Studies in Exodus 22:16-23:9


Download sermon

Exodus 22:16-23:9

Remember now, we are in the midst of the covenantal stipulations – most in the form of case laws (that is, rules to follow in various situations) – that followed the Ten Commandments or Ten Words, which served as a summary or epitome of the covenant.  We will be reminded again tonight of one of the great differences between the stipulations of other ANE law codes and that of the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai:  viz. that often a reason if provided for obedience. A motive, a rationale is added to the laws themselves.  Ethics come from theology in the Bible and that means that there is a distinctive motivation in biblical ethics.  And that motivation is always regarded as crucial, not only for its power over the conscience, but for the purification of behavior.  We all know how different the behavior becomes when the right thing is done for the wrong reason.

We have considered so far a body of personal injury laws and a body of laws concerning the loss of property.  Now we turn to a more general class of moral offenses of various types.

Text Comment

v.17     This sounds strange to us, perhaps, but the fact remains that if a young man seduces a girl to satisfy his lust he should bear the consequences.  In that time, and in many places in the world still today, the “bride price” was the payment paid to the bride’s father to compensate for the loss of his daughter to the family, but, apparently, was customarily reserved for the use of the woman (a dowry). [Alter, 445]  In other words, the man had to make an honest woman of his victim.  Now that the woman is no longer a virgin, the bride price will not be paid by anyone else and so the man who was the cause of the loss of virginity must pay it.  This is restoration to the family and punishment to the man. We still today require the young man to pay if a child is conceived, but we have stopped caring about the loss of virginity itself.  The social problems that have ensued from that loss of concern for virginity are some of the most painful and costly that we face as a society.  You will notice that the father isn’t under any obligation to give his daughter to this man.  Further, other laws in the Pentateuch make it clear that responsibility for sexual purity applies to the young woman as well.

v.18     You will notice now a reversion to the apodictic form of law, rather than the case law form of the last several chapters.  It lasts through most of the remaining commandments in this section.  Lev. 20:27 applies the death penalty to men and women who practice as mediums or spiritists.  Such practices – pretences then as now – were betrayals of God’s word and revelation – as if God’s Word were not adequate to guide our lives – and open evasions of God’s prohibition against seeking knowledge that he has denied to men. These were efforts to control the future without regard to God or his covenant and in some other way than living in faithfulness before the Lord.  For Israel this was the repudiation of everything God had called her to be.  There is, alas, a great deal of this “magic” masquerading as divine guidance in even the evangelical church today. God withdrew the power of the sword from the church in the new epoch and the witch-hunts and executions of Christian history were based on superstition not biblical revelation.  One hopes that, still today, anyone who was actually practicing some form of witchcraft would be excommunicated.

v.19     In those days as in our own, sex had widely been detached from its divinely ordered purpose and used simply as a means of physical thrill or, worse, as a method of accessing spiritual power.  In jaded ages, the thrill is more and more likely to be induced by various forms of perversion.  But this debases God’s gift and uses it not to adorn and bless the life of mankind, to draw men and women together in a sacred and unbreakable bond, to imitate God in creating life, but only for sensual fulfillment.  Such behavior strips man of his dignity and renders him more like a beast than a creature created in the image of God.  Such behaviors are not private in their consequences.  Abroad in a culture such as ours, such practices alter man’s view of himself and of the nature of human life.  We have seen this alteration happen before our very eyes in recent years.  Additionally, it seems very likely that bestiality also had some religious significance for the Canaanites (who practiced sexual fertility rites of various kinds) and this is another commandment meant to separate Israel’s religious practices entirely from those of the peoples of the Promised Land to which she was going. [Durham, 328]

v.20     False religion, the repudiation of Yahweh as the living God struck at the foundation of Israel’s life and her calling as Yahweh’s people in the world.  One supposes that if someone today were to worship other gods in evangelical churches they would still be excommunicated, the equivalent of the death penalty in our circumstances.

v.23     This language – “cry out…hear their cry…” – echoes the language used to describe Israel’s misery in Egypt at the beginning of the book and the Lord’s response to her suffering.

