Case Laws in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21:1-23:33)
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.
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?
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. 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.” 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.”
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.
Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” in vol. 1, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Genesis to Leviticus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 433. The principle is also present in the Code of Hammurabi (about 1850-1750 BC), though that code does not prioritize human life as highly as the Torah does.
Gordon J. Wenham, Exploring the Old Testament, A Guide to the Pentateuch, vol. 1 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 73.
J. A. Motyer, The Message of Exodus: The Days of Our Pilgrimage (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 240.
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. 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 www.theologyofowork.org).
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.
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. 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.” 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.
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.”
A careful reading reveals three reasons why God’s people should keep these laws and apply them to fresh situations. 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).
Robin Wakely, “#5967 NSHK,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 3:185–89.
Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” in vol. 1, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Genesis to Leviticus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 868.
Rob Moll, “Christian Microfinance Stays on a Mission,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/may/stayingonmission.html.
Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 248.
J. A. Motyer, The Message of Exodus: The Days of Our Pilgrimage (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 241.