Exodus 21-23


CVC Elder Kyle Gustafson

In order to re-establish where we are in the story, we need to head back a couple chapters, to the beginning of chapter 19 where God lays out to Moses what his plans are for Israel. Read Exodus 19:1-7.

God has brought his people out of Egypt (on the wings of eagles!) and delivered them to himself. But did you notice how quickly this is all happening? 3 months. 3 months ago Israel was enslaved in Egypt. Since that time God has:

  • Provided 10 plagues,
  • given them great wealth from the hands of Egypt,
  • parted the red sea, l
  • ed them with a pillar of fire,
  • fought and won military battles on their behalf.
  • Provided food for them from heaven,
  • and made bitter waters sweet to drink. 

Through all of this, God is giving Israel a crash course about who HE is and what HE cares about. Israel is learning about their God on the fly, in real time. This is the framework that we need to start with, in order to understand this (and other) law sections found in the O.T. 

And, for what purpose is God