v.27     Three laws in succession require Israel to pay special attention to the condition of groups of people who are weak and vulnerable to exploitation, and to make no profit at their expense.  “What the market will bear” is not biblical law.  In Deut. 24:10, God’s people are obliged even to take care not to embarrass a poor man; to be sensitive to his feelings and so not require him to make public display of his need.  The negotiations for the loan should be made in private and the one who advances the money should do so as another member of the family, not as a businessman seeking profit.   If collateral is held, it must be returned before its absence causes hardship. Taking all biblical texts together, the loaning of money at interest is not forbidden in the Bible.  What is forbidden is excessive interest when circumstances make that possible and loaning money at interest to a fellow believer who finds himself in difficult straits.  If a fellow Israelite wanted money with which to build up his business, this law would not prohibit such a loan, even from a fellow Israelite.  What is being forbidden is taking advantage of someone’s misfortune. That would be mistreatment of the poor. God himself is merciful and his people must be as well.  If they are not, they will have to answer to him.  That is, you remember, a large part of the argument of prophets like Amos and Hosea.  They accuse Israel of mistreating the poor and threaten God’s vengeance as a consequence.

v.28     This is the verse Paul quoted at his trial before the high priest (Acts 23:5).

v.29     In context, the reference is either to the first fruits, the first yields of grain or produce or to the best of one’s produce.  What is to be offered is literally “your fullness and your dripping.” [Alter; Durham]

v.30     It was, of course, possible – as we have already read in Exodus 13:13, 15 – Israel could “redeem” their sons and even some of their livestock by the payment of money (Num. 18:15-16).  The Lord has a claim upon his people and their lives and livelihood. That is the sense of these laws.

v.31     The main objection to eating this kind of meat may have been that, not properly slaughtered, it would still have the blood in it and, because of the special role of blood in Israel’s sacrificial ritual, she was not to eat meat with the blood still in it.

23:3     God is truth and justice himself and God’s people must be like him.  They should not favor the rich and powerful, nor follow the crowd, nor bend the truth to benefit the poor.  Together with vv. 6 and 7, these commandments require a dispassionate justice:  “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” with neither fear nor favor.

v.5       The Lord Jesus would say the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount when he commanded his disciples to love their enemies.  And Paul would put it in terms even more like those here:  “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse…do not repay anyone evil for evil.”  God has treated his people far better than they deserve and this then becomes their calling: to be like the Lord in their treatment of their enemies.

v.7       “I will not acquit the guilty” is the language that Paul quotes in Romans 4:5 to say what God does when he justifies sinners.  He must then explain how God, a righteous judge, can acquit the guilty when that is what a judge is not supposed to do.  The answer to the question comes, Paul argues, when we realize that there is righteousness for the guilty, but it is not their own righteousness.  It is Christ’s righteousness reckoned to them.  God acquits them because they are righteous after all; righteous in Christ.  Here the point is sealed by the fact that Yahweh will not acquit the guilty.  If someone suborns justice he will have to answer for his crime and answer to the living God himself, who not only knows the truth but whose judgment no one can evade.

v.8       In context, perhaps the text concerns especially judges.  We are talking about ways in which justice is perverted.  The prevalence of bribery in the Near East is notorious, but, then, we are accustomed to it in the West as well.  Our forms of it are often more sophisticated, but congressional “pork” is, at least very often, bribery in fact and it is a full time job in Washington and in state capitals to try to discover who is making secret payments in order to affect political and bureaucratic outcomes.

v.9       This is not mere humanitarianism, but a deep fellow-feeling rooted in our own experience of God’s grace.  We are to treat others as the Lord has treated us.

Some of you may have read an article in the most recent byFaith magazine, the bi-monthly magazine of our Presbyterian Church in America.  It was entitled “Living a Magnetic Faith in a Post-Christian world,” and began this way.

“One day as we worked in our yard, a neighbor drove up the alley and we noticed a bumper sticker on his truck with the name ‘Jesus’ emblazoned boldly in large letters.  This was especially interesting because we knew he was not a Christian.  We walked up the alley to get a closer look.  ‘Jesus,’ the sticker said, ‘save me from your followers.’”

I often ask people – Christian and non-Christian – some from of this question: ‘if you converted to Christianity today, do you think your life would be larger, fuller, richer, more attractive and creative, more involved with the people, circumstances, art, and culture around you?  Or do you think your life would be smaller, narrower, more withdrawn, judgmental, and negative, less winsome and creative, less involved with people, art, circumstances, and culture around you?

Not once have I received the answer we would hope to hear.  Some Christians have even told me that, come to think of it, they are less creative, more negative, and more withdrawn since coming to know Christ.  As a result, many of our neighbors and co-workers believe they have seen something of our faith and are unimpressed.

