Exodus 21–23. The Law Expanded.

Key Notes: Slavery. Abortion. Capital punishment. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Sex crimes. The robber. Restitution. Fallow farm land. The kid cooked in its mother's milk.

Israel left Egypt as a mass of Hebrew slaves without a government, a constitution or a set of laws. During the forty wilderness years, God gave them a comprehensive set of laws covering all aspects of life—family, diet, health, economics, warfare, and worship. If they obeyed, there would be little need for police, taxes, or governmental control. Rules to establish guilt and punishment were adapted to a desert environment.
Their contribution to civilization would be the Mosaic law.

“Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the people, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’. For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon Him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?” (Deut.4:5–8)

The Law was God’s gift to them to straighten the courses of their lives and teach them how to do justice and kindness toward each other and love toward Him.  It was an evangelistic tool to attract other nations to God. It was a fence, defining the boundaries between good and evil but also a buffer to help them do right by each other and correct wrongs. Although written to this lawless mass of ex-slaves, it was meant for us modern lawless ones as well.

The Old Testament Law in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy consists of 613 commandments, 365 negative ("do not"), and 248 positive ("do").  We will study a sample of them in these chapters. The compiled laws can be thought of as a stack of four boxes. The bottom and largest box is the Talmud.   The Talmud contains thousands of instructions and opinions about OT law, with proverbs and lore, thirty volumes long. These instructions and examples have governed Jewish life for centuries.  They are in part a hedge around the Law to keep people from breaking the commandments, supported by tradition but without biblical authority.
The next smaller box contains the 613 OT laws. Many of these laws have been superseded by the New Testament, specifically the sacrifice system and the food laws.
On top of that box are the Ten Commandments, which are confirmed in the NT and summarize the 613 laws. 
In the top box, Jesus summarized the Ten in two commandments: Love God completely and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt.22:35–40).  One way to sort out the various specific instructions in this passage is to interpret  them as referring to God, or a neighbor, or both. 

There are two kinds of laws: the absolute which allow no exceptions and the casuistic which depend on the situation: “if”. The Ten Commandments are absolute: “no if’s, ands or buts”. Many of the others can be identified as casuistic by the way they are written; the decision depends on the situation.

There are five general topics on relationships to human beings covered in this lesson:
            Slavery 21:1–11
            Murder 21:12–17
            Other violent offenses 21:18–32
            Property rights 21:33–22:17
            Other laws 22:18–23:33

It seems like a logical progression from the most critical to the least critical rules, yet we would expect murder to top the list as it does in the Ten Commandments. Why would slavery take precedence over murder? Israel has been enslaved in Egypt for centuries. Now they are three months away from slavery and once food and water are provided, the  issue of slavery may have been uppermost in their minds.  They are being taught by God to think of it in a new way—not abolishing the concept, but humanizing it and making safeguards.

21:1–11 Slavery of a Hebrew was based on purchasing a person’s time (labor) for a fixed interval short of seven years, when all servants had to be freed. If the person’s time was valued at $10,000/yr., the buyer should pay up to $70,000 for the seven years of his service, cash to the servant's family. We would call it indentured servitude. When the period of servitude was over, the servant went free, single or married, unless he had married the owner’s daughter in the meantime.  If he wanted this wife, he would have to sign on for life.

The mark of permanent slavery was a pin-hole in the ear-lobe, probably with a slave earring inserted.  It was done before God at the worship-center. Psalm 40:6–8 speaks of the Messiah’s submission to the Father in this way. See also Heb.10:5–10

A female slave was to be protected from the market-place. She could be taken in marriage by the owner or given to his son. Then she must be treated as a wife or as a daughter. If she was not given her rights to food, clothing and marital intercourse, she must be freed without paying back the price of her purchase.

Slavery was practiced by the Egyptians and later by Israelites; the purpose the Law was to make it humane. Slavery in the NT Greco-Roman society was not denounced by NT writers, but slaves were encouraged to work for the Lord, rather than merely pleasing their earthly masters. (EPh.6:5–8). This raised NT slavery to the level of a silent, demonstrated witness.

