Instructions about Work (Exodus 20:1-17 and 21:1-23:9)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
10 commandments 620

Israel’s “Book of the Covenant” (Exod. 24:7) included the Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue (literally, the “words,” Exod. 20:1-17), and the ordinances of Exodus 21:1-23:19. The Ten Commandments are worded as general commands either to do or not do something. The ordinances are a collection of case laws, applying the values of the Decalogue in specific situations using an “if…then” format. These laws fit the social and economic world of ancient Israel. They are not an exhaustive legal code, but they function as exemplars, serving to curb the worst excesses and setting legal precedent for handling difficult cases.[1]

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17)

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The Ten Commandments are the supreme expression of God’s will in the Old Testament and merit our close attention. They are to be thought of not as the ten most important commands among hundreds of others, but as a digest of the entire Torah. The foundation of all the Torah rests in the Ten Commandments, and somewhere within them we should be able to find all the law. Jesus expressed the essential unity of the Ten Commandments with the rest of the law when he summarized the law in the famous words, “ 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40). All the law, as well as the prophets, is indicated whenever the Ten Commandments are expressed.

The essential unity of the Ten Commandments with the rest of the law, and their continuity with the New Testament, invites us to apply them to today’s work broadly in light of the rest of the Scripture. That is, when applying the Ten Commandments, we will take into account related passages of Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments.

“You Shall Have No Other Gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3)
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The first commandment reminds us that everything in the Torah flows from the love we have for God, which in turn is a response to the love he has for us. This love was demonstrated by God’s deliverance of Israel “out of the house of slavery” in Egypt (Exod. 20:2). Nothing else in life should concern us more than our desire to love and be loved by God. If we do have some other concern stronger to us than our love for God, it is not so much that we are breaking God’s rules, but that we are not really in relationship with God. The other concern—be it money, power, security, recognition, sex, or anything else—has become our god. This god will have its own commandments at odds with God’s, and we will inevitably violate the Torah as we comply with this god’s requirements. Observing the Ten Commandments is only conceivable for those who start by having no other god than God.

In the realm of work, this means that we are not to let work or its requirements and fruits displace God as our most important concern in life. “Never allow anyone or anything to threaten God’s central place in your life,” as David Gill puts it.[1] Because many people work primarily to make money, an inordinate desire for money is probably the most common work-related danger to the first commandment. Jesus warned of exactly this danger. “No one can serve two masters…. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24). But almost anything related to work can become twisted in our desires to the point that it interferes with our love for God. How many careers come to a tragic end because the means to accomplish things for the love of God—such as political power, financial sustainability, commitment to the job, status among peers, or superior performance—become ends in themselves? When, for example, recognition on the job becomes more important than character on the job, is it not a sign that reputation is displacing the love of God as the ultimate concern?

A practical touchstone is to ask whether our love of God is shown by the way we treat people on the job. “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:20-21). If we put our individual concerns ahead of our concern for the people we work with, for, and among, then we have made our individual concerns our god. In particular, if we treat other people as things to be manipulated, obstacles to overcome, instruments to obtain what we want, or simply neutral objects in our field of view, then we demonstrate that we do not love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.

In this context, we can begin to list some work-related actions that have a high potential to interfere with our love for God. Doing work that violates our conscience. Working in an organization where we have to harm others to succeed. Working such long hours that we have little time to pray, worship, rest, and otherwise deepen our relationship with God. Working among people who demoralize us or seduce us away from our love for God. Working where alcohol, drug abuse, violence, sexual harassment, corruption, disrespect, racism, or other inhumane treatment mar the image of God in us and the people we encounter in our work. If we can find ways to avoid these dangers at work—even if it means finding a new job—it would be wise to do so. If that is not possible, we can at least be aware that we need help and support to maintain our love of God in the face of our work.

“You Shall Not Make for Yourself an Idol” (Exodus 20:4)
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The Dark Side of the High Calling

In this blog post about idolatry from The High Calling, Marcus Goodyear reminds us that when we harden our hearts and fall into a spirit of complaint about our work and our family and our life, we cannot enter into God’s rest. But when we approach the high calling of our work with gratitude and thanksgiving, we understand that God in our work is the meaning and purpose, and the rest of God becomes ours in abundance.

The second commandment raises the issue of idolatry. Idols are gods of our own creation, gods that have nothing to them that did not originate with us, gods that we feel we control. In ancient times, idolatry often took the form of worshiping physical objects. But the issue is really one of trust and devotion. On what do we ultimately pin our hope of well-being and success? Anything that is not capable of fulfilling our hope—that is, anything other than God—is an idol, whether or not it is a physical object. The story of a family forging an idol with the intent to manipulate God, and the disastrous personal, social, and economic consequences that follow, are memorably told in Judges 17-21.

