Exodus 22:16-23:13: An Alien Way to Live
We continue the journey through the various instructions for living that Yahweh gave Moses to give to the people (Exodus 22:16 - 23:13). As you are well aware, the setting is important. We are still on Mt. Sinai where Yahweh has gathered the people to Himself. God's purpose was to further give Himself to the people and to transform them into a holy nation and a kingdom of priests, thus making them a people that would mediate His Presence to all the nations. The only way a people can be God's people is if God dwells among them. The only way a people can mediate God's Presence is for God to be Present in their midst.
All of these instructions or laws are about how to live so that the Presence of Yahweh is not violated. They call forth Yahweh-centered living so that the Yahweh relationship will grow. In fact, that is the only way it will grow. To live with any other center will cripple and eventually destroy the Yahweh relationship. We will see what we have already observed, that Yahweh is deeply concerned with social relationships. To violate a social relationship is to violate the Presence of Yahweh.
I won't attempt to work with each of these specific laws. In general they all have to do with the religious purity of the community and the maintenance of just relationships within the community. There are three types of instructions that correspond to three categories of people that especially call for our attention: (1) the powerless, (2) enemies, and (3) workers.
Yahweh gives Moses specific laws regarding the aliens among you, the widows and orphans, and the poor. The common denominator shared by these people is that they are powerless. They have no one, that is no male of financial means, to represent them or support them.
The command regarding aliens is shocking to our ears. We only know of two kinds of aliens: space and illegal. We don't believe in the first and we wish the second did not exist. We feel like the mission of both is to invade and take over our world. All of our problems, from the break down of public education to the lack of public funds, some would like to blame on them. In dealing with space aliens or illegal aliens the goal remains the same: do away with them by any means possible. They are "non-people."
In this context, an "alien" is a stranger, someone from some place else, a non-resident of the land, or one who is a temporary resident but owns no property and therefore has no legal rights within the community. This would include people like foreign workers or travelers passing through, as well as nomads from surrounding territories grazing flocks or herds in the land (see Travelers and Strangers: "Hospitality" in the Biblical World).
But hear Yahweh's command: "Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt." Absolutely nothing about how the alien came to be among you. Yahweh does not care about the circumstances of the alien's presence, but only that the alien is not mistreated or oppressed. The alien deserves to be treated with dignity. Rather than legitimate the harsh treatment of aliens, Yahweh reminds Israel that they were once the alien in a foreign land without legal rights. Knowing their own pain and suffering, Israel must show compassion to the aliens in their midst.
There is no room in the Yahweh relationship for treating aliens, strangers, or foreigners with disrespect and maliciousness. To do them wrong is to violate the Presence of Yahweh. I wonder how we can be so against those who cross our borders and at the same time be so supportive of world evangelization? We are basically inviting people to join the family of our God but then at the same time telling them to stay away from us. Is it right to invite people into the church but then build a wall to keep them out of the state? Which identity or relationship carries the most weight: child of God and brother/sister in Christ? Or child of poor Mexicans? Which dream/reality do we live and vote towards: a healthy America (=strong economy not hampered by system draining aliens) or a healthy Church (=in Christ there no foreigners or aliens, but all are fellow citizens and members of God's household)? To violate the well-being of the alien is to violate the Presence of God. What an alien notion!
Likewise, there is no room in the Yahweh relationship for taking advantage of widows and orphans. Yahweh asserts that He will hear their cry, and more, that He will inflict their fate upon whomever is taking advantage of them: "your wives will become widows and your children fatherless." These powerless people are important to Yahweh. Yahweh's ears are attuned to their cry. To violate them, to slyly take advantage of their misfortune, to make a profit off of their desperation, to gain from their lack of power and expertise, is to violate the Presence of Yahweh.
The third powerless group is the poor. "If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest. If you take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate."
While the poor might be disowned by the community, Yahweh still owns them as "my people." And because they are "my people", because they are still family, they are not to be treated otherwise just because they are poor. Loan them money like you would any other family member: without interest. That's how brothers loan money to each other: no interest. If a brother is so poor that he only has a coat to offer as a pledge, take it as if it were worth something. Don't insult him by refusing him the dignity of having something to offer you. But make sure you return it to him by sunset. It is the only thing between him and the cold.
The point of the cloak pledge is not to make sure you get your money back. It is to preserve the dignity of the one you are helping and keep them from embarrassment. It is too easy to help someone but cause them to lose face in the process. We meet their need but we take their dignity. The goal is and exposed. To violate one's poor brother, either by loaning with interest or withholding his pledge, is to violate the Presence of Yahweh.
As the foundation for the command regarding loans to brothers in need, Yahweh asserts, "I am compassionate." This is the foundation for all of the commands regarding the powerless. It is this compassion which drives the concern for justice. The needy are to be cared for, the alien not oppressed, and widows and orphans not swindled, because Yahweh is compassionate. Yahweh's compassion demands concern for the well-being of the powerless. To neglect their well-being is to neglect the Presence of Yahweh. I hope Matthew 25:31-46 has come to your mind: "In as much as you do it to the least of these brothers of mine . . ." If we are a compassionate people, it is because we have benefited from our LORD's compassion.
The next two categories of people/laws, namely enemies and laborers, further demonstrate the compassion of Yahweh. If we refuse to demonstrate compassion to our enemies and laborers, we violate the compassionate Presence of Yahweh. If we see our enemy's goat wandering off, Yahweh's Presence requires that we get it and return it to our enemy rather than rejoice over our enemy's misfortune. If we see our enemy stranded along the side of the road, his possessions toppled off his worn out donkey because he did not pack properly, Yahweh's Presence requires us to stop and help rather than continue on in laughter at what a poor-packing fool he is. To neglect to help our enemy, to disregard our enemy's well being, is to violate the Presence of Yahweh. There is no room in the Yahweh relationship for such behavior.
Not only are we to keep Sabbath, we are to give Sabbath. We are to give the land rest. We are to give all of our laborers rest. There is a concern here for the poor, as well as for animals. To deny another living creature (person, animal, plant) the opportunity of rest and refreshment, is to violate the Presence of Yahweh. The wealthy generally are not short on vacation time or a day off. But for those in the lower ranks a day off is much harder to come by. Sabbath is to be for every level of society. Shame on our Christian institutions that provide ample Sabbath time for executive types but require non-execs and/or lower execs to work round the clock to meet the institutional goals. To violate the giving of rest is to violate the Presence of Yahweh.
The commands conclude with the exhortation, "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 other words, "Be sure to live Yahweh centered!" And that means to take seriously the well being of the powerless, our enemies, and our laborers. "In as much as you have done it unto the least of these brothers of mine, you have done it unto me."