Monthly Archives: July 2017

Exodus 22: Boundaries, Trust and Reconciliation

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Exodus 22:1-15 Expanding the Commandment on Stealing

 When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.1 The thief shall make restitution, but if unable to do so, shall be sold for the theft. 4 When the animal, whether ox or donkey or sheep, is found alive in the thief’s possession, the thief shall pay double.

 2 If a thief is found breaking in, and is beaten to death, no bloodguilt is incurred; 3 but if it happens after sunrise, bloodguilt is incurred.

5 When someone causes a field or vineyard to be grazed over, or lets livestock loose to graze in someone else’s field, restitution shall be made from the best in the owner’s field or vineyard.

 6 When fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or the standing grain or the field is consumed, the one who started the fire shall make full restitution.

 7 When someone delivers to a neighbor money or goods for safekeeping, and they are stolen from the neighbor’s house, then the thief, if caught, shall pay double. 8 If the thief is not caught, the owner of the house shall be brought before God,1 to determine whether or not the owner had laid hands on the neighbor’s goods.

 9 In any case of disputed ownership involving ox, donkey, sheep, clothing, or any other loss, of which one party says, “This is mine,” the case of both parties shall come before God;1 the one whom God condemns2 shall pay double to the other.

 10 When someone delivers to another a donkey, ox, sheep, or any other animal for safekeeping, and it dies or is injured or is carried off, without anyone seeing it, 11 an oath before the LORD shall decide between the two of them that the one has not laid hands on the property of the other; the owner shall accept the oath, and no restitution shall be made. 12 But if it was stolen, restitution shall be made to its owner. 13 If it was mangled by beasts, let it be brought as evidence; restitution shall not be made for the mangled remains.

 14 When someone borrows an animal from another and it is injured or dies, the owner not being present, full restitution shall be made. 15 If the owner was present, there shall be no restitution; if it was hired, only the hiring fee is due.

We no longer live in a time where cattle rustlers and sheep stealers are our greatest concern, but concerns for the integrity of one’s property and household continue to actively consume our daily life. We live in an age where we attempt to insure our property and livelihood is protected by paying an agency for insurance but in the ancient world the community and family was the insurance that the individual and family invested in. Theft, irresponsibility, and inter-family strife threaten the bonds that hold the community together. As we look at the way the book of Exodus attempts to structure the communal life of the people of Israel I will also attempt to bring in some parallel concerns for our own age.

I have followed the NRSV in rearranging the Hebrew verses in verses 1-4 in a way that keeps the themes of restitution for a lost animal together. The way it is arranged above (vs. 1, 3b, 4, 2, 3a.) unites the themes about if the animal is lost with if the animal is found alive in the thief’s possession. The penalty for a slaughtered or sold or otherwise unreturnable animal is four or five-fold, while a returnable animal is two-fold. Note that the justice is restorative-intended to restore the property and repair the relationship between the thief and the person whose property is stolen.  Contrast this with our system where a person who has stolen something is incarcerated by the state without restitution being made to the individual whose property has been lost. The system in Exodus is dedicated to restoring relationships between individuals in community. In our system, the loss may be borne by insurance agencies (if a person can afford appropriate insurance) and the state pays the price of holding a person. In ancient Israel, a person unable to pay their debt to their neighbor could, as outlined in the previous chapter, sell themselves to be a slave of the offended party and their debt to their neighbor was worked off in their service. In an age where our rate of spending on prisons is outstripping many other important functions that the state oversees. At least in the state of Texas, it costs more per day to have a person in prison than to educate a student. If for only economic reasons, it would be worth looking at ways in which at least some crimes could be settled in a way that kept a person out of prison and as an active part of the community and society. If you look at restorative justice systems they are focused on attempting to have the offender make restitution for the crimes they have committed and have a path for returning the trust to the community.

In the United States, several states have passed Stand Your Ground laws which give an individual permission to defend themselves with force, even lethal force, when they feel threatened. The Castle Doctrine, which allowed this type of self and property defense within the home was extended by the Stand Your Ground Laws to anyplace a person has a legal right to be. The Castle Doctrine does parallel, at least partially, the provisions for a thief breaking in. Here it is assumed that thievery will happen at night and that in the confusion of night a person could be beaten to death but in the daylight the ability to identify someone clearly and how they were endangering life and property could be more easily discerned. Legislating these things takes wisdom, something that is sadly lacking in our time. In our society, we have inverted the concerns of the people of Israel. For us the debates center around personal security while in Israel they were about community relations. Note that the limits are placed on the bloodguilt that the family of the invader could claim. The ability to claim that one’s neighbor was threatening as a justification for killing would not have been acceptable for Ancient Israel.