In the world of work, it is common to speak of money, fame, and power as potential idols, and rightly so. They are not idolatrous, per se, and in fact may be necessary for us to accomplish our roles in God’s creative and redemptive work in the world. Yet when we imagine that we have ultimate control over them, or that by achieving them our safety and prosperity will be secured, we have begun to fall into idolatry. The same may occur with virtually every other element of success, including preparation, hard work, creativity, risk, wealth and other resources, and favorable circumstances. As workers, we have to recognize how important these are. As God’s people, we must recognize when we begin to idolize them. By God’s grace, we can overcome the temptation to worship these good things in their own right. The development of genuinely godly wisdom and skill for any task is “so that your trust may be in the Lord” (Prov. 22:19; emphasis added).

The distinctive element of idolatry is the human-made nature of the idol. At work, a danger of idolatry arises when we mistake our power, knowledge, and opinions for reality. When we stop holding ourselves accountable to the standards we set for others, cease listening to others’ ideas, or seek to crush those who disagree with us, are we not beginning to make idols of ourselves?

“You Shall Not Make Wrongful Use of the Name of the LORD Your God” (Exodus 20:7)
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The third commandment literally prohibits God’s people from making “wrongful use” of the name of God. This need not be restricted to the name “YHWH” (Exod. 3:15), but includes “God,” “Jesus,” “Christ,” and so forth. But what is wrongful use? It includes, of course, disrespectful use in cursing, slandering, and blaspheming. But more significantly it includes falsely attributing human designs to God. This prohibits us from claiming God’s authority for our own actions and decisions. Regrettably, some Christians seem to believe that following God at work consists primarily of speaking for God on the basis of their individual understanding, rather than working respectfully with others or taking responsibility for their actions. “It is God’s will that…” or “God is punishing you for…” are very dangerous things to say, and almost never valid when spoken by an individual without the discernment of the community of faith (1 Thess. 5:20-21). In this light, perhaps the traditional Jewish reticence to utter even the English translation “God”—let alone the divine name itself—demonstrates a wisdom Christians often lack. If we were a little more careful about bandying the word “God” about, perhaps we would be more judicious in claiming to know God’s will, especially as it applies to other people.

The third commandment also reminds us that respecting human names is important to God. The Good Shepherd “calls his own sheep by name” (John 10:3) while warning us that if you call another person “you fool,” then “you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matt. 5:22). Keeping this in mind, we shouldn’t make wrongful use of other people’s names or call them by disrespectful epithets. We use people’s names wrongfully when we use them to curse, humiliate, oppress, exclude, and defraud. We use people’s names well when we use them to encourage, thank, create solidarity, and welcome. Simply to learn and say someone’s name is a blessing, especially if he or she is often treated as nameless, invisible, or insignificant. Do you know the name of the person who empties your trash can, answers your customer service call, or drives your bus? If these examples do not concern the very name of the Lord, they do concern the name of those made in his image.

Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep It Holy. Six Days You Shall Labor (Exodus 20:8-11)
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The issue of the Sabbath is complex, not only in the book of Exodus and the Old Testament, but also in Christian theology and practice. The first part of the command calls for ceasing labor one day in seven. The other references in Exodus to the Sabbath are in chapter 16 (about gathering manna), Exodus 23:10-12 (the seventh year and the goal of weekly rest), Exodus 31:12-17 (penalty for violation), Exodus 34:21, and Exodus 35:1-3. In the context of the ancient world, the Sabbath was unique to Israel. On the one hand, this was an incomparable gift to the people of Israel. No other ancient people had the privilege of resting one day in seven. On the other hand, it required an extraordinary trust in God’s provision. Six days of work had to be enough to plant crops, gather the harvest, carry water, spin cloth, and draw sustenance from creation. While Israel rested one day every week, the encircling nations continued to forge swords, feather arrows, and train soldiers. Israel had to trust God not to let a day of rest lead to economic and military catastrophe.

Making time off predictable and required

Read more here about a new study regarding rhythms of rest and work done at the Boston Consulting Group by two professors from Harvard Business School. It showed that when the assumption that everyone needs to be always available was collectively challenged, not only could individuals take time off, but their work actually benefited. (Harvard Business Review may show an ad and require registration in order to view the article.) Mark Roberts also discusses this topic in his Life for Leaders devotional "Won't Keeping the Sabbath Make Me Less Productive?"

