With a few guiding principles in hand, we’re ready to look at the case laws delivered to Moses.
Observation of Exodus 20:22-21:32
Most repeated words: if (20 times), not (15x), slave (14), man (11), go (10), out (9), master (7), ox (7), then (7), when (7)
- The frequent use of “if,” “then,” and “when” should not surprise us, as we’re dealing with specific applications of the Ten Commandments.
- A major relationship in this section is that of slaves and their masters.
The grammar of the case laws consists of lists of relatively short statements, each describing a specific scenario. The sentences are arranged into groups, but the essential unit is the sentence.
Ex 20:22 is a narrative introduction (“And Yahweh said to Moses”), framing all the case laws into a single divine speech that doesn’t end until Ex 23:33.
- However, Ex 20:22-26 appears to be an introduction to the case laws, since Ex 21:1 marks the main body of laws (“Now these are the rules that you shall set before them.”).
Grouping topics into paragraphs, and taking note of the narrative markers, yields the following structure:
- Introduction to the case laws: The God who speaks from heaven gives 4 instructions about how he is to be worshiped—applying the commands for “no other gods” and “no graven images” (Ex 20:22-26).
- Slavery: 8 instructions about possessing slaves—applying “do not steal.”
- 4 instructions about male slaves (Ex 21:1-6)
- 4 instructions about female slaves (Ex 21:7-11)
- Violence: 16 instructions about conflict and assault—applying “do not murder.”
- 3 instructions about murder and manslaughter (Ex 21:12-14)
- 3 capital offenses involving parents and kidnapping—applying not only “do not murder” but also “honor father and mother” (Ex 21:15-17)
- 6 instructions about humans assaulting one another (Ex 21:18-27)
- A: 1 case of direct assault (Ex 21:18-19)
- B: 2 cases of assaulting a slave (Ex 21:20-21)
- A’: 2 cases of indirect assault on a pregnant bystander (Ex 21:22-25)
- B’: 1 case (with 2 examples) of permanently injuring a slave (Ex 21:26-27)
- 4 instructions about livestock assaulting humans (Ex 21:28-32)
Interpretation of Exodus 20:22-21:32
Some possible questions:
- Why do instructions about worship introduce the body of case laws?
- Why do the case laws begin with the topic of slavery?
- So what should we conclude the Bible teaches about slavery?
- What do these laws reveal about God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ?
My answers (numbers correspond to the questions):
- The Ten Commandments began with the topic of worship. This suggests that the foundation for everything we do is the worship of God. If we get worship wrong, we get everything else wrong as well. In addition, when the covenant is broken in Exodus 32, the Israelites transgress almost every instruction in Ex 20:22-26. The narrative thus highlights the primacy of these worship matters.
- Again, the Ten Commandments help, in that God introduces them with, “I am Yahweh your God…who brought you out of the house of slavery” (Ex 20:2). These people have just been lifted out of slavery; slavery is all they’ve ever known. Yet the Pharaohs were hardly model slave-masters. We could go back over Exodus 1-15 to show how the Pharaohs explicitly violated every one of the principles in Ex 21:1-11. In their new freedom, Israel must not do “slavery” the way it was done to them. They must not drift into what they’re used to. God’s kingdom is altogether different. In particular, slaves have rights. Even female slaves have rights. I believe no other ancient law code gives rights to slaves or to women or to slave women in this way—especially not in the law code’s first article.
- Does this mean that slavery is a good idea, commended by the Bible? I will defer this question for another day and another passage, as this text does not address it. But what this passage does teach—and what must be included in any discussion of the Bible’s teaching on slavery—is that slavery always has an end. It was never to be permanent (though we could quibble over the permanence of the voluntary slavery to a generous, humane, and inspirational master in Ex 21:4-6). In the seventh year, slaves were to go free. When mistreated or denied their rights, slaves were to go free. And kidnapping people for the slave trade was a capital offense (Ex 21:16).
- God is not like the gods of other nations. God cares about those who usually go uncared for, and who may be unable to care for themselves. God values life, peace, and justice for the oppressed. God instills humanity with basic rights to life and liberty. God holds owners responsible for patterns of behavior even in their animals. God’s justice means, when harm is done, life must be given for life, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. Wrongdoing cannot go unpunished in his kingdom.
Train of thought:
- Worship the unique God uniquely
- Protect the rights of even society’s lowest
- Value life and peace over self-advancement
Main point: God’s kingdom is different from the world’s kingdoms in that all its citizens have rights, and justice is the cost of living.
Connection to Christ: Jesus took on the form of a slave to rescue us from our bondage to sin. By his wounds we are healed. Jesus gave his life to pay for our violation of God’s justice. Jesus is God over all, who is blessed forever. Amen.
My Application of Exodus 20:22-21:32
Though God has given me real authority as a parent, he also expects me to honor the rights of my household members. Even if I feel rushed, annoyed, upset, or discouraged that the same issue keeps coming up, my children deserve to be treated with respect. They have the right to an opinion. They have the right to a hearing. They have the right not to be condemned and punished on the testimony of a single embittered sibling. They have the right to know why I’m asking what I’m asking. When I meditate on how justice works in God’s kingdom, I’m motivated to much greater patience and compassion as a leader.
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