The model of restitution continues throughout the passage as it addresses property damage by irresponsibility, disputed property, safekeeping of money or goods, safekeeping of livestock and loss while borrowing of livestock. If one causes a field or vineyard to burn (the future prosperity of the individual) one is responsible for restoring that loss. Although things are more complex in our world it does make me wonder if there is some wisdom in looking at how restitution could be made when the actions of a person ‘playing with fire’ endangers the future income of another. Throughout my lifetime I have heard countless stories of people’s retirement income being bet on risky investments by an investor and lost. While it is challenging to imagine how the debt could be repaid in these situations it is an interesting situation to ponder. In cases where property ownership is disputed we often see the courts involved, and I’m not advocating a return to religious courts that deal with this litigation-but the system in ancient Israel was about restoring relationships and taking the issue before God perhaps provided a less costly and less antagonistic process for restoring those relationships. The issues related to safekeeping goods, money or livestock there is a quick examination to see whether the person safeguarding is at fault: if an animal is attacked by a wild beast or a thief carries off the money or goods and is caught the person safeguarding is not at fault. In other cases, the fault may be more difficult to discern and this involves wisdom and therefore the parties are brought before God. Similarly, when an animal is borrowed while the owner is present and dies the borrower is not responsible, but if the owner is not present there is restitution made.

These commands are not as developed as a modern legal system but they do begin to unpack the commandment on stealing and illustrate how they are to build a community that live out this vision of justice and community. Without justice, the community quickly breaks down. Yet, justice needs a human face. There are times where a unique situation must be considered and therefore these cases are to be brought before the LORD. The wisdom of the system in Exodus is in how it attempts to reconcile the parties and to rebuild community. Just as in their time, we too need wisdom as we attempt to construct a society that is just and where neighbors can live in harmony.

Exodus 22: 16-31 Community Prohibitions and Safeguards

 16 When a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged to be married, and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. 17 But if her father refuses to give her to him, he shall pay an amount equal to the bride-price for virgins.

 18 You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live.

 19 Whoever lies with an animal shall be put to death.

 20 Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the LORD alone, shall be devoted to destruction.

 21 You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. 23 If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; 24 my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.

 25 If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. 26 If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; 27 for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.

 28 You shall not revile God, or curse a leader of your people.

 29 You shall not delay to make offerings from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses.1

The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. 30 You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.

 31 You shall be people consecrated to me; therefore you shall not eat any meat that is mangled by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs.

When you attempt to construct a society, there are things that you allow and encourage and there are limits that must be set. The vulnerable within the society must be protected, certain individuals who are deemed a danger to the community are eliminated or excluded and certain behaviors are expected. Some of these come from a worldview that is very different from our own but they still are worth wrestling with, even if we would disagree with them, because they place values on certain types of security and relationships.

I wrestled with placing verses 16-17 in this discussion: whether to include them in the previous section, cover them independently or to link them with this later section of prohibitions and a good argument could be made for any of these options. A man who has sex with a virgin who is not engaged could be viewed as a person who has threatened the property of the household of the father and therefore restitution is to be made to the father and security provided for the woman. This could also be viewed as an unfolding of the sixth commandment on adultery and therefore separate from the discussion of theft and individual property and this could be one illustration of how to deal with individuals who transgress this boundary. Finally, non-betrothed women could be looked upon as one of the vulnerable in society along with the resident alien, widows and orphans who require legislation to protect them from becoming victims to a man’s irresponsible actions.

Wrestling with these verses in a very different context where issues like consent would be central it is difficult to imagine a world where a woman’s consent is not an issue of consideration. As discussed in Deuteronomy 21, 22 and 24, talking about captive women, women of Israel and divorce respectively, the perspectives of the writers understood women, their role in society and their rights much differently than we do today. Here, if a man sleeps with an unspoken for woman he can buy her as his wife regardless of her desires as long as her father permits it. As I mentioned, this probably ensures some security for the woman but it is at least uncomfortable if not distasteful to modern hearers. But in a time where men and women marry later and consensual sex before marriage is accepted by much of the society we still need to question what is the responsibility of the man and the woman as well as the families for people who engage sexually outside the security of marriage. When these unions result in pregnancy, what obligation does the man to the future mother and to the child? How are women protected and provided for in these relationships?

Female sorcerers are singled out here for death. As in Deuteronomy 18: 9-14 where a whole list of different predictors of the futures or practitioners of magic are outlawed there is a concern that these other options would lead people away from trusting in the LORD their God. This along with the reiterated prohibition about sacrificing to other gods is to remind the people that they are to be a people centered on the LORD their God and only the LORD their God. In a society where these other gods or practitioners of magic were attractive alternatives they are strictly forbidden.

Bestiality is also highlighted as one of those things that merit a death sentence in Exodus. This is a boundary violation, crossing the boundaries of species and what is permitted for the people of Israel. These boundaries, as I discuss in Deuteronomy 14 with relation to what food is not eaten, become marks of who is a part of the community. To be a part of the people of Israel means to do certain things, like celebrating the Passover and removing the leaven from their houses for that time, and not doing certain things, like lying with an animal or eating certain animals. Transgressions of those boundaries are viewed as direct threats to the holiness of the community.

The vulnerable of the community must be protected for a just society. Here the resident alien, the widow, the orphan and the poor become the examples of the vulnerable. Narrative reminds the people that they are to deal with the resident alien in justice since they themselves were resident aliens in Egypt. They are to be a society that models a different way of treating the vulnerable in society than they experienced in their slavery. They are to care for the vulnerable and God chooses to stand on the side of the vulnerable. If the resident alien, the orphan or the widow cry out to God, God promises to hear and act as a judge on their behalf. The threat to those who are comfortable is that if they become a society that does not care for the vulnerable then God will ensure they become a society of vulnerable people again: aliens in a foreign land, widows and orphans without men for security, and poor with no one to care for them. They are not to utilize the poor to increase their wealth: they are their neighbors to be cared for rather than exploited. Ultimately one’s view of society’s good is supposed to override one’s drive for personal profit.