You can perhaps predict what followed.  We Christians came in for something of a beating – for not being better representatives of the faith and for not making the gospel more attractive to unbelievers – and then we were challenged to live in such a way as to make our faith less offensive and more “magnetic” to the unbelievers around us.  There was, to be sure, some good advice in the article.

But I had some immediate reactions to the article that, even upon reflection, I think were fair.  First, I still think it a bit strange that the author should use that bumper sticker – “Jesus, save me from your followers” – as a lead-in to his article, when he admits that the sticker was affixed to a truck owned by his own neighbor!  Is that not virtually an admission that the author’s own neighbor has not seen an attractive Christian faith in the Christian family that lives across the alley from him?  And, if so, is that not an admission that the author is telling us to do what he hasn’t done himself?

I suspect the author would deny that.  And I suspect he would be right!  Part of the problem, of course, is that in our culture it is very easy for enemies of the gospel to pick and choose their representatives of the Christian faith and very easy for Christians to do the same thing.  There are plenty of people out there, public figures and lesser known individuals and ministries, that are a rank embarrassment to the Christian faith and there are plenty of people in Christian churches whose lives are no recommendation for the Gospel of Christ.  There is not much that we can do about that, unfortunately.  But of serious-minded and devout Christians, I suspect that the facts are quite dramatically otherwise than suggested by that bumper sticker.

For example, we are so often told – usually by Christian preachers and writers wanting to lash the church for her failures – that the divorce rate among evangelical Christians is virtually the same as the rate among unbelievers.  “What good is it to be a Christian if it doesn’t help your marriage?” is the subtext.  But, as I showed you not long ago from my own files, devout Christians, serious-minded Christians hardly ever get divorces, and when they do it is very often the case that one of the spouses is no longer a loyal Christian, intending to and living the Christian life.  Of the scores of Christian couples that I have married over the past 27 years, 95% of them are still married and one has only to look through my wedding licenses to know that these people will remain married until death does them part. That conclusion has been confirmed by several pastor friends of mine who have also married large numbers of Christian couples through the years of their ministries.  So, it all depends on what one means by Christian marriage.

Well, in the same way, I suspect that, in fact, devout and serious-minded Christians, Christians who are actually living out their faith and following Christ in the world, are, by and large, known to their neighbors as happy folk, kind and considerate of their neighbors, devoted to their children, and involved in a variety of good works that are a benefit to others.  What is more, I suspect that the more their neighbors get to know them, the more down-to-earth and salt-of-the-earth people they will think their Christian neighbors to be.  Surely there are exceptions to this, but the fact is, I’ve heard this from unbelievers many times.  Some of you became Christians in the first place because of the impression made upon you by the Christians that you knew.  It was not only in Tertullian’s day that the pagans have thought and even said, “My how those Christians love one another!”  Real Christians don’t live shrunken lives; they aren’t narrower, more withdrawn, or judgmental because of their Christian faith.  On the contrary, they are more interested and more involved.

However, it is true that their convictions put them at odds with their unbelieving neighbors at many points.  I suspect that this is really what was at work in the bumper sticker, not close acquaintance with lots of devout Christian people.  Whether its our opposition to abortion, or our conviction that Christ and Christ alone can save people from their sins and bring them to eternal life, or our conviction that those without the righteousness of Christ must perish, or any number of ethical convictions that amount in the nature of the case to a condemnation of our unbelieving neighbors’ way of life.  We aren’t personally condemning them.  We have not told them that they are in danger of going to hell.  We have not knocked on their door to tell them that they should be faithful to their marriage, that they should not raise their children as they are doing, that they should be in God’s house on the Lord’s Day, but they’re not dumb.  They can see the implications of our convictions for themselves and they attach their distaste for our convictions to us and to our lives.  Daniel was a faithful believing man in Babylon.  That did not, however, by any means make him popular with everyone or the object of universal admiration.  Many resented him precisely because of his way of life. That is natural enough and, to be honest, to our shame we often pass such judgments on others ourselves.  We assumed that unbelievers are worse than they are because we tar them with the brush of their beliefs.  But just as we Christians are so often worse than our beliefs, unbelievers are so often better than theirs!  I know that some of you would admit that your view of Christians changed dramatically as soon as you came to accept the truth of the Gospel.  You realized that your opinion of them had been prejudiced by your own deeply felt disagreement with their beliefs and their worldview.