We face the same issue of trust in God’s provision today. If we heed God’s commandment to observe God’s own cycle of work and rest, will we be able to compete in the modern economy? Does it take seven days of work to hold a job (or two or three jobs), clean the house, prepare the meals, mow the lawn, wash the car, pay the bills, finish the school work, and shop for the clothes, or can we trust God to provide for us even if we take a day off during the course of every week? Can we take time to worship God, to pray and to gather with others for study and encouragement, and, if we do, will it make us more or less productive overall? The fourth commandment does not explain how God will make it all work out for us. It simply tells us to rest one day every seven.

Christians have translated the day of rest to the Lord’s Day (Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection), but the essence of the Sabbath is not choosing one particular day of the week over another (Rom. 14:5-6). The polarity that actually undergirds the Sabbath is work and rest. Both work and rest are included in the fourth commandment. The six days of work are as much a part of the commandment as the one day of rest. Although many Christians are in danger of allowing work to squeeze the time set aside for rest, others are in danger of the opposite, of shirking work and trying to live a life of leisure and dissipation. This is even worse than neglecting the Sabbath, for “whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). What we need is a proper rhythm of work and rest, which together are good for us, our family, workers, and guests. The rhythm may or may not include twenty-four continuous hours of rest falling on Sunday (or Saturday). The proportions may change due to temporary necessities (the modern equivalent of pulling an ox out of the well on the Sabbath, see Luke 14:5) or the changing needs of the seasons of life.

If overwork is our main danger, we need to find a way to honor the fourth commandment without instituting a false, new legalism pitting the spiritual (worship on Sunday worship) against the secular (work on Monday through Saturday). If avoiding work is our danger, we need to learn how to find joy and meaning in working as a service to God and our neighbors (Eph. 4:28).

"Honor Your Father and Your Mother" (Exodus 20:12)
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There are many ways to honor—or dishonor—your father and mother. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees wanted to restrict this to speaking well of them. But Jesus pointed out that obeying this commandment requires working to provide for your parents (Mark 7:9-13). We honor people by working for their good.

For many people, good relationships with parents are one of the joys of life. Loving service to them is a delight, and obeying this commandment is easy. But we are put to the test by this commandment when we find it burdensome to work on behalf of our parents. We may have been ill-treated or neglected by them. They may be controlling and meddlesome. Being around them may undermine our sense of self, our commitment to our spouses (including our responsibilities under the third commandment), even our relationship with God. Even if we have good relationships with our parents, there may come a time when caring for them is a major burden simply because of the time and work it takes. If aging or dementia begins to rob them of their memory, capabilities, and good nature, caring for them can become a deep sorrow.

Yet the fifth commandment comes with a promise, “that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Ex. 20:12). Somehow, honoring our father and mother in such practical ways has the practical benefit of giving us longer (perhaps in the sense of more fulfilling) life in God’s kingdom. We are not told how this will occur, but we are told to expect it, and to do that we must trust God (see the first commandment).

Because this is a command to work for the benefit of parents, it is inherently a workplace command. The place of work may be where we earn money to support them, or it may be in the place where we assist them in the tasks of daily life. Both are work. When we take a job because it allows us to live near them, or send money to them, or make use of the values and gifts they developed in us, or accomplish things they taught us are important, we are honoring them. When we limit our careers so that we can be present with them, clean and cook for them, bathe and embrace them, take them to the places they love, or diminish their fears, we are honoring them.

We must also recognize that in many cultures, the work people do is dictated by the choices of their parents and needs of their families rather than their own decisions and preferences. At times this gives rise to serious conflict for Christians who find the demands of the first commandment (to follow God’s call) and fifth commandment compet­ing with each other. They find themselves forced to make hard choices that parents don’t understand. Even Jesus experienced such parental misunderstanding when Mary and Joseph could not understand why he remained behind in the temple while his family departed Jerusalem (Luke 2:49).

In our workplaces, we can help other people fulfill the fifth commandment, as well as obeying it ourselves. We can remember that employees, customers, co-workers, bosses, suppliers, and others also have families, and then can adjust our expectations to support them in honoring their families. When others share or complain about their struggles with parents, we can listen to them compassionately, support them practically (for example, by offering to take a shift so they can be with their parents), perhaps offer a godly perspective for them to consider, or simply reflect the grace of Christ to those who feel they are failing in their parent-child relationships.

“You Shall Not Murder” (Exodus 20:13)
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Sadly, the sixth commandment has an all-too-practical application in the modern workplace, where 10 percent of all job-related fatalities (in the United States) are homicides.[1] However, admonishing readers of this article, “Don’t murder anyone at work,” isn’t likely to change this statistic much.

But murder isn’t the only form of workplace violence, just the most extreme. Jesus said that even anger is a violation of the sixth commandment (Matt. 5:21-22). As Paul noted, we may not be able to prevent the feeling of anger, but we can learn how to cope with our it. “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph. 4:26). The most significant implication of the sixth commandment for work then may be, “If you get angry at work, get help in anger management.” Many employers, churches, state and local governments, and nonprofit organizations offer classes and counseling in anger management, and availing yourself of these may be a highly effective way of obeying the sixth commandment.