Not reviling God of leaders among the people are linked together. Leaders in Israel are the one’s anointed by God. This is not a democratic society where the people choose their leaders. Ultimately there was a trust that there was some divine hand in the structure of society. In our time, we struggle with this type of hierarchical worldview. For us the pendulum has swung the other direction where faith in the pillars of society (political, social or religious) is at an all-time low and the individual is the primary basis for judging right from wrong. Yet, there does need to be people who fulfill leadership roles in society and while the Hebrew Scriptures will be critical of leaders, priests and kings they also did not want an anarchical society without structure.

Setting aside firstborns echoes Exodus 13: 11-16. This small reminder echoes the larger context of the final plague in Egypt and the consecration of the first born for the LORD. Just as the first born are set aside as the LORD’s portion, so they among the nations are to be the LORD’s portion-a holy nation as stated in Exodus 19: 6. Being holy, or consecrated, they are to refrain from unclean things and here that list expands to included meat from an animal that is killed by a beast. As a boundary marker, this is a practice that the people of Israel do not do.

Who Cares if One More Light Goes Out? I Do

Who cares if one more light goes out
In a sky of a million stars
It flickers, flickers
Who cares when someone’s time runs out
If a moment is all we are
Or quicker, quicker
Who cares if one more light goes out
Well I do
From Linkin Park’s song one more light

I was a late comer to the Linkin Park phenomenon. I didn’t find their music until 2010 and the album A Thousand Suns. I have needed different types of music at different times in my life and music has always been one of those ways I could connect with what I was feeling on the inside. In 2010, after having seeing a dream fail to materialize, suffering from anxiety and depression after living in a stressful work and home environment for several years, seeing a marriage that I thought would last forever fall apart and finding myself raising my son on my own and my daughter living in another state I needed a different kind of music. I gravitated back to rock and metal after a decade or more of listening to primarily country because I needed something that resonated with the pain, the anger, the frustration and the fear inside. In 2010 the rapid fire rapping of Mike Shinoda and the at times hauntingly beautiful and at other time primal dissonant scream of Chester Bennington paired in a way that touched the emotions I felt at the time. I quickly went back and purchased Hybrid Theory, Meteora, Minutes to Midnight and Road to Revolution and they were played over and over. I wrote down the lyrics and they wrote themselves on my mind as I screamed out some of my own sense of powerlessness. Slowly my life came back together but my love for the band’s music remained. I loved that each album was different and how they continually experimented with new sounds and yet there was still something unique to the music they made. In 2015 I had the opportunity to see them in Dallas. They were one of the groups I had wanted to see and the opportunity came and I am glad I took it. It was September in Dallas and the night was hot and sticky but Thirty Seconds to Mars and then Linkin Park both came. Linkin Park’s set was intense as they moved from hit to hit and I left wishing they could have played a few more. I had tickets to see them again this August with the One More Light tour, a tour that was cancelled after Chester Bennington’s suicide at 41.

Music and musicians touch us. I had friends who were devastated by the loss of Michael Jackson, Prince, or Chris Cornell. I think all of them were great musicians but their music never was the music I sang over and over again. I never met Chester, but I grieve for the loss of him. I’ve walked with family members after a suicide and I can only imagine what his family and his bandmates are feeling. Even though I know a little of his story, I consider myself very fortunate that even at my darkest moments thoughts of suicide were fleeting and quickly pushed aside. I am thankful for the emotion he put into his work, his band’s music, his performance and all of these helped me express what I felt at a time where I needed it. Paper Ships is my own small tribute to a person we lost too soon. Thankfully I can carry hours of his music on my phone and play it and it still resonates. If One More Light is the last light we hear from Linkin Park I am thankful for the music they have produced over the past seventeen years. #RIPCHESTER and may those left behind eventually find the peace in this life that you never did.

Paper Ships

Another paper ship sinks amid depression’s black sea
Too fragile to withstand the storms it encountered
Absorbing the waters it intended to sail upon
Drinking in the inky waters of the abyss
Leviathan lurks below the water’s edge
And the Kraken picks off its prey from the deep
Even the bravest and best captains are lost at sea
In the uncharted lands where the dragons hunt
Many brave ships pass through these waters
They let down their nets hoping to bring up a catch
Or they cross through these waters looking for new lands
And some are desperately trying to find the way back home
These icy waters can freeze the soul and stop the heart
Storm can be violent and the doldrums deadly
Sometimes the sea demands its sacrifice
And another paper ship feeds the sea’s unending hunger

Exodus 21: Slavery, Capital Crimes and Responsibility for Property

Figurine of a Semitic Slave, Acient Egyptian figurine, Hecht Museum

Exodus 21: 1-11 On Slavery

 These are the ordinances that you shall set before them:

 2 When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. 5 But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,” 6 then his master shall bring him before God.1 He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.

