom to jeopardize the health of one's neighbor. Yahweh's Presence demands community-oriented rather than self-centered decision making. Leaving a hole uncovered because you won't fall into it is to create holes in the community and in your own relationship with Yahweh.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gets at the heart of all these laws (Mt. 5:17-48), which might be summed up as right relationships or reconciled relationships. It is all about loving your neighbor as yourself. And while the Sermon on the Mount may be taken as somewhat of an update of these laws in Exodus, we have an even more complete and clearly stated update to refer to as we negotiate our neighbor relationships: Jesus himself. We do not need to operate by case law, for we are privileged to operate by Jesus law. We have a person to look to, and the testimonies to him, as we contemplate the decisions confronting us. Jesus is our "If . . ., then. . .." We don't ask, WDMS (What did Moses say?) but WWJD.
More, we are not left to ourselves to figure out WWJD. In John 14:26 Jesus promises the Holy Spirit, who will come in Jesus' name, remind us of Jesus' word, and teach us all things. As we ask, the Spirit will teach. Jesus' main word was to love one another. As we ask, the Spirit will guide us in what actions we must take to fulfill this word.
Best of all, the Spirit will also enable us to complete the action. The Spirit will be God's empowering grace to us that we might obey, that we might love. And as we love, Christ abides in us and we abide in Him. Christ's graceful Presence demands the love of our neighbor. To withhold or neglect that love is to violate the Presence of Christ.