Slavery of black Africans in the‘th century, on the other hand,  was aggressive  and mercenary. It depended on kidnapping and was falsely justified by Scripture. Although the writers of the Constitution of the United States believed in freedom as a basic human right (see the Declaration of Independence), slaves were held even by Washington and Jefferson. If we had followed the rules in Exodus 21, economic slavery by kidnapping would not have been countenanced, but people live by what they love, not by what they know.

21:12–17 Murder was punishable by death. This rule is based on Gen.9:6.
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in His own image.”

The biblical basis of capital punishment is based on the offense, in this case the life destroyed. That life was created in the image of God. Jesus Christ is the image of God.
            “He is the image of the invisible God….” (Col.1:15)
When a human being is deliberately killed, a bit of the image of God seen in Christ and reflected in the person has been destroyed. The dead are not junk to be discarded. An image of Christ has been lost. We think the image of God is no longer visible in human beings, but attributes which characterized Christ-- love, wisdom, patience, humility, and single-minded purpose, can be seen in believers and nonbelievers too. It is common grace. Some nonbelievers exhibit qualities I wish I had.

The reason for capital punishment for a murder is not based on deterrence and public education, or vengeance, although there is extensive literature and debate on these issues.  It was based on the lost image of God. But why destroy a second bit of the image of God in the murderer? The only answer I know is that “…the soul that sins shall die.” (Ezek.18:4)---some later (naturally), some sooner  (intentionally)—sooner when the sin is lethal.  The Law also requires the testimony of 2–3 witnesses. Circumstantial evidence should not be accepted in a capital crime trial and it unfortunately is in many cases. Our justice system is also unfair in convicting and penalizing people based on race. Will genetic evidence (DNA profiles) prove to be enough to fairly convict when witnesses are not present?

If a man was killed accidentally, God would provide a place of safety for the killer, eventually seven cities of refuge in Israel. (Num.35). If the homicide is deliberate, even God’s altar would not be a sanctuary. God’s demand of the death penalty for murder is surprisingly strong. Some recent discussion is foot-noted at the end of the chapter.

Kidnapping for murder, torture, ransom or slavery is a problem in the modern world as it has been throughout the ages. It is used by governments to intimidate dissidents. “Shanghaiing” was used by ship captains to get unwilling sailors. Sex-slavery often uses kidnapping to acquire children for prostitution. When slavery was introduced into the West, kidnapping was not done by the buyers, but by the Arab traders, but that did not absolve those who bought the slaves; they were parties to kidnapping.

Cursing parents, or striking parents was also punishable by death. We wonder why parents were so uniquely defended, but they are the objects of special respect in the fifth Commandment, suggesting how important they are. We are nonchalant about the fact that our parents gave us life; God is not.

21:18—27 Non-lethal violence between people.
If a man was injured, but lived, the one who injured him must pay compensation for his lost work time.  If a man injured his slave and the slave lived, compensation was not paid because the slave’s labor was lost to the owner who hurt him.  If he killed the slave, he must be punished.

If a pregnant woman was injured, perhaps helping her husband in a fight, she may miscarry.  The one who caused the miscarriage was subject to a fine for the lost fetus. But if the mother was injured, the “eye for eye” rule applied. The "eye for eye"," tooth for tooth" rule seems brutal, but it prevented the injured person from committing excessive vengeance in return. Ages before, Lamach had bragged of killing a man who wounded him. Gen. 4:23

Exodus 21:22 tells us, in the only place in Scripture where the issue of abortion—willful or involuntary—is discussed,  that the life of the mother and the life of the fetus are not of equal value, but the fetus is a legal entity for whom compensation must be given.  Willful abortion was unheard of.

If a slave was injured, deforming his features by the loss of a tooth or an eye, he must be freed.

21:28–32 The next group of injuries involve animals. A domestic animal that caused death must be destroyed; the meat was not to be eaten. If the animal had a reputation for causing injury and the attacked person died, the keeper must be killed, or ransomed. He was an accessory to  murder.
If the victim was a slave, the price was 30 pieces of silver and the animal was to be destroyed by stoning.  {The slave price was given to Judas to betray Christ to death. Matt.26:15

22:1–17 These next cases involve restitution.
A stolen ox was repaid with five oxen; a stolen sheep with four sheep. Presumably the lost ox was more valuable because it was power for the plow, the cart or the mill. If the lost animal is found alive, the price is double, not five-fold.

