Having established basic human rights, even for society’s least, and basic property rights, to promote peace between one person and another, the Lord’s body of case laws moves on to bigger issues of social justice that will affect the entire community.
Observation of Exodus 22:16-31
Most repeated words: shall (21 times), you (20x), not (9), your (9), for (6), if (6), me (5), any (4), give (4), I (4), cry (3)
- On this section’s list of repeated words, I’ve included some of the common “stop words” that I normally exclude. Usually, words like shall, you, your, for, me, and I aren’t terribly significant compared to other vocabulary used. But in this section, they take pre-eminence.
- In particular, we see often in this passage the reasons (“for”) why “you” “shall” “not” do certain things.
- And those reasons usually have to deal with what is true about “I” and “me” (Yahweh God).
This section is filled with reasons for the case laws—something lacking in the first two sections of instruction
- We’ve seen the English word “for” before this, but only as a preposition (“it came for its hiring fee,” Ex 22:15), not a conjunction (“for you were sojourners,” Ex 22:21).
- Ex 22:21: Don’t wrong a sojourner, for you were sojourners in Egypt.
- Ex 22:23-24: If you mistreat widow and orphans, I (God) will hear their cry and make your wives widows and your children orphans (i.e. I will kill you).
- Ex 22:27: Don’t take a poor person’s cloak as collateral, for that is his only covering.
- Ex 22:27: If he cries out, I will hear, for I am compassionate.
- Ex 22:31: Don’t eat roadkill, for you are consecrated (special) to me.
This section begins with a case of sexual impurity (Ex 23:16), and it ends with a case of dietary impurity (Ex 23:31).
- In between, we have many cases dealing with broad societal issues, such as who may (not) live in the community (Ex 23:18-20), how the community treats aliens and the weak (Ex 23:21-27), and how the community treats God and its leadership (Ex 23:28-30).
- All throughout, there are references to fathers, daughters, widows, wives, children, firstborn and sons. Lots of familial terminology.
- 5 cases dealing with impurity in the community (Ex 23:16-20)
- 4 cases dealing with oppressive treatment of society’s weakest (Ex 23:21-27
- 4 cases dealing with insubordinate treatment of society’s leadership (Ex 23:28-30)
- 1 case demonstrating the implications of being a special people for God (Ex 23:31)
Interpretation of Exodus 22:16-31
Some possible questions:
- Which of the Ten Commandments are being applied here?
- Does God require a woman to marry her rapist (Ex 22:16, also Deut 22:28-29)?
- Why does this passage suddenly give so many reasons and purpose statements?
My answers (numbers correspond to the questions):
- Some of the cases are clear applications of “do not commit adultery” (Ex 22:16-17, 19). Ex 22:20 seems to apply “no other gods.” Ex 22:28 seems to apply “don’t take God’s name in vain.” But what do we do with the case of the sorceress (Ex 22:18)? Or moneylending (Ex 22:25-27)—is that about “do not steal”? The cases in Ex 22:16-31 are not as clear as the earlier sections were. But because of all the familial language, the rooting of many of these cases in the character and relationship of God with his people, and the fact that adultery has to do with much more than extramarital human sexual relations (e.g. see Hosea 1:2, 2:2, etc.)—for those three reasons, I’m inclined to see all of Ex 22:16-31 as applying the command “don’t commit adultery.” These cases deal with sexual ethics, as well as the purity of the community as the Bride of God. I wouldn’t fight too hard for this conclusion, but it’s where I’ve come to at this point.
- This interpretive question is not critical to understanding the whole passage, but I mention it because I think it’s a common question for those who accuse the Bible’s ethics of being barbaric or inhumane. In Ex 22:16, the sexual activity appears to be consensual and not rape, but I could be wrong; and anyway, Deut 22:28-29 clearly addresses the case of rape. And the focus of the text is not so much to require the victim to marry her attacker, as it is for the attacker to take on the responsibility of providing for his victim for the rest of her life. In ancient Israelite culture, a woman so violated would have been utterly forsaken and destitute for the rest of her life. The requirement for the rapist to marry her was a provision for her well-being. In today’s culture, we would probably apply the principle differently: requiring the attacker to pay lifelong “alimony” to his victim.
- This third question moves us much farther in interpretation. When God broadens his instructions out from detailed person-to-person dealings, and into the purity of the community, he makes sure to root the community’s sense of justice in his own love for these people. He is a father to these people. He is a vengeful husband to the oppressed. Nobody messes with his bride and gets away with it. We learn much about God’s compassion and ferocious commitment to those who have no other built-in social protection.
Train of thought:
- The community must maintain purity as the status quo.
- The community must care for the least.
- The community must do these things in submission to the Lord their God.
Main point: Social justice is rooted in God’s just character, and it flows from maintaining purity before him.
Connection to Christ: Jesus shows us the fulness of the character of God. He came to bring justice to the oppressed and declare freedom to captives. He did that by laying down his life to win for himself a true bride, whom he will one day present pure and spotless.
My Application of Exodus 22:16-31
Social justice begins in my home and my church, and it moves out from there to society. If we compromise purity before God, our attempts at justice get nowhere. If we don’t move out to bring justice, our attempts at purity before God are self-serving and ultimately unconvincing. As a husband, father, and church elder, I must persevere in protecting our purity and in persuading folks to keep looking outward to minister Christ’s justice to the nations. Our compassionate God expects it of us.
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