 7 When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. 8 If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.

For many people, once they have reached the Ten Commandments, they stop reading Exodus. Some may return for the story of the Golden Calf, but most people skip or skim over these passages which expand on the type of society the people were to construct. Yet, I think that, like the similar passages in the book of Deuteronomy, these ordinances provide an interesting opportunity to think ethically about the type of society they were attempting to create and the society we as people of faith advocate for. There is a slightly different take on the issue of slavery in Deuteronomy 15: 12-18.

When we talk about slavery in modern times it is easy to assume that ancient people should have naturally chosen a democratically structured society which outlawed slavery, but trying to impose our values on another time only insures that we will either not understand or not value the society they were trying to create. In the ancient world slavery was assumed. It was a way in which a person could pay back their debt. It is also tempting to frame slavery in the manner it occurred in the United States in the time prior to the Civil War and this can be deceiving. On the one hand, slaves had less value than a free person and you will see this in some of the coming punishments. On the other hand, at least for the Hebrew people the slave was both property and person and there were limits placed on that servitude.

The people have been brought out of the house of slavery and, in many ways, they were to be an alternate society to their experience in Egypt. For men, and the Bible is written from a predominantly androcentric point of view, this servitude is limited to six years. Typically, it is younger, unmarried members of a family that would assume debt servitude on behalf of the family and so a time of service of six years still allowed for the family to be debt free and the individual to have time to begin their own family. There were apparently times where slaves married into a family or married another slave in a household and while the male slave would be able to go free, the female and children could not. There are several situations where a person could choose to remain a slave to maintain family unity or because their life in the household of their master was better than the house they had to return to. Yet, at least in the law, the man has an ability to choose to remain a slave and must state this before the LORD and then receive a pierced ear as a sign of his lifelong servitude.

Women in the ancient world do not have the same set of protections, but even for women there are some protections. The woman may not be sold into slavery to a foreign people if she does not please her master and her life is bound to the new family. She may serve as a spouse for the master or one of his descendants and they cannot take away her rights to food, clothing and marital rights. Assuming a family’s debts appears to be one of the methods for acquiring a young woman as a bride. In Deuteronomy 21: 10-14, similar protections are afforded to captured women which are brought into the household.

I would hope that even the most ardent biblical literalist would not advocate for the reestablishment of slavery. But I do think this presents some interesting points to consider for our own society. Both young men and women enter into slavery for economic reasons and for a period, or in the case of young women for their life, they are no longer their own person. Yet, there are many people today who find themselves staggered under a debt that they cannot pay. Sometimes these debts may be a result of poor choices but other times they may result from an unforeseen disaster or medical bill. Perhaps one of the places for reflection would be should there be a limit to the time one must work to pay back a debt. Is there a place where a person in effect becomes a bond slave or indentured servant with little free will of their own?

Perhaps another place for reflection is with the image of the woman who is sold into servitude so that she becomes the spouse of the man who assumed the debt for her family. Marriage is an economic transaction. I know this is an unpopular statement when people believe they are marrying for love, but anyone who has gone through a divorce will realize there is truth in the statement. I wouldn’t want to go back to a culture of arranged marriages where man and woman may have little say in who they will marry, yet I do think it is important to realize that there is an economic and a relational stake in every marriage. This is one of the few places where divorce is alluded to in the Hebrew Bible but there is an understanding that the woman in a relationship is entitled to both her physical needs but also that there are marital rights that she too has a claim to. Dealing with indebtedness or marriage are difficult ethical issues, but they are issues that arise frequently in life and often in interconnected ways.

Peter Paul Rubens, Cain Slaying Abel, (1608-1809)

Exodus 21: 12-27 Unfolding the Commandment on Murder

 12 Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. 13 If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee. 14 But if someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution.

 15 Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death.

 16 Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death.

 17 Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death.

 18 When individuals quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or fist so that the injured party, though not dead, is confined to bed, 19 but recovers and walks around outside with the help of a staff, then the assailant shall be free of liability, except to pay for the loss of time, and to arrange for full recovery.

 20 When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.

 22 When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

 26 When a slaveowner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye. 27 If the owner knocks out a tooth of a male or female slave, the slave shall be let go, a free person, to compensate for the tooth.

From one controversial topic to another, this time the death penalty. In the United States, the use of the death penalty is still debated, yet in the ancient world capital punishment is assumed as an appropriate punishment for certain crimes. Lex talionis (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth) it the underlying principle of justice for these crimes. The retaliation against a person is to be equal to the crime- what is sought is justice and not revenge. This may seem a harsh justice but I think it is important to wrestle with how they thought of these various offenses (even if we disagree with their evaluation of the appropriate sentence).

Underlying these ordinances is the desire to construct a society where the neighbor is protected. The person who commits murder in Israel was to be put to death. It is a life for a life when the murder is premeditated. However, there is an understanding that not every death is premeditated and sometimes a death may be an accident. Here, and more fully in Deuteronomy 19: 1-13, there are to be set aside cities of refuge where a person may flee to so that the judgment may be fair.