Murder is intentional killing, but the case law that stems from the sixth commandment shows that we also have the duty to prevent unintended deaths. A particularly graphic case is when an ox (a work animal) gores a man or woman to death (Exod. 21:28-29). If the event was predictable, the ox’s owner is to be treated as a murderer. In other words, owners/managers are responsible for ensuring workplace safety within reason. This principle is well established in law in most countries, and workplace safety is the subject of significant government policing, industry self-regulation, and organizational policy and practice. Yet workplaces of all kinds continue to require or allow workers to work in needlessly unsafe conditions. Christians who have any role in setting the conditions of work, supervising workers, or modeling workplace practices are reminded by the sixth commandment that safe working conditions are among their highest responsibilities in the world of work.

“You Shall Not Commit Adultery” (Exodus 20:14)
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The workplace is one of the most common settings for adultery, not necessarily because adultery occurs in the workplace itself, but because it arises from the conditions of work and relationships with co-workers. The first application to the workplace, then, is literal. Married people should not have sex with people other than their spouses at, in, or because of their work. Obviously this rules out sex professions such as prostitution, pornography, and sex surrogacy, at least in most cases, to the degree workers have a choice. But any kind of work that erodes the bonds of marriage infringes the seventh commandment. There are many ways this can occur. Work that encourages strong emotional bonds among co-workers without adequately supporting their commitments to their spouses, as can happen in hospitals, entrepreneurial ventures, academic institutions and churches, among other places. Working conditions that bring people into close physical contact for extended periods or that fail to encourage reasonable limits to off-hour encounters, as could happen on extended field assignments. Work that subjects people to sexual harassment and pressure to have sex with those holding power over them. Work that inflates people’s egos or exposes them to adulation, as could occur with celebrities, star athletes, business titans, high-ranking government officials, and the super-rich. Work that demands so much time away (physically, mentally, or emotionally) that it frays the bonds between spouses. All of these may pose dangers that Christians would do well to recognize and avoid, ameliorate, or guard against. Yet the seriousness of the seventh commandment arises not so much because adultery is illicit sex, as because it breaks a covenant ordained by God. God created husband and wife to become “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24), and Jesus’ commentary on the seventh commandment highlights God’s role in the marriage covenant. “What God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt. 19:6). To commit adultery, therefore, is not only to have sex with someone you shouldn’t, but also to break a covenant with the Lord God. In fact, the Old Testament frequently uses the word adultery, and the imagery surrounding it, to refer not to sexual sin but to idolatry. The prophets often refer to Israel’s faithlessness to its covenant to worship God alone as “adultery” or “whoring,” as in Isaiah 57:3, Jeremiah 3:8, Ezekiel 16:38, and Hosea 2:2, among many others. Therefore, any breaking of faith with the God of Israel is figuratively adultery, whether it involves illicit sex or not. This use of the term “adultery” unites the first, second, and seventh commandments, and reminds us that the Ten Commandments are expressions of a single covenant with God, rather than some kind of top-ten list of rules.

Therefore, work that requires or leads us into idolatry or worshipping other gods is to be avoided. It’s hard to imagine how a Christian could work as a tarot reader, a maker of idolatrous art or music, or a publisher of blasphemous books. Christian actors may find it difficult to perform profane, irreligious, or spiritually demoralizing roles. Everything we do in life, including work, tends in some degree either to enhance or diminish our relationship with God; over a lifetime, the constant stress of work that diminishes us spiritually may prove devastating. It’s a factor we would do well to include in our career decisions, to the degree we have choices.

The distinctive aspect of covenants violated by adultery is that they are covenants with God. But isn’t every promise or agreement made by a Christian implicitly a covenant with God? Paul exhorts us, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17). Contracts, promises, and agreements are surely things we do in word or deed, or both. If we do them all in the name of the Lord Jesus, it cannot be that some promises must be honored because they are covenants with God, while others may be broken because they are merely human. We are to honor all our agreements, and to avoid inducing others to break theirs. Whether this is contained in Exodus 20:14 itself, or expounded in the Old and New Testament teachings that arise from it, “Keep your promises, and help others keep theirs” may serve as a fine derivation of the seventh commandment in the world of work.

“You Shall Not Steal” (Exodus 20:15)
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The eighth commandment is another that takes work as its primary subject. Stealing is a violation of proper work because it dispossesses the victim of the fruits of his or her labor. It is also a violation of the commandment to labor six days a week, since in most cases stealing is intended as a shortcut around honest labor, which shows again the interrelation of the Ten Commandments. So we may take it as the word of God that we are not to steal from those we work for, with, or among.