Well all of that to introduce two points of great significance in the collection of laws we have read tonight from Exodus 22 and 23.

  • In the first place, there is an organic and intrinsic connection between our theology and our ethics.

This is why Christian belief does and must produce a certain kind of life: such a life is the inevitable outgrowth the overflow of our knowledge of God’s nature and of our salvation.  To know Yahweh and to know what he has done for us must shape the way we live our lives.

In several instances this point is made explicitly and the suggestion is certainly that the connection between indicative and imperative, between what is true about God and his grace and what we must do is always present and always at work.

So we are told in v. 22 that we must not take advantage of a widow or an orphan precisely because God has compassion on the defenseless and the vulnerable and will not stand for it if his people do not.  What is more, the language of v. 23 reminds us of Israel’s own misery in Egypt and how she cried out to God in her need and how he heard her cry and delivered her.  Israel is therefore to do to others as God did to her, to be compassionate and merciful as the Lord was toward her and because the Lord was toward her. Then, again, as we read in v. 27, “The Lord is compassionate,” and, therefore, we must be as well.  Indeed, we must be compassionate even if such compassion works against what would be ordinarily understood as good business sense or understandable self-interest.  There is nothing wrong, for example, with seeking collateral for a loan, but in the case of a needy fellow Israelite, your need for collateral as a lender takes second place to his need for a warm coat.  It must be so because Yahweh is God and we are his people saved by his grace.

We are told in 23:7 that God will not acquit the guilty and that, therefore, in keeping with God’s just character and his love of truth, Israel must be truthful in all her legal judgments and all her statements.  All of this is summed up in 22:31 where we read that Israel is to be God’s holy people, which recollects the frequent refrain of God’s law:  “be holy as I am holy.”  We are to be as God’s people, like him in his holiness.

Well we can apply this principle rather easily to all of these commandments.  A man who seduces a virgin should be punished because God is pure and loving and does not act in indifference to the welfare of others.  We must eliminate sorcery because it is a betrayal of the truth about God, who is not some minor deity who can be manipulated by magic, but is the living God who is served by faith and love.  We must not blaspheme God because his nature demands our reverence; we must not hold back our offerings because everything we have comes from him; we must not lie or bear false witness because God is truth; and we must not oppress an alien because we know what it is like to be an alien and God had compassion on us when we were aliens.

The simple point of all of these reasons, these rationales, these arguments for obedience added to the several commandments is that there is an inevitable logic to these laws, that they are rooted in the way things are, that they must be what they are because God is what he is and his grace to us has been what it is.

It is the inevitability and the power of this connection between our belief in God and his salvation and a very particular way of life that explains not only the distinctive character of God’s law among the laws of the ANE world and the fact that serious-minded and devout believers do, in fact, live the Christian life to a noticeable degree.  In other words, the connection between real faith and godly living that the article in byFaith seemed to call into question, is, in fact, an observable fact of Christian and world history.  Once you come to know God as the being he is and salvation as the gift of God’s grace it is, you must live your life differently.  We may fail to do this perfectly, to be sure, but that there is and must be such a real connection between faith and life the Bible teaches from beginning to end.

  • Second, true biblical holiness is a totality, an integrated whole, an indivisible and inseparable embodiment of divine goodness.

It sometimes confuses us, the way the Law of God, follows one commandment upon another. Here, for example, we have a law about sexual impurity followed by laws about sorcery, bestiality, idolatry, compassion for the poor, blasphemy, tithes and offerings, eating the meat of an animal killed by other animals, lying and false testimony, being kind to an enemy, and so on.  Some of them concern quite private forms of godliness, others quite public.  Some concern what we would nowadays call social justice and others concern what we might call personal piety.  The law seems, in other words, to jump around and take in order very different things.

Now, there is no doubt that we Christians are tempted to cherry-pick from God’s law and concentrate our attention on certain commandments or certain areas of the Law.  Some Christians are all about private godliness – devotion in the narrower sense: prayer, Bible reading, praise, and, perhaps witness to the unsaved – while other Christians are more interested in the more social and public aspects of biblical justice and righteousness.

But the Law does not permit us to choose, to specialize as it were.  Daniel, again, was a man whose life was lived on the grand stage of Babylonian politics, but he got into his most serious trouble because he was so faithful at his private prayers.  And, in the same way, the fact that we are active in pro-life efforts or give to the relief of the poor does not mean that we can be indifferent to God’s worship or that we can be promiscuous in our sexual lives.