Striking or cursing mother or father also are offenses that in Exodus merit death. In Deuteronomy 21: 18-21 there is further discussion of the community’s role in carrying out this sentence. These are probably referring to adult children who strike their elderly parents who are not able to defend themselves. I think this does provide an interesting opportunity to consider the issue of elder abuse and how society protects its vulnerable members. In an ancient society where children would provide for their aging parents in their old age to curse or abuse one’s elder parents could put their lives at risk.

Kidnapping, presumably with the intent to sell a person into slavery, is also a capital offense. The people were not to be a society that was based upon slavery and exploitation and apparently kidnapping was viewed as stealing someone’s life.

Justice can be retributive but at its best it is directed towards restoration. Here when a person is injured and does not die the assailant is to pay for the lost time and to pay for the recovery.

Again, the issue of slavery enters the conversation with the slave who is beaten. The slave is somehow not completely a person. When a slave is beaten to death the owner is to be punished but some level of beating is assumed and if the slave recovers the owner is faultless. Yet, there are some limits-loss of eye or tooth is paid back with freedom but the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth justice do not apply here.

Neither is an unborn child here regarded as a citizen. Causing a woman to miscarry results in a fine but placing this type of incident next to the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth explanation of lex talionis means, in the words of Rabbi Jonathon Sacks.

One thing, however, is clear on this interpretation. Causing a woman to miscarry—being responsible for the death of a foetus—is not a capital offense. Until birth, the foetus does not have the legal status of a person. Such was the view of the sages in the land of Israel. (Sacks, 2010, p. 169)

Early Christians, pulling from the Greek translation of this passage which translates the word for ‘further harm’ as ‘form’ made distinctions, based on the passage, on whether the fetus was formed or not, but the Hebrew makes no such distinctions. Ultimately on controversial topics, like abortion, people will have strong opinions. The distinction here in the Hebrew Scriptures is that it is not considered at the same level as murder.

Exodus 21: 28-36 Responsibility for the Actions of One’s Animals

28 When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. 29 If the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not restrained it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. 30 If a ransom is imposed on the owner, then the owner shall pay whatever is imposed for the redemption of the victim’s life. 31 If it gores a boy or a girl, the owner shall be dealt with according to this same rule. 32 If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slaveowner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.

 33 If someone leaves a pit open, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34 the owner of the pit shall make restitution, giving money to its owner, but keeping the dead animal.

 35 If someone’s ox hurts the ox of another, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the price of it; and the dead animal they shall also divide. 36 But if it was known that the ox was accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has not restrained it, the owner shall restore ox for ox, but keep the dead animal.

Unless one lives in a rural setting one is not likely to be gored by a bull, but underlying these sets of commandments is defining the responsibility that the owner of an animal has for the actions of an animal. Perhaps closer to our time would be issues around a pet dog who attacks a child, an adult or another pet. In Israel, an animal who attacks lethally was to be put to death and the benefit of the animal (its use as food) was lost. Animals that attack once do not reflect on the owner’s lack of responsibility, but animals with a history of attacking that are not restrained do bring strong penalties (here a death penalty) for the owner. If an animal is attacked there is to be restitution for the lost animal and if the irresponsibility of another person causes an animals death there is to be restitution made.

Exodus 20- The Decalogue

Rembrandt, Moses with the Ten Commandments

Exodus 20: 1-17 The Ten Words

 Then God spoke all these words:

 2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before1 me.

 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation1 of those who love me and keep my commandments.

 7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

 8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

 12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

 13 You shall not murder.1

 14 You shall not commit adultery.

 15 You shall not steal.

 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

The Ten Commandment, or the Ten Words (Decalogue) occur both here and in Deuteronomy 5 in slightly different forms. I highlight the differences in my discussion on Deuteronomy and here I will focus more on the commandments themselves and the role they have played within both Judaism and Christianity. One of the issues that has been wrestled with across time is how to divide the list into ten with different solutions based upon one’s theology. Is verse two the first commandment of a prologue to the list of commandments (many Jewish traditions), is verse three through six all one commandment (Catholic, Lutheran traditions) or is there a break between verse three and four (Reformed traditions). Ultimately the division into ten probably serves as an easy way to remember these central precepts that all the rest of the law will unfold from and regardless of how they are divided it is ultimately the way they become internalized and lived which will become the primary goal for these words.

When historical critical methods were the favored tool scholars loved to debate whether the Ten Words evolve over time or whether they borrowed from other law codes of the ancient near east (most notably the Code of Hammurabi has been noted for some parallels between what will follow in the next chapters). Ultimately historical questions reaching thousands of years back into history become incredibly difficult to answer and what we have are the Decalogue as they have been handed down in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy as they are in their final form. For both Jews and Christians, they have served to both pass on the faith and to give some key principles to form their ethics and life from.

The initial statement at the beginning of these words take us back into the narrative of Exodus. The LORD makes a claim upon them, the LORD is their God and the LORD is known by what has occurred. The bringing out of the people from Egypt and God’s choice of them gives the LORD sole claim upon their allegiance and worship. The existence of other gods is not denied here, in the worldview of the time it is assumed and other nations served them (the prophets will later move towards a view we would recognize as monotheistic) but these other gods are not to be worshipped or followed by the people of Israel. The people have been redeemed out of Egypt and are in a covenantal relationship with the LORD their God.