The penniless thief would be sold into slavery to pay his debt. Restitution for civil crimes would save us from using the jail as a universal punishment, but the logistics are difficult in the modern world. However, in practice, we can work restitution in the small matters of life—a CD lost is replaced; a wheel-barrow borrowed is returned clean.  A book read is returned with thanks.

If a thief breaks into the house at night, he may be killed because the owner cannot interpret actions in the dark. The thief working in daylight may not be killed. (We do not shoot our bank-robbers.)
In disputed cases, the quarreling parties are to come before the judge.  The guilty must pay restitution, in some cases double.
If a man seduced a virgin, he must marry her and pay the bride’s dowry, or pay the bride price if her father refuses.

22:18–20 Sorcery, idolatry, and bestiality (sexual intercourse with animals) were subject to the death penalty.

22:21–31 Other instructions deal with kindness, generosity and justice.
Strangers, widows and orphans may not be oppressed as Israel was oppressed in Egypt. God will punish the offenders.
Lending money at interest was forbidden, but lending was expected. A garment, especially an outer coat, taken for security must be returned before night, when it might be needed as a blanket.
No one may speak ill of God or the ruler. Paul denounced the high priest but apologized when Ananias was identified. Acts 23:2–5
The tithe of crops and other income belongs to God. The firstborn sons and the firstborn of cattle belong to God.

23:1–9  Justice must not be perverted by partiality, false testimony or mob rule:“turning aside after a multitude”.
You must help your enemy’s animal when you see it in distress.
Do not deprive the poor of justice or undermine the cause of the righteous. Do not oppress the stranger. The novels about immigrants to this Country give plenty of examples of scams to fleece the innocent.

They were to work the land six years and let it rest the seventh, leaving the passive year’s production to the poor and even the wild animals.  Our farmers have rotated crops using on good conservation methods (corn six years, clover or alfalfa one year) even if they do not know the Law.
They were to work six days a week and rest the seventh so that they would be refreshed.
Three times a year they must come to keep a feast to God: Passover, First Fruits (Pentecost) and Harvest. All males must attend.

You must not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.  Apparently, there was a Canaanite ritual that included this sacrifice. This is the basis of the kosher rule that milk and meat may not be eaten in the same meal, or even cooked in the same vessels. There is a velvet rope in Israel’s parliament (the Knesset) dining room separating the meat dishes and those who eat them from the milk-containing foods. It has become a burden all out of proportion to the simple reading of the law. It may be related to the law that one could not take the roosting bird and her eggs (Deut.22:6) or kill the cow or ewe and her offspring on the same day. (Lev.22:28). A fair generalization is that we should not be rapacious with domestic animals, and by extension, with our neighbors and with the environment.


By the time of Christ, the Law had taken on a life of its own. Expansion of the rules had become an intolerable burden. Jesus denounced the Jewish elite for hypocrisy (Matt.23:13–15),  writing rules that actually aided law-breaking instead of preventing it (Matt.23:16–22), neglecting justice, mercy and faith (Matt.23:23–24), and killing off their main critics,  the prophets. Matt.23:29–30

What is the Christian’s relationship to OT law? The Law has three uses today:

*To govern and discipline Israel—and all nations of the world.
*To lead sinners in despair to the sacrifice of Christ that they may be saved by faith. Gal.3:24
*To direct the believer to understand and do the Will of God. Rom.2:13

PS. On capital punishment.
William Barclay believes that punishment should be remedial, and curative. He therefore concludes that “on Christian principles capital punishment should have no place in the laws of a Christian country. “
(The Ten Commandments for Today. W. Barclay; Eerdmans,’73; p.78.)

C. S. Lewis thought therapy was not the right approach to deal with criminal behavior.
(God in the Dock. C. S. Lewis; W. Hooper, edit. Eerdmans,’70.Referencing “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” CH. 4. )

Two sources that take capital punishment in Scripture seriously are:
“What Does the Lord Require?” W. C. Kaiser Jr. Baker, 2009; Ch.10.
“Evangelical Ethics.” J. J. Davis. Presby. and Reformed,’85. Ch.8.