Bible: What Does Exodus 21-22 Teach Us About Case Law?
The Book of the Covenant
Slave and Master
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Now the LORD begins to explain different case laws/ordinances to Moses (v. 1).
[Exodus 21-23 appears to be the Book of the Covenant (See Ex. 24:7)].
Verses two through eleven stress the master-servant relationship.
The latter serves the former for six years; in the seventh year, the master frees the slave unless the former has given the latter a wife, and she has borne him children.
In such a case, the women and children would stay with the master (vv. 2-4).
This arrangement provides incentive enough for servants to remain with their masters "forever," (that is, for life), and thus perpetuate the institution (vv. 5-6).
In another scenario, a master who buys a servant’s daughter does not forfeit her when he sets the man free.
If she does not please him as a betrothed wife, someone can redeem her, but not a foreigner (vv. 7-8).
The master must treat her according to the “custom of daughters” if he betroths her to his son (v. 9).
If he reneges to provide for her the following rights—food, clothing, “marriage rights”—when he marries a second wife, the master must set her free (vv. 10-11).
[What is the “custom of daughters”?
Obviously, these specific laws do not apply directly today, but the principle of the fair treatment of women does].
Meaning of "Lex Talionis"
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Punishment: Corporal and Financial
Now concerning how to deal with violence, God commands capital punishment for premeditated murder (vv. 12, 14), striking or cursing either father or mother (vv. 15, 17), and kidnapping/selling another (v. 16).
[God provides cities of refuge for the unpremeditated manslayer (v. 13; cf. Num. 35:9-28).
Evil as it is to dishonor parents in the ways delineated above, how is it just for the offense to deserve a death sentence?]
Several other types of cases follow:
(1) When two men fight and one is disabled, the victor pays for the injured one’s loss of work and recovery costs (vv. 18-19).
(2) A master who kills his servant merits an unspecified punishment (v. 20), but the latter’s recovery brings none (v. 21).
[The concept of one individual being another’s property—in essence, slavery—is a difficult problem to resolve].
(3) A husband and certain judges may assess damages when the wife delivers prematurely because of the husband’s struggle with another man (v. 22).
If other harm occurs, then the lex talionis takes over (vv. 23-25).
This law does not apply to servants whose masters disfigure them; however, the latter must free the former (vv. 26-27).
Certain laws also govern animal control:
(4) An ox loses its life if it kills a person, but its owner only forfeits the right to eat it (v. 28).
However, the owner is also executed if he neglects to confine his dangerous ox, and it kills someone (v. 29).
Apparently, the owner can redeem his life by paying a fine (vv. 30-31).
If an ox kills a servant, the fine is only thirty shekels plus the loss of the ox (v. 32).
[This devaluation of servants is disturbing!]
(5) A pit owner must pay damages to one whose animal falls into a hole and dies; he must also keep the dead animal (vv. 33-34).
(6) The man whose ox kills another’s ox must sell his ox and divide the proceeds, as well as take responsibility for half of the dead ox (v. 35).
If the first owner neglects to confine a dangerous animal, and it kills a neighbor’s ox, he must give him his ox and take full responsibility for the dead one (v. 36).
[These laws enjoin personal responsibility for private property as well as fair and just compensation for loss because of negligence].
Several more laws of restitution follow:
(1) Those people who steal sheep or oxen and sell or butcher them must restore to the owner four- to five-fold (v. 1).
(2) Those people who catch robbers red-handed and kill them in self-defense are not culpable for their death (v. 2).
However, if they apprehend thieves and shed their blood, then the thieves are guilty (v. 3a).
[Which parties are guilty of bloodshed if “the sun has risen on him”?]
Those arrested must either pay restitution or be sold into slavery (v. 3b).
Restitution is double if the thief has the stolen animal in his possession (v. 4).
(3) Unrestrained animals grazing in a neighbor’s field will cost their owner the best out of his own field (v. 5).
[Allowing one’s beast to graze another man’s field is a form of stealing].
(4) Those people who deliberately set fires that destroy another’s property (that is, arsonists) must make restitution (v. 6).
[The text does not mention any specific amount.]
(5) Thieves caught stealing goods from individuals who are temporarily keeping these articles at a neighbor’s home must pay double (v. 7).
If they cannot find the thieves, the neighbor must face judges to discover the truth (v. 8).
In all such cases of trespass, both parties must appear before judges (v. 9).
(6) If an animal, temporarily kept by a neighbor, suffers harm or death, and the neighbor swears innocence of wrongdoing before God, the animal’s owner must accept that oath (vv. 10-11).
If the neighbor is guilty of theft, he makes restitution (v. 12); however, if a wild beast kills the animal, and the neighbor brings the animal’s torn remains as evidence, he does not need to pay anything to the owner (v. 13).
(7) If any borrowed animal dies, and the owner is absent, the neighbor must “make it good” (v. 14).
If the owner is present, the neighbor shall not have to pay (v. 15).
Moral and Ceremonial Principles
Next, Yahweh delivers moral and ceremonial principles to Moses.
(1) A male who commits fornication with an unbetrothed virgin female must pay the “bride-price” (dowry) for her, unless her father refuses to allow the marriage.
Then the male must pay the “bride-price” of virgins (vv. 16-17; cf. Gen. 34:12).
[How does the dowry differ from the “bride-price” of virgins?]
(2) Women who practice sorcery must be put to death (v. 18; cf. Lev. 20:27).
[Sorcery is related to spiritism and mediumship (calling up the spirits of the dead) [cf. Deut. 18:10-11].
(3) People who copulate with animals must be put to death (v. 19; cf. Deut. 27:21).
(4) Sacrificing to false gods is also a capital offense (v. 20).
(5) God strictly prohibits the oppression of strangers (v. 21).
[The Israelites should not do to others what others have done to them].
(6) Widows and orphans are especially protected classes of citizens; those violating their rights God will kill (vv. 22-24).
(7) The rich shall not charge interest on a loan to the poor, or keep his garment overnight (vv. 25-27); God will also ensure his justice.
(8) God warns the Israelites about speaking abusively against the rulers of Israel or against Himself (v. 28).
[The Apostle Paul caught himself doing the former, though perhaps he was unaware that his inquisitor was the high priest (see Acts 23:5)].
(9) God stresses the importance of holiness: the setting aside (consecration) to God of the first fruits from the field, the barn, and the household (vv. 29-31).
© 2013 glynch1