From Exodus 20:22 to Exodus 23:33, we can read what has been called the “Book of the Covenant.” This is a collection of laws that were applicable in the lives of the early Israelites. This is the Ten Commandments put into action in a particular time and a particular place and a particular culture.
The character and intent of the Ten Commandments can be seen in this collection of laws. God is to be worshipped, and idolatry is to be shunned. Human life is sacred, and so murder is wrong. Parents are to be honored, and so to curse them is a sin.
Some things, of course, are hard to understand from our own cultural context. How could God permit slavery? When we hear the word “slave” in our American context, something very clear comes to mind – the brutal treatment of the slaves brought here from Africa – and it is an ugly thing. I’m sure slavery in the ancient world trended toward that kind of violence and harsh treatment, too. But slavery in the ancient world wasn’t always like that.
The slavery allowed in the ancient Hebrew world, as you can tell if you read Exodus 21 carefully, was very different from the American slavery of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. For instance, American slaves were not released after six years of service – or after a tooth had been knocked out by his or her master!
And so we need to read these laws with an eye on the Ten Commandments and with a recognition that, while the details of these laws don’t necessarily apply today, the principles of these laws – as they relate to the preservation of life and justice – remain as something we should live by as God’s people today.
Off the top of my head, I can think of four principles for godly life that we can take from Exodus 21:
1) We are to value human life. It ought not to be taken lightly.
2) We are to treat people fairly and with compassion, especially those who come under our care for one reason or another – like children or parents or employees.
3) We are to be diligent in safeguarding the lives of others. Cover the “pits” you dig, and keep an eye on any unruly “oxen” that you own!
4) Godly justice means the penalty ought to be, at most, in proportion with the crime – “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
This last one deserves a little more thought. God here was drawing a line for his people when it comes to administering justice. If someone wrongs me, I might want to retaliate. It might even be fitting that I seek some compensation for the wrong that was done to me.
But a temptation might be to retaliate with even greater force than that with which I was wronged. If someone punches me once, I might want to punch back twice. If I was cheated out of $1,000, I might sue to win back $2,000.
God tells us this kind of thinking is sinful. He draws a very clear line. The penalty must be, at most, in proportion to the offense.
I say “at most” because Jesus reframed this principle in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:38-42).
Jesus told his disciples to go beyond the bare minimum of the Law when it comes to limiting how one administers justice in this life. The Law seems to point out a principle for life: Don’t be unreasonably and unfairly harsh. And Jesus seemed to take that to its extreme: Don’t be harsh at all. Be patient and forgiving.
One of the great fathers of the faith, a man named Augustine, wrote that the principle of an “eye for an eye” is a “lesser righteousness.” By this, Augustine meant that the principle is a good one because it keeps us in check. Sometimes, he noted, we might be inclined because of anger to let the other person “have it” worse than that person gave it to us, or we might think that person deserves to be punished worse than we were harmed.
The principle of an “eye for an eye” is righteous because it checks our anger or our own notions of what another person deserves. (The idea of what another person “deserves” is always a tricky concept because we then have to think about what we “deserve.”) Augustine said the concept of an “eye for an eye” is the “beginning of peace.”
But Augustine said it is a “lesser” righteousness because the best kind of righteousness is to have no desire for vengeance at all.
And this is what Jesus called his disciples to have. Jesus heightened the call of the Law and began to pattern it after his own life and actions. After all, he is God. The Law belongs to him, and he can apply it as he chooses. He showed us how to live out the principles of the Law in fullness. “I have not come to abolish (the Law or the Prophets) but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).
So that is your food for thought for the day. Please read carefully and introspectively. Consider the principles behind the laws that were laid out for the Israelites and how those principles might apply today. And consider how Jesus would apply them in a “fulfilled” sense.