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.

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2 Responses to Exodus 22: Boundaries, Trust and Reconciliation

  1. Pingback: Reconciled and reconciliation terms very familiar to accountants – Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven

  2. Pingback: Exodus 23: Justice, Celebration and Presence | Sign of the Rose

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