Stealing occurs in many forms besides robbing someone. Any time we acquire something of value from its rightful owner without consent, we are engaging in theft. Misappropriating resources or funds for personal use is stealing. Using deception to make sales, gain market share, or raise prices is stealing because the deception means that whatever the buyer consents to is not the actual situation. (See the section on “Puffery/Exaggeration” in Truth & Deception at for more on this topic.) Likewise, profiting by taking advantage of people’s fears, vulnerabilities, powerlessness, or desperation is a form of stealing because their consent is not truly voluntary. Violating patents, copyrights, and other intellectual property laws is stealing because it deprives owners of the ability to profit from their creation under the terms of civil law.

Regrettably, many jobs seem to include an element of taking advantage of others’ ignorance or lack of alternatives to force them into transactions they otherwise wouldn’t agree to. Companies, governments, individuals, unions, and other players may use their power to coerce others into unfair wages, prices, financial terms, working conditions, hours, or other factors. Although we may not rob banks, steal from our employers, or shoplift, we may very likely be participating in unfair or unethical practices that deprive others of what rights should be theirs. It can be difficult, even career-limiting, to resist engaging in these practices, but we are called to do so nonetheless.

“You Shall Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor” (Exodus 20:16)
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The ninth commandment honors the right to one’s own reputation.[1] It finds pointed application in legal proceedings where what people say depicts reality and determines the course of lives. Judicial decisions and other legal processes wield great power. Manipulating them undercuts the ethical fabric of society and thus constitutes a very serious offense. Walter Brueggemann says this commandment recognizes “that community life is not possible unless there is an arena in which there is public confidence that social reality will be reliably described and reported.”[2]

Although stated in courtroom language, the ninth commandment also applies to a broad range of situations that touch practically every aspect of life. We should never say or do anything that misrepresents someone else. Brueggemann again provides insight:

Politicians seek to destroy one another in negative campaigning; gossip columnists feed off calumny; and in Christian living rooms, reputations are tarnished or destroyed over cups of coffee served in fine china with dessert. These de facto courtrooms are conducted without due process of law. Accusations are made; hearsay allowed; slander, perjury, and libelous comments uttered without objection. No evidence, no defense. As Christians, we must refuse to participate in or to tolerate any conversation in which a person is being defamed or accused without the person being there to defend himself. It is wrong to pass along hearsay in any form, even as prayer requests or pastoral concerns. More than merely not participating, it is up to Christians to stop rumors and those who spread them in their tracks.[3]

This further suggests that workplace gossip is a serious offense. Some of it pertains to personal, off-site matters, which is evil enough. But what about cases when an employee tarnishes the reputation of a co-worker? Can truth ever truly be spoken when those being talked about are not there to speak for themselves? And what about assessments of performance? What safeguards ought to be in place to ensure that reports are fair and accurate? On a large scale, the business of marketing and advertisement operates in the public space among organizations and individuals. In the interest of presenting one’s own products and services in the best possible light, to what extent may one point out the flaws and weaknesses of the competition, without incorporating their perspective? Is it possible that the rights of “your neighbor” could include the rights of other companies? The scope of our global economy suggests this command may have very wide application indeed. In a world where perception often counts for reality, the rhetoric of effective persuasion may or may not have much, if anything, to do with genuine truth. The divine origin of this command reminds us that people may not be able to detect when our representation of others is accurate or not, but God cannot be fooled. It’s good to do the right thing when nobody is watching. With this command, we understand that we must say the right thing when anybody is listening. (See Truth & Deception at for a much fuller discussion of this topic, including whether the prohibition of “false witness against your neighbor” includes all forms of lying and deception.)

“You Shall Not Covet … Anything That Belongs to Your Neighbor” (Exodus 20:17)
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Envy and acquisitiveness can arise anywhere in life, including at work where status, pay, and power are routine factors in our relationships with people we spend a lot of time with. We may have many good reasons to desire achievement, advancement, or reward at work. But envy isn’t one of them. Nor is working obsessively out of envy for the social standing it may enable.

In particular, we face temptation at work to falsely inflate our accomplishments at the expense of others. The antidote is simple, although hard to do at times. Make it a consistent practice to recognize the accomplishments of others and give them all the credit they deserve. If we can learn to rejoice in—or at least acknowledge—others’ successes, then we cut off the lifeblood of envy and covetousness at work. Even better, if we can learn how to work so that our success goes hand-in-hand with others’ success, covetousness is replaced by collaboration and envy by unity.