The worship of the LORD is unusual in the ancient world. They are not to use images to represent the LORD their God, and this will be what is at stake in the incident of the golden calf in Exodus 32. The LORD is not to be reduced to the likeness of anything in the creation. The expounding on this prohibition below in verse 23 reinforces this. There will be beauty in the space that will be constructed to worship, but nothing within that space and no other item is to contain God’s image. Perhaps there is a remembrance of the creation narrative where humanity in some manner bears the image of God, but ultimately even humanity it not to be cast in metal and lifted up as a representation of God. The LORD is an impassioned God and does not enter this covenant easily or lightly. God’s vulnerability is highlighted using the term ‘jealous’ and while we may be uncomfortable with the language of punishment we will see that the breaking of this relationship, as will be seen in Exodus 32 and in prophets like Jeremiah and Hosea, brings out an intensely emotional side of God. The LORD presented in the Hebrew Bible is never some unmoved mover or unattached stoic grandfatherly god, the LORD is a God who desires to draw near but who also is vulnerable to being wounded by the unfaithfulness of the people.

The name in the ancient world is a powerful thing. As I discussed in Exodus 3 there is both necessity in a name but especially in the ancient world there was power. The four-letter name of God, transliterated as YHWH (or Yahweh- Jehovah was an old mispronunciation of these letters) is not said by the Jewish people in their worship in respect for keeping the name holy will always say Adonai (and the vowels, which are added above and below the consonants reflect the vowels for Adonai while the consonants are YHWH), in English this is why you see LORD in all caps (frequently with ORD in a smaller font if possible). The name of God was not to be used as a magical incantation, like some other cultures would do when they called upon the names of their gods, but was to be honored and respected.

Sabbath here is linked to creation and the rhythm of the LORD’s work being a model for human life. This is one of the unique portions of the Ten Commandments, since Sabbath is primarily about rest-not worship. It also is essential in the construction of a different type of society than the Egyptian society they came out of. In Egypt they were slaves, forced to work without brake for as long as their taskmasters demanded, but here children, slaves and even animals are commanded to rest. Ultimately, they were not to place their own ability to produce at the center of their lives but they were to learn to rest and trust that the LORD would provide for them and they were to rest with the LORD on this day that has been blessed and consecrated.

The command to honor father and mother, as I mention in Deuteronomy 5, is probably less about young children being obedient to parents and more about older children continuing to respect, honor and care for their parents in their older age. There will always be the temptation to look upon those who are past their prime as a burden to society but here they are commanded to be honored.

I once heard Rolf Jacobson, who teaches Hebrew Bible at Luther Seminary, state that the Ten Commandments are not about my best life now, they are about ‘my neighbor’s best life now.’ Murder, and although I grew up with the King James ‘thou shalt not kill’ the word murder is probably a better word for what is intended, prevents my needs from becoming more important than my neighbor’s life. There are times where the Scriptures do talk about capital punishment or serving in warfare and these may be viewed within the scriptures as times where the greater community is protected by the act of the one being killed or killing others but these actions are not to be the rule of life in the community, they are the exception. Adultery, which in our current culture portrays as a crime where no one gets hurt, is taken with the utmost seriousness. The punishment for those who commit adultery will be death and this may seem in our time overly harsh. Yet, in ancient times there was, “a severe rupture of trust in family trust and structure as well as in patterns of inheritance.” (Myers, 2005, p. 176) After working with couples for years as a pastor and my own personal experiences there is wisdom to learn from the seriousness cultures took adultery. I am not advocating a return to stoning or harsh punishment, but I’ve seen too often the damage that what a person thought was a simple act of pleasure does to their health, finances, to family and to their children. Adultery is one of those acts that can shatter the trust of a family and have profound and long consequences. Similarly stealing can have life threatening consequences in a culture where people are living at a subsistence level and even in our time. In a society where neighbors relied upon one another, theft could fracture the fabric of that community. When one’s home or automobile has been broken into it feels like a violation of one’s safety and security. In some cases, the loss of security may be greater than the physical loss. In other cases, where greed or theft on a large scale has endangered a person’s retirement accounts or even the money that a person needs to pay for food or medical expenses the theft can literally steal life from another person.

For a just society one of the essential elements is truthful speech. Bearing false witness, whether in a legal setting or in casual gossip can cause heavy damage to an individual. In an age where we can see the how gossip, intentional falsehoods, and cyber-bullying in personal relationships in addition to the erosion of trust in our public institutions I do think there is a longing for truthful speech, but also there is a desire for the salacious rumor and it sometimes becomes difficult to tell the two apart. Perhaps Martin Luther’s wisdom of “interpreting my neighbor’s action in the best possible light” may be helpful here as we wrestle with finding true words in a suspicious and distrusting time.

Finally coveting, and the word for coveting is more than just the natural desire of seeing someone or something one finds attractive. Chamada, the Hebrew word behind coveting is, “an intense desire, generated by passion that is not easily controlled.” (Myers, 2005, p. 178 quoting TDOT) The word for house is more than the physical building, it is one’s household which would include the other items listed behind household: spouse, servants, livestock, etc. This type of intense and open desire would erode the trust between neighbors.

