Many people struggle to understand the significance of these laws in today’s society. Both misunderstanding and debate have arisen from a superficial reading and inadequate research of this text. If we are to make sense of these verses and apply them, we must consider the context in relation to the Israelites as a theocracy being delivered from slavery, together with the dowry system.
Some of these principles are applied across civilised societies today and form the basis for the laws of our land. The essence of these laws is to live in the Spirit of the law. In other words, these laws enable a good, just, caring and godly society, as opposed to rigidly abiding to the letter of the law without genuine consideration of God or our neighbour. The Sermon on the Mount draws from this passage and will be where we conclude.
Since there is so much covered in these chapters and I dealt with the issue of slavery and servanthood in the previous article, I will cover a cross section of this passage.
Laws concerning violence
Different punishments are given for intentional and unintentional homicide. If someone killed another person intentionally then they would put to death. This acted as a deterrent and recognised the sanctity of life because humans are created in the image of God. However, if they killed someone unintentionally, they would be banished to a designated place and later cities of refuge would be established (Numbers 35:6-24; Deuteronomy 19:1-13). A distortion of our current law is the tendency for sentences to be halved for apparent ‘good behaviour’ which ignores the principle of the punishment fitting the crime.
This also helps to avoid blood feuds which sadly continue today in many societies worldwide involving people groups, tribes and gangs. We are reminded of the corruptness of human nature in that from the first family on earth, Cain killed Abel. Yet, in the same chapter, Lamech killed a man for wounding him and resolved that if Cain should be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold (Genesis 4:23). Justice needs to be administered fairly and proportionately. By the time of Noah, violence covered the whole earth.
Whoever struck or cursed his mother or father would be put to death. This is of course a development from the fifth commandment. We do not have a case study of this occurring in Scripture, nor the age designated, so it is likely that it was a most rare event and for persistent and especially rebellious offenders. We must also remember this law related to Israel as a theocracy who knew the law.
This law is a helpful reminder today for children to honour their parents and for parents not to provoke their children to wrath. Generally speaking children who have no respect for their parents have no respect for other authorities and seek only their own interests.[i]
If two men quarrelled and one struck another not causing death but injury and affecting his livelihood, compensation would be given for loss of time until that person made a full recovery. That meant that justice was served. The victim would be compensated and the offender would pay a penalty and also have an incentive not to seriously injure another. We have the principles of loss of use and time currently in place to ensure that people are indemnified.
If two men strove and hit a pregnant woman so that her children came out, even if there was no harm then compensation would still be in order. If injury occurred to either mother or child then there would be payment life for life, eye for eye and tooth for tooth etc. There are two critical matters to determine here regarding the value of the child and the specific punishment and compensation provided, that affect us today.
Personal injury payments for car accidents are applied using tables to calculate compensation for loss of a finger, thumb or body part etc. Today there is another issue regarding excessive compensation as opposed to retaliation. Sometimes people are involved in car accidents and are not even slightly hurt but claim that they have suffered injuries which are incredibly hard to prove or disprove and they know that. However, one day they will be judged and stand before the Lord and give an account for their actions.
Exodus 21:22 has been considered often with regard to abortion and the sanctity of life. Walvoord & Zuck note that the unborn foetus is considered as much a human being as its mother so hence the abortion of a foetus was regarded as murder.[ii] The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a short chapter ‘Text and Interpretation: The Case of Abortion’ in his commentary on Exodus. He argues that the offender who was responsible for the death of a foetus was not responsible for a capital offence and until birth the foetus does not have the legal status as a person.[iii]However he also cites Philo amongst the Alexandrian Jewish Community following the Septuagint who viewed abortion as a capital crime and an act of murder.[iv]Today “Judaism permits abortion only to save the life of the mother or to protect her from life-threatening illness”, [v]hence Jewish views are close to that of Evangelicals. Noticeably the late Roy Zuck was himself a Jewish believer in Yeshua.
The two verses that follow regarding the eye for an eye and tooth for tooth have often been misunderstood. For those that hold the strict literalist position there is in some sense a punishment fitting the crime so that excessive retaliation is prevented. However the view from the Stone Edition and the understanding that the author takes is that “The term an eye for an eye means that the responsible party must pay the monetary value of an eye (Bava Kamma 83b-84a).[vi]
Firstly the context of the eye for an eye is in relation to payment the judges determine in relation to damage to a mother or child. Secondly and practically, the loss that the victim suffered would not be compensated by having the offender injured. Compensation would be sensible and actually help the victim. Also if the offender were merely injured then they may not be able to work and would thus create a further burden to themselves and others.
There are laws about oxen that have a history of goring, causing death to a person. Both the oxen and owner would be killed. This might not seem relevant to us today though sadly it is. Think of those who deliberately breed dangerous dogs for fighting or those who are extremely negligent in training them resulting in numerous severe injuries. In that specific case appropriate action must be taken.
Laws concerning theft
Someone who stole an ox would have to repay five oxen for an ox and someone who stole a sheep would be required to pay four sheep for the one stolen. An ox is more productive than a sheep so the amount of compensation was greater. If our law made the compensatory payment higher, then it would serve as a deterrent for the offender. Another issue is that when a small value is compensated to an individual, claims are not always made for the amount of time and effort required to go through the legal process. If the victim were given adequate compensation, then they would be more likely to pursue that. Also offenders are well aware of the same so may consider it worth the risk of consistently stealing small amounts hoping that the victim will not consider it worthwhile for them to pursue the legal process.
If a thief broke in during the day and was struck so that he died there would be bloodguilt for him, yet if it occurred at night there would be no bloodguilt. Sadly we have seen extremes relating to both sides. The reason for the difference is that at night the offender could be carrying a weapon, it would be more difficult to summon help quickly and you are more vulnerable. Now there have been complicated cases relating to this but the general principle would act as a deterrent to night burglars who could potentially be armed. On the other extreme, in the States those insisting on their right to bear arms have shot innocent children who mistakenly went to the wrong address in broad daylight.
Laws concerning biblical justice
People have come up to me saying that if a man raped a woman, he had to marry her! If a man seduced a virgin who was not betrothed he would have to then give both the bride price and make her his wife. Firstly, this law is made in the context of a dowry and the father of the bride would be compensated. Because of their actions the dowry to another would be affected somewhat. Secondly being seduced implies consent, so it is clearly not rape. Thirdly, this law helped to be a deterrent for the Israelites against sexual immorality and ensured that they were responsible for their actions.
The command was given not to lend interest on loans. The Stone Edition commentary notes “A loan is one of the highest forms of charity, because it preserves the self-respect of the borrower and allows him to rebuild his own independent financial stability.”[vii]Sadly today we see the opposite. In a previous job when I helped people manage their tenancy and their finances, they often sought the services of loan sharks and wound up further and further in debt.
Laws are given to ensure that the sojourners are treated fairly. After all, they themselves were sojourners in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:21; 23:9). We must also remember that Jesus was a refugee in Egypt and his family fled for their lives. We live in a difficult situation where there are refugees seeking somewhere safe to live. Having lived and been responsible for young refugees for three years it is no surprise that there were some genuine cases and some that were not. Some travelled not to their first safe destination but travelled throughout Europe. Some lived under oppressive regimes whilst others lied about their age, identity and circumstances.
We must therefore be gracious but also wise. Gracious in that we love the stranger as the commandment is given in Leviticus 19:34. Wise in the respect that we should be cautious about who we let in both regarding security and checking the claims are genuine. Although we are not a theocracy like Israel, our land has at least in part some grounding in Judeo-Christian values and we must be careful that both our laws and society does not err further away from biblical principles of justice both from within and outside our land.
The Spirit of the law
The command is given to avoid bribes. In some cultures bribes are more commonplace than others. Whilst I was in Zambia I saw the police easily bribed by exchanging a gift of food for overlooking a vehicle that needed a part fixing. In some parts of Eastern Europe bribes are often received for getting through customs even if the traveller is travelling perfectly legitimately. Bribes are of course a worldwide problem and have been throughout the ages. The Bible speaks for today.
One could easily overlook the command to return the ox or donkey going astray even if that animal belongs to someone who hates you. But this is the spirit of the law. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust”(Matthew 5:43-45)
We thought earlier about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. What did Yeshua say? “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ “But I tell you not to resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:38-39a). This was not preaching pacifism but relates to matters of personal retaliation, not criminal offenses nor military aggression.[viii]
Consider the love and justice of God and that God demonstrates His love to us. How? While we were still sinners Messiah died for us (Romans 5:8). We should therefore be willing to forgive our enemies. Yeshua came not to do away with the law or the prophets but to fulfil them (Matthew 5:17-18). He is the lawgiver and if we turn to Him, live for Him and trust in Him, we will live according to the Spirit of the law, not the letter of the law. We will then be spared the judgement and wrath of God and live with Him and for Him, forever.
[i] Warren W. Wiersbe The Wiersbe Bible Commentary The Complete Old Testament (David C. Cook, 2007; Colorado Springs), p185
[ii] John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck The Bible Knowledge Commentary An Exposition of the Scriptures by the Dallas Theological Seminary (Victor, 1989; USA), p141
[iii] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Exodus: The Book of Redemption Covenant & Conversation A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible (Maggid, 2020; Jerusalem), p169
[iv] Ibid, p170
[v] Ibid, p171
[vi] The Stone Edition Tanach Edited by Rabbi Nosson Scherman (Mesorah Publications Ltd., 2000; Brooklyn), p187
[vii] Ibid, p190
[viii] John MacArthur The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 2005; Nashville), p1132