Leith Anderson, former pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, says, “As the senior pastor, it’s as if I have an unlimited supply of coins in my pocket. Whenever I give credit to a staff member for a good idea, praise a volunteer’s work, or thank someone, it’s like I’m slipping a coin from my pocket into theirs. That’s my job as the leader, to slip coins from my pocket to others’ pockets, to build up the appreciation other people have for them.”[1]

See "From an Attitude of Discontentment to Contentment" in Provision and Wealth Overview at

Case Laws in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21:1-23:33)

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A collection of case laws follows, flowing from the Ten Commandments. Instead of developing detailed principles, it gives examples of how to apply God’s law to the kinds of cases that commonly arose in the conduct of daily life. As cases, they are all embedded in the situations faced by the people of Israel. Indeed, throughout the Pentateuch (the Torah), it can be difficult to sift out the specific laws from the surrounding narrative and exhortation. Four sections of the case law are particularly applicable to work today.

Slavery or Indentured Servitude (Exodus 21:1-11)
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Although God liberated the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, slavery is not universally prohibited in the Bible. Slavery was permissible in certain situations, so long as slaves were regarded as full members of the community (Gen. 17:12), received the same rest periods and holidays as non-slaves (Exod. 23:12; Deut. 5:14-15, 12:12), and were treated humanely (Exod. 21:7, 26-27). Most importantly, slavery among Hebrews was not intended as a permanent condition, but a voluntary, temporary refuge for people suffering what would otherwise be desperate poverty. “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” (Exod. 21:2). Cruelty on the part of the owner resulted in immediate freedom for the slave (Exod. 21:26-27). This made male Hebrew slavery more like a kind of long-term labor contract among individuals, and less like the kind of permanent exploitation that has characterized slavery in modern times.

Female Hebrew slavery was in one sense even more protective. The chief purpose contemplated for buying a female slave was so that she could become the wife of either the buyer or the buyer’s son (Exod. 21:8-9). As wife, she became the social equal of the slaveholder, and the purchase functioned much like the giving of a dowry. Indeed, she is even called a “wife” by the regulation (Exod. 21:10). Moreover, if the buyer failed to treat the female slave with all the rights due an ordinary wife, he was required to set her free. “She shall go out without debt, without payment of money” (Exod. 21:11). Yet in another sense, women had far less protection than men. Potentially, every unmarried woman faced the possibility of being sold into a marriage against her will. Although this made her a "wife" rather than a "slave," would forced marriage be any less objectionable than forced labor?

In addition, an obvious loophole is that a girl or woman could be bought as a wife for a male slave, rather than for the slave owner or a son, and this resulted in permanent enslavement to the owner (Exod. 21:4), even when the husband's term of enslavement ended. The woman became a permanent slave to an owner who did not become her husband and who owed her none of the protections due a wife.

The protection against permanent enslavement also did not apply to foreigners (Lev. 25:44-46). Men taken in war were considered plunder and became the perpetual property of their owners. Women and girls captured in war, who were apparently the vast majority of captives (Num. 31:9-11, 32-35; Deut 20:11-14), faced the same situation as female slaves of Hebrew origin (Deut. 21:10-14), including permanent enslavement. Slaves could also be purchased from surrounding nations (Eccl. 2:7), and nothing protected them against perpetual slavery. The other protections afforded Hebrew slaves did apply to foreigners, but this must have been small comfort to those who faced a lifetime of forced labor.

In contrast to slavery in the United States, which generally forbade marriage among slaves, the regulations in Exodus aim to preserve families intact. “If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him” (Exod. 21:3). Yet often, as we have seen, the actual result of the regulations was forced marriage .

Regardless of any protections afforded in the Law, slavery was by no means an agreeable way of life. Slaves were, for whatever duration of their enslavement, property. Whatever the regulations, in practice there was probably little protection against maltreatment, and abuses occurred. As in much of the Bible, God’s word in Exodus did not abolish the existing social and economic order, but instructed God’s people how to live with justice and compassion in their present circumstances. To our eyes, the results do--and should--appear very disquieting.

In any case, before we become too smug, we should take a look at the working conditions that prevail today among poor people in every corner of the world, including the developed nations. Ceaseless labor for those working two or three jobs to support families, abuse and arbitrary exercise of power by those in power, and misappropriation of the fruits of labor by illicit business operators, corrupt officials, and politically connected bosses. Millions work today without so much as the regulations provided by the Law of Moses. If it was God’s will to protect Israel from exploitation even in slavery, what does God expect followers of Christ to do for those who suffer the same oppression, and worse, today?