Attempting to write about the Decalogue is a challenge, partially because almost every major figure in Judaism and Christianity at some point writes in detail about the commandments. They are a source of catechetical instruction in the basics of the faith for both traditions. Here I have been in more of an exegetical mode attempting to understand and compare what the commandments meant to their original audience and compare that to our time. At other points, if I was trying to instruct someone on how the commandments would impact their faith I would probably highlight different points.

Exodus 20: 18-21 Moses the Mediator

 18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid1 and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” 21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

The approach of the LORD is a powerful thing and the people are overwhelmed. Although there will be times where Moses’ role as a leader is challenged the people do not want to stand in Moses’ place before God. They desire someone to mediate the divine presence. Moses will spend his life as a person caught between God and God’s people. Even when God’s intention is to graciously draw close it can be terrifying and frequently people want a predictable and not too close God. Ultimately the God of Israel is a God who is not controllable or tame, who is passionate. Moses is somehow safer, more understandable and therefore God’s presence continues to be mediated by the messenger.

Exodus 20: 22-26 How to Worship the LORD

 22 The LORD said to Moses: Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. 24 You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25 But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. 26 You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.”

The worship of the LORD is both incredibly simple and very challenging. It is simple in the reality that they don’t need images of silver or gold to represent their God. It is challenging because the people will show that they desire some physical representation of their God they can focus on and can manipulate. Idolatry will be more than just worshipping other gods, it will also be any attempt to make an image of the imageless God of Israel. It will be any attempt to limit the ways in which God can present Godself or to even metaphorically limit God’s image to being something in heaven or on earth or in the sea. It is simple that the LORD does not require elaborate tables or structures to offer sacrifices, simply an altar of earth or unhewn stones that is not set above everyone else. The worship of the LORD is to be done at a level where the priests do not ascend above the people to offer sacrifices but stand at their level. It will be a challenge not to emulate the practices of other nations that place the divine above and have their priests ascend to offer sacrifices. It is the paradox of transcendence in the mundane parts of life. God’s desire is to come down to the people’s level and to dwell, but the desire of the people tends to be to send a representative up to mediate the space between God and themselves.

Exodus 19: Arriving at Sinai to Encounter God

View from the Summit of Mount Sinai, Picture by Modammed Moussa. Shared under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Exodus 19: 1-9 Borne on Eagles Wings to Sinai

 On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. 2 They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. 3 Then Moses went up to God; the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: 4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”

 7 So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the LORD had commanded him. 8 The people all answered as one: “Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do.” Moses reported the words of the people to the LORD. 9 Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”

The book of Exodus spends the first thirteen chapters with the people in Egypt and with the LORD and Moses working to get Pharaoh to let the people go. I originally thought of the book of Exodus being primarily about the physical journey out of Egypt to the promised land but it is telling that the movement of the people in the book comes to an end here. The books of Numbers, the beginning of Deuteronomy and ultimately the book of Joshua will narrate the long remaining journey into the promised land but in Exodus the movement ends at Mount Sinai. The LORD has made the journey out of Egypt and through the wilderness possible but the events at Mount Sinai will occupy over half of the book of Exodus.

The image of the people being borne on eagles’ wings probably takes many people to the lyrical adaptation of Psalm 91, ‘and he will lift you up on eagles’ wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun and hold you in the palm of his hands.’ This image of God bearing the people on eagles’ wings is a poetic metaphor that gets used in the song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 where the LORD is the mother eagle hovering over her chicks and lifting them into the air with her feathers as well as being a metaphor used in several Psalms (Psalm 17:8, 36:7, 57:1, 61:4, and 63:7 all mention being sheltered in God’s wings as well as the Psalm 91:4 mentioned above). This powerful image of nurturing strength resonated with the people of Israel and continues to resonate with many people today. While metaphors never completely express who God is, they bear witness to a portion of the divine identity and here the motherly attributes of a mother bird as well as the strength of the protective eagle combine in this potent image. The LORD of Israel is a God of strength who can take the people out of Egypt like a warrior, but who like a mother provides food, water and shelter. Ultimately the destination of the people in Exodus is to come into the wilderness to meet God.

In coming chapters, we will see in greater detail what obedience will mean for the covenant people but here Israel is called to be God’s treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. What each of these three vocations is to mean has been a rich territory for scholarly and holy imagination. We may, with our current sensitivities, be a little uncomfortable with the first vocation where the people of Israel are called to be a treasured possession: possession may call to mind images of slavery or chattel (where women, slave, and children were possessions and not people) but we need not take this image in this way. Israel will occupy a special place in the LORD’s heart and while being drawn near to God in this way in vulnerable for both the people and the LORD. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, will bear witness to a God who is wounded by the people’s betrayal and who wants to find a way to restore the relationship and yet deals intensely with the pain of the brokenness. As Isaiah 43 can state, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name you are mine….I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight” (Isaiah 43: 1,3-4)