God’s people are to be reflectors of his nature and his mercy in public and just as careful to please him when they are alone or with only one other person.  The great heresy of the 20th century – viz. that collective virtue could be pursued without reference to personal behavior – is precisely a viewpoint forbidden in the Law of God.  The private and public, the individual and the social is thoroughly mixed in a single holiness and is connected to one another all the more profoundly by the fact that the rationale for the one is the same rationale as for the other.  God’s nature and God’s grace will make us virtuous in public and private – will make us care for others we don’t know in the same way that it makes us care for the glory of God in our own bodies and souls.

The old canard that Christians are too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good is the sort of slur that not only is false on its face – eternity alone will tell how much good Christians have done for others in this benighted world – but must be false.  The same reasons that make a Christian care for his enemies’ property and be truthful in his public speech, the same reasons that make him compassionate toward the needy, are the reasons that lead him to chastity in his relations with the opposite sex and honesty in his business dealings.

But let me finish not with a defense of Christians but with a challenge to us all.  We should all read these laws requiring us to be compassionate toward the needy and generous to our enemies and immediately examine ourselves to see if this obedience is really, genuinely, and obviously present in our lives and growing.  And to that end, let me remind you of the life of one of the most interesting people of the 20th century:  Simone Weil, the French Jewess philosopher and later Christian convert (though, alas, hardly a reliable guide to Christian teaching or biblical interpretation).  I have been reading another book about Simone Weil these last few days.

What was so remarkable about Weil was her sympathy.  A young Marxist in France between the wars, she gradually lost faith in Marxism and its advocates because of what she saw was a total lack of real compassion or sympathy for working people and a complete failure to understand what the life of working people was like or how to change it for the better.  The Marxists talked about the suffering of the proletariat but, in fact, Weil came to believe, they were motivated not by compassion for the poor but by hatred for the French bourgeois culture.  Most of those who talked at length about the working conditions of the proletariat had never been in a factory and had certainly never worked in one.  Simone, not yet a Christian, felt it was not enough simply to talk about the life of the working man or woman, but to experience that life and to suffer with those who labored in the factories of depression-era Europe.  So, this mild-mannered, slight, and not physically competent young professor went to work at menial but, for her, very difficult jobs in French factories.  Her hard experiences in factory work and with factory workers changed her views substantially and made her a legend in French intellectual circles in the middle of the 20th century.  I could go on.  This is the Simone Weil who literally starved herself to death during the Second World War.  She was a minor functionary of the French government in exile – her passion forced them to give her something to do but she wasn’t very well suited for that kind of work.  The Germans had put the French citizenry on rations and, though hardly any French people actually had to get by on the legal rations – most French people had plenty of food during the war – in an act of solidarity with her countrymen, Weil, living in England, fasted constantly, limiting herself to the amount of food she imagined the suffering souls on the continent had to eat each day.  I’m not sure I have ever encountered a person so consumed by thoughts of and concern for the sufferings of others.  Weakened by her fasting, she succumbed to tuberculosis in 1943.

At that time Weil understood herself, in compassion for the oppressed, to be following Jesus Christ.  Now Weil’s thinking as a Christian leaves a great deal to be desired.  But in this, surely, she is a heroic example for every Christian.  God is compassion itself, as he is purity itself, truth itself, and justice itself.  So our lives are to be marked, decisively marked by compassion, truth, purity, and justice.  Our lives are to be reflections of his character and of the grace and mercy he has shown us in our need.  This is our calling as his chosen people.  And we should not read such laws as these without feeling in our heart a great longing as well as a great obligation to become more obviously and more authentically the people whose lives are described in these laws.  We are not to read these various covenantal stipulations as a code of conduct to consult from time to time, whenever some specific set of circumstances arises requiring some ethical decision on our part.

No!  This is a picture of our way of life, our character, our behavior as it ought to be, a reflection of God’s nature, character, and way of life: our God, our Maker and our Savior.  We are to study this profile of human life and then work every day to bring it to expression in our words and our deeds.  And we will if, first in our hearts, there is living, active, and powerful, the knowledge of God’s compassion, justice, purity, and truth.  There should have been in Israel’s case – after all she had seen God do for her in bringing her out of Egypt on eagles’ wings – and there should be in our case, knowing all we know about what Christ suffered to deliver us from sin and death and open for us the way to everlasting life.