Commercial Restitution and Lex Talionis (Exodus 21:18-22:15)
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The casuistic laws spelled out penalties for offenses, including many relating directly to commerce, especially in the case of liability for loss or injury. The so-called lex talionis, which also appears in Leviticus 24:17-21 and Deuteronomy 19:16-21, is central to the concept of retribution.[1] Literally, the law says to pay with a life for a life that is taken, as well as an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, and stripe for stripe (Exod. 21:23-25). The list is notably specific. When Israel’s judges did their work, are we really to believe they applied punishments in this way? Would a plaintiff who was burned due to someone’s negligence really be satisfied to see the offender literally burned to the same degree? Interestingly, in this very part of Exodus, we do not see the lex talionis being applied in this manner. Instead, a man who seriously injures another in a fight must pay for the victim’s lost time and cover his medical expenses (Exod. 21:18-19). The text does not go on to say he must sit still for a public and comparable beating by his former victim. It appears that the lex talionis did not determine the standard penalty for major offenses, but that it set an upper ceiling for damages that could be claimed. Gordon Wenham notes, “In Old Testament times there were no police or public prosecution services, so all prosecution and punishment had to be carried out by the injured party and his family. Thus it would be quite possible for injured parties not to insist on their full rights under the lex talionis, but negotiate a lower settlement or even forgive the offender altogether.”[2] This law may be perceived by some today as savage, but Alec Motyer observed, “When English law hanged a person for stealing a sheep, it was not because the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ was being practiced but because it had been forgotten.”[3]

This issue of interpreting the lex talionis illustrates that there may be a difference between doing what the Bible literally says and applying what the Bible instructs. Obtaining a biblical solution to our problems will not always be a straightforward matter. Christians must use maturity and discernment, especially in light of Jesus’ teaching to forego the lex talionis by not resisting an evildoer (Matt. 5:38-42). Was he speaking of a personal ethic, or did he expect his followers to apply this principle in business? Does it work better for small offenses than it does for big ones? Those who do evil create victims whom we are bound to defend and protect (Prov. 31:9).

The specific instructions about restitution and penalties for thievery accomplished two aims. First, they made the thief responsible for returning the original owner to his original state or fully compensating him for his loss. Second, they punished and educated the thief by causing him to experience the full pain that he had caused for the victim. These aims can form a Christian basis for the work of civil and criminal law today. Current judicial work operates according to specific statutes and guidelines set by the state. But even so, judges have a measure of freedom to set sentences and penalties. For disputes that are settled out of court, attorneys negotiate to help their clients reach a conclusive agreement. In recent times, a perspective called “restorative justice” has emerged with an emphasis on punishment that restores the victim’s original condition and, to the extent possible, restores the perpetrator as a productive member of society. A full description and assessment of such approaches is beyond our scope here, but we want to note that Scripture has much to offer contemporary systems of justice in this regard.

In business, leaders sometimes must mediate between workers who have serious work-related issues with one another. Deciding the right and fair thing affects not only the ones embroiled in the dispute, it also can affect the whole atmosphere of the organization and even serve to set precedent for how workers may expect to fare in the future. The immediate stakes may be very high. On top of this, when Christians must make these kinds of decisions, onlookers draw conclusions about us as people, as well as the legitimacy of the faith we claim to live by. Clearly, we cannot anticipate every situation (and neither does the book of Exodus). But we do know that God expects us to apply his instructions, and we can be confident that asking God how to love our neighbors as ourselves is the best place to start.

Productive Opportunities for the Poor - Gleaning (Exodus 22:21-27 & 23:10-11)
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God’s intent to provide opportunities for the poor is seen in the regulations benefiting aliens, widows, and orphans (Exod. 22:21-22). What these three groups had in common was that they did not possess land on which to support themselves. Often this left them poor, so that aliens, widows, and orphans are the main subjects whenever "the poor" are mentioned in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy, God’s concern for this triad of vulnerable people called for Israel to provide them with justice (Deut. 10:18; 27:19) and access to food (Deut. 24:19-22). Case law on this matter is also developed in Isaiah 1:17, 23 & 10:1-2; Jeremiah 5:28, 7:5-7, 22:3; Ezekiel 22:6-7; Zechariah 7:8-10; and Malachi 3:5.