The people of Israel as a priestly kingdom can also be taken in several directions. On the one hand, there is the intercessory role that may be a portion of this calling. Priests in the ancient world were those who interceded between God and the people. While there is a cultic aspect of the priest’s role in offering prayers and sacrifices in the temple to God there is also the didactic role. The priests will be responsible for reading and interpreting the Torah, the law of God. Perhaps as the priests of Israel will intercede for the people of Israel with God, so the people will intercede on behalf of the nations and the world with God. Perhaps as the priests verbally read and interpret the law to the people so the people may be expected to interpret through their words and actions the content of the law to the nations around them. Both functions occupy a lot of space in the Old Testament: Leviticus for example focuses a lot of text on the priestly/cultic function while Deuteronomy and much of the second half of Exodus focuses on interpreting the law. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks also points to an additional function that may have been a part of this calling: being a society of universal literacy. While the Hebrew people probably didn’t come close to universal literacy in the ancient world he makes an intriguing argument for this type of education being essential for their being able to work with a law that can be read and written. Universal literacy which takes writing and reading out of the hands of the elite and makes possible “a non-hierarchical society” (Sacks, 2010, p. 136) If the people were to be a society different from the Egyptian society they left, and much of the law will be contrasted to their experience of being slaves in Egypt, then a worthy goal would be having a society that could read and write the law of their God and understand as individuals how they were called to live. In this respect, it could be paralleled to Martin Luther’s idea of the priesthood of all believers which required a program of catechetical instruction for all believers into what the basics of faith were.

As a holy people, a people sanctified for a purpose they also have a rich vocation within this calling of being a treasured possession and a priestly kingdom. Their lives as a part of this covenant are set aside to be something different. One of the struggles of both the people of Israel and modern people of faith is the struggle to differentiate their lives from the lives of everyone else. For the people of Israel there will be concrete practices and actions that they do that help to be a boundary marker for who they are as the people of God. Yet, the temptation will be to model their lives based on the lives of the nations around them (especially nations more powerful than them) rather than on the calling their LORD has given them. There will be times where the Torah seems to be lost or forgotten and yet, as Jeremiah can hope there will come a time where the LORD will put the law within them and write it on their hearts (Jeremiah 31: 33).

To be the people of God will be a way of life. The book of Exodus will begin the process of unpacking what it will mean to live as the covenant people of God, as God’s treasured possessions, as a priestly kingdom and as a holy people. The journey is not only the journey out of Egypt to the promised land. It is also a journey from slavery in Egypt to being a people equipped to stand in the presence of God and intercede for the nations and be bearers of the law of God.

Exodus 19: 9b-25 The Consecration of the People and the Approach of the LORD

When Moses had told the words of the people to the LORD, 10 the LORD said to Moses: “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11 and prepare for the third day, because on the third day the LORD will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 You shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death. 13 No hand shall touch them, but they shall be stoned or shot with arrows;1 whether animal or human being, they shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain.” 14 So Moses went down from the mountain to the people. He consecrated the people, and they washed their clothes. 15 And he said to the people, “Prepare for the third day; do not go near a woman.”

 16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. 19 As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. 20 When the LORD descended upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, the LORD summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. 21 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people not to break through to the LORD to look; otherwise many of them will perish. 22 Even the priests who approach the LORD must consecrate themselves or the LORD will break out against them.” 23 Moses said to the LORD, “The people are not permitted to come up to Mount Sinai; for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and keep it holy.'” 24 The LORD said to him, “Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you; but do not let either the priests or the people break through to come up to the LORD; otherwise he will break out against them.” 25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.

Climbing the Trail Near the Summit of Mount Sinai, Photograph by Mark A. Wilson. Copyright holder released work into public domain.

One of the losses of the Christian tradition in recent times has been the loss of this transcendental holiness of the approach of God. One of the central features of the Christian narrative is the descent of God into the mundaneness of humanity. For the past couple centuries, there has been both a philosophical and religious movement away from focusing on this transcendent holiness. Even within my tradition seasons like Lent and Advent, once times of fasting and prayer and times of preparation for holiness, have lost this movement of sanctification. Perhaps this is inevitable in the disenchanted and more secular world in which we live but as I look at this passage I wonder how much we have lost.

The people prepare for three days for the approach of the LORD. They wash, they abstain from sexual activity, they stay away from the sacred space and they prepare for this approach of God at Mount Sinai. Here is the approach of God in all of God’s awesome power. In a description of a scene like the eruption of a volcano with fire, smoke, earthquake and lightning God approaches the people and Moses comes to introduce the LORD to the people and to stand between them. Moses and Aaron will go up to the mountain and speak with the LORD, but the people are witnesses to this display of God’s powerful approach.

There is something dangerous in the approach of God and the people are to keep their distance. One of the great tensions in the book of Exodus is the desire of the LORD to tabernacle (dwell) among the people and the danger the people’s unholiness presents for themselves in the presence of God. The people will struggle with the presence of God. On the one hand, they will want continued demonstration of God’s provision and power against their enemies. On the other hand, the presence of God is a terrifying reality and one they do not want to draw too close to.  A God who bears the power to bring the Egyptian army, its Pharaoh and its gods to their knees is not a safe and controllable deity. As a priestly kingdom, they come into the presence of God for the sake of the world, and their priestly vocation is not a safe one. As a treasured possession, they are the ones that God wants to draw close to God’s presence and they are to be a nation sanctified for the sake of the world. They are made holy to be able to dwell in the presence of the numinous and awesome holiness of the LORD.