Observation of Exodus 23:1-19
Most repeated words: not (9 times), feast (5x), keep (5), year (5) day (3), donkey (3), eat (3), field (3), lawsuit (3), let (3), nor (3), poor (3), rest (3), sojourner (3), time (3)
- If we include common stop words, this passage continues the case-law trend of frequently using “you,” “shall,” “of,” “your,” “with,” and “for.”
- A shift to the sabbath commandment is apparent from “feast,” “keep,” “year,” “day,” “rest,” and “time.”
- Another theme seems to be oppression or justice (lawsuit, poor, sojourner).
The structure clearly divides into two sections, with a noteworthy conclusion:
- 10 instructions about truth and justice (applying “don’t bear false witness”)
- 4 instructions about wicked partiality – Ex 23:1-3
- Don’t ever join testimony about someone without evidence, even if it will help people in need.
- 2 instructions about being true to your enemies – Ex 23:4-5
- Don’t pretend you weren’t aware of their needs.
- 3 instructions about perverting justice in legal proceedings – Ex 23:6-8
- Don’t act like the wicked, who are not able to see things clearly.
- 1 instruction about being true to sojourners – Ex 23:9
- Don’t feign ignorance of what it’s like to be a sojourner.
- 4 instructions about wicked partiality – Ex 23:1-3
- 6 instructions about work and rest (applying “remember the sabbath”)
- 2 instructions about working hard so you can rest and provide for others – Ex 23:10-12
- 1 instruction about crediting the right god (Ex 23:13) – this might be an application of “don’t take Yahweh’s name in vain”
- 1 instruction, with 3 instances, about keeping Yahweh’s appointed feasts – Ex 23:14-17
- 2 instructions about authorized offerings – Ex 23:18-19a
- 1 concluding instruction about how to boil a young goat – Ex 23:19b
- This final instruction stands apart, as it’s not really about work and rest (goats would not be boiled, but roasted, during an offering at a feast)
In addition, the next verse (Ex 23:20) takes us in a new direction. The rest of chapter 23 doesn’t have any case laws, but more of a vision for obeying the case laws. So the instruction about boiling a young goat takes a prominent place as the last instruction.
Interpretation of Exodus 23:1-19
Some possible questions:
- Why does God give so many instructions about truthful justice?
- What does the Lord want to communicate about the purpose of the sabbath?
- Why are the culinary habits of young-goat chefs so prominent? What is significant about boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk? Why is this the last case law?
My answers (numbers correspond to the questions):
- Clearly, we all are prone to one form of bias or another, so the Lord warns against it from all sides. Watch out for peer pressure (Ex 23:1), social pressure (Ex 23:2), and victimization (Ex 23:3). Don’t let your negative feelings toward someone prevent you from treating them humanely (Ex 23:4-5). Watch out for power-mongering (Ex 23:6), reversing God’s standards (Ex 23:7), and profiting personally from legal outcomes (Ex 23:8). Don’t ever forget what it’s like to be one of the little guys (Ex 23:9). Our sinful hearts will seek any direction away from truth and toward self-preservation. Be on your guard!
- The sabbath is not merely about going to church on Sunday, nor about dutiful religious activity. It requires hard work (Ex 23:10). For the Israelites, it’s not just one day per week, but also three weeks out of every year, and one year out of every seven. The purpose is not primarily for you, or even for God, but for others. The sabbath year is so “that the poor of your people may eat” (Ex 23:11). The sabbath day is so “that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed” (Ex 23:12). Here in the Old Testament, we learn why Jesus had little patience for people who refused to do good on the sabbath. When Jesus himself did so, he was never breaking the sabbath command, but actually obeying it.
- A mother’s milk was created by God to give life to her young. Boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk would be taking what was meant for life and using it as an implement for death. Perhaps this instruction is the last case law, to serve as a metaphor for the entire code of Ex 21-23. This body of instruction is meant to give you life, by showing you how God’s character works itself out in your community. Don’t use it (the law) to kill or destroy. In other words, don’t use it to try to earn God’s favor, which you already have (Ex 20:2). Don’t use it to bludgeon people into submission (as the Pharisees tried to do with Jesus and his disciples). Don’t use it to lay burdens on people without lifting a finger to help them carry those burdens. Instead, use the law to help improve the quality of life for God’s people in God’s world.
Train of thought:
- Blind justice preserves extreme truthfulness.
- Hard work promotes true rest.
- Implements of life must never be twisted into agents for death.
Main point: God’s people diligently employ truth and rest to do good for others.
Connection to Christ: Jesus not only spoke the truth but was himself the embodiment of Truth (John 14:6). And Jesus’ work was never for himself but always for the good of others (Acts 10:38). He died, according to the will of his Father, so self-interested liars like us could have life.
My Application of Exodus 23:1-19
I usually focus on personal/inward application, but this text provokes me to focus more outwardly and culturally. We must apply these truths as a people before God, and God has called me to help influence the world for him.
So as a part of this community, I must fight to prevent channels of life from becoming instruments of death. Truth and justice matter, for the good of others. There is a time and a place for death (such as the field of battle, the hospice, and the execution chamber). But schools are not for shooting. Hospitals are not for euthanizing. Medical clinics are not for aborting. Homes are not for fighting or yelling. Conversations are not for tearing down. Sabbaths are not for coercing. And Bibles are not for thumping or berating.
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