One of the most important of these regulations is the practice of allowing the poor to harvest, or "glean," the leftover grain active fields and to harvest all volunteer crops in fields lying fallow. The practice of gleaning was not a handout, but an opportunity for the poor to support themselves. Landowners were required to leave each field, vineyard, and orchard fallow one year in every seven, and the poor were allowed to harvest anything that might grow there (Exod. nbsp;23:10-11). Even in active fields, owners were to leave some of the grain in the field for the poor to harvest, rather than exhaustively stripping the field bare (Lev. 19:9-10). For example, an olive grove or a vineyard was to be harvested only once each season (Deut. 24:20). After that, the poor were entitled to gather what was left over, perhaps what was of lesser quality or slower to ripen. This practice was not only an expression of kindness, but it was also a matter of justice. The book of Ruth revolves around gleaning to enchanting effect (see "Ruth 2:17-23" in Ruth and Work at

Today, there are many ways that growers, food producers, and distributors share with the poor. Many of them donate the day's leftover but wholesome food to pantries and shelters. Others work to make food more affordable by increasing their own efficiency. But most people, in developed nations at least, no longer engage in agriculture for a living, and opportunities for the poor are needed in other sectors of society. In today’s industrial and technological societies, efficient resource utilization is the basis of successful production. There is nothing to glean on the floor of a stock exchange, assembly plant, or programming lab. But the principle of providing productive work for vulnerable workers is still relevant. Corporations can productively employ people with mental and physical disabilities, with or without government assistance. With training and support, people from disadvantaged backgrounds, prisoners returning to society, and others who have difficulty finding conventional employment can become productive workers and earn a living.

Other economically vulnerable people may have to depend on contributions of money instead of receiving opportunities to work. Here again the modern situation is too complex for us to proclaim a simplistic application of the biblical law. But the values underlying the law may offer a significant contribution to the design and execution of systems of public welfare, personal charity, and corporate social responsibility. Many Christians have significant roles in hiring workers or designing employment policies. Exodus reminds us that employing vulnerable workers is an essential part of what it means for a people to live under God’s covenant. Together with Israel of old, Christians have also experienced God’s redemption, though not necessarily in identical terms. But our basic gratitude for God’s grace is certainly a powerful motive for finding creative ways to serve the needy around us.

Lending and Collateral (Exodus 22:25-27)
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Another set of case laws regulated money and collateral (Exod. 22:25-27). Two situations are in view. The first pertains to a needy member of God’s people who requires a financial loan. This loan shall not be made according to the usual standards of money-lending. It shall be given without “interest.” The Hebrew word neshekh (which in some contexts means a “bite”) has garnered a great deal of academic attention. Did neshek refer to excessive and therefore unfair interest charged, on top of the reasonable amount of interest required to keep the practice of money-lending financially viable? Or did it refer to any interest? The text does not have enough detail to settle this conclusively, but the latter view seems more likely, because in the Old Testament neshek always pertains to lending to those who are in miserable and vulnerable circumstances, for whom paying any interest at all would be an excessive burden.[1] Placing the poor into a never-ending cycle of financial indebtedness will stir Israel’s compassionate God to action. Whether or not this law was good for business is not in view here. Walter Brueggemann notes, “The law does not argue about the economic viability of such a practice. It simply requires the need for care in concrete ways, and it expects the community to work out the practical details.”[2] The other situation envisages a man who puts up his only coat as collateral for a loan. It should be returned to him at night so that he can sleep without endangering his health (Exod. 22:26-27). Does this mean that the creditor should visit him in the morning to collect the coat for the day and to keep doing so until the loan is repaid? In the context of such obvious destitution, a godly creditor could avoid the near absurdity of this cycle by simply not expecting the borrower to put up any collateral at all. These regulations may have less application to today’s banking system in general than to today’s systems of protection and assistance for the poor. For example, microfinance in less developed countries was developed with interest rates and collateral policies tailored to meet the needs of poor people who otherwise have no access to credit. The goal—at least in the earliest years beginning in the 1970s—was not to maximize profit for the lenders, but to provide sustainable lending institutions to help the poor escape poverty. Even so, microfinance struggles with balancing the lender's need for a sustainable return and default rates with the borrower's need for affordable interest rates and nonrestrictive collateral terms.[3]

The presence of specific regulations following the Ten Commandments means that God wants his people to honor him by putting his instructions into actual practice to serve real needs. Emotional concern without deliberate action doesn’t give the poor the kind of help they need. As the Apostle James put it, “Faith without works is also dead” (James 2:26). Studying the specific applications of these laws in ancient Israel helps us to think about the particular ways we can act today. But we remember that even then, these laws were illustrations. Terence Fretheim thus concludes, “There is an open-endedness to the application of the law. The text invites the hearer/reader to extend this passage out into every sphere of life where injustice might be encountered. In other words, one is invited by the law to go beyond the law.”[4]

A careful reading reveals three reasons why God’s people should keep these laws and apply them to fresh situations.[5] First, the Israelites themselves were oppressed as foreigners in Egypt (Exod. 22:21; 23:9). Rehearsing this history not only keeps God’s redemption in view, but memory becomes a motivation to treat others as we would like to be treated (Matt. 7:12). Second, God hears the cry of the oppressed and acts on it, especially when we won’t (Exod. 22:22-24). Third, we are to be his holy people (Exod. 22:31; Lev. 19:2).