When Yahweh thundered from heaven, without Moses’ mediation, he immortalized the Ten Commandments. So we teach them to our children, we picture them in stained glass, and we bring them to bear on public life. Christian interpreters legitimately differ on the best way to apply the Sabbath commandment (Rom 14:5), but it is widely acknowledged that the Ten Commandments contain the moral will of God in summary form.
Yet we find greater divergence of opinion when we come to the case laws, the “Book of the Covenant” (Ex 24:7), immediately after the Ten Commandments. How are we to understand ancient slavery, the death penalty, goring oxen, five-fold restitution, road kill, wandering donkeys, and the festival in the month of Abib? As I scan the Exodus commentaries on my shelf, Exodus 21-23 is the section most often skipped or summarized in a mere page or two. Even the extensive tabernacle narratives get substantive attention, as interpreters love discussing how Jesus is the light, the bread, the living water, and the embodied presence of God. But the case laws?
Granted, Paul fills his letters with strong statements about the law: No one is justified before God by the law (Gal 3:11). Christ redeemed us from the law’s curse (Gal 3:13). You have died to the law through the body of Christ (Rom 7:4). God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do (Rom 8:3). You are not under law, but under grace (Rom 6:14). The power of sin is the law (1 Cor 15:56).
And sometimes Jesus is accused of breaking the law because of his love: touching a leper (Matt 8:3), eating sacred bread (Mark 2:26), breaking the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17), and overturning fundamental principles of Old Testament justice (Matt 5:38-39).
So how should Christians of the 21st century understand the case laws in Exodus?
1. The law cannot save.
The laws given by God in covenant with his people had much glory. Yet the glory was temporary and fading; Moses veiled his face to conceal this fact (Ex 34:33-35, 2 Cor 3:7, 13). The law can give direction (Ps 119:105), but it cannot produce obedience or righteousness (Gal 3:11). Any attempt to turn bad people into good people through the coercion of law will fail. I’d prefer not to begin with what the law can’t do, but we need constant reminders of this fundamental impossibility.
2. Jesus and Paul validated the case laws.
I could point to the big law-statements Jesus makes, such as “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18), but the impact of those statements is still disputed. So instead, I’ll remind you that Jesus and Paul assume the ongoing validity of the case laws, when they quote them to support their teaching or choices. We tend to skip over the fact, but Jesus affirms—in two Gospels—the death penalty for those who “revile father or mother” (Ex 21:17, Matt 15:4, Mark 7:10). And Paul quotes the case law from Ex 22:28 as normative Christian behavior in Acts 23:5. (Though I think he’s being cheeky and not a little mocking, showing he knows the law better than the high priest who ordered him to be struck. How could Paul not know which member of the council was the high priest?)
3. The case laws apply the Ten Commandments.
As you read the case laws, don’t get lost in their seemingly random nature, as though the case laws are time-bound, culture-bound, generational minutiae. Yes, they apply the principles of God’s moral will to certain people at a certain time in a certain cultural context. All the details will not be the same for all people everywhere. But don’t disregard them on that account. Instead, figure out which of the Ten Commandments is being applied, and figure out how it is being applied. This will give you wisdom to learn how to apply them in our context. For example, without the case laws, how would you know what counts as murder (manslaughter, etc.), and what doesn’t (just warfare, civil sentence, etc.)? How would you know what to do with an apprehended thief? What does it really mean to take God’s name in vain?
4. The case laws are particular applications, not universal principles.
This follows from point #3. Since the case laws are applications of universal principles, they are not themselves universal principles. This means they may have limited application in their canonized form. God has since revealed more about himself, so we may apply the principles of sabbath or tithing or restitution a little differently. But we should still learn from the case laws what it looks like to apply the Ten Commandments at all. Armed with such a template, and with the Spirit of God illuminating the rest of the word of God, we can figure out how to apply those commandments to our situation.
5. The case laws reveal God’s character.
All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). God’s word will carry out his purpose of creating worshipers (Is 55:10-12). We know God, in all his glory, through the things he has revealed (Ps 19:1-14). We miss part of what God wants us to know about himself if we skip the case laws or disregard them. In studying them, we’ll behold God’s great mercy and justice in action. Believe it or not, I’ve heard stories of people from non-Western cultures coming to faith in Christ by reading the case laws, as they had never seen such mercy and justice working in perfect harmony except through the cross.
6. The case laws reveal Jesus.
All the Law and the Prophets are about Jesus (Luke 24:27). When considering double restitution of what was stolen, we’re amazed at Jesus who gave everything for those who stole from him. When contemplating the freeing of slaves in their 7th year, we’re humbled by Jesus, who took on the form of a bondservant to become a priest forever. When we’re told not to exact interest from the disadvantaged, we can’t help but see Jesus, who became poor so we, through his poverty, could become rich. When we read about the Feasts of Unleavened Bread, Harvest, and Ingathering, we’re reminded that in Jesus we have a continual feast.
But we’ll either miss these things, or not understand how marvelous they truly are, if we don’t take the time to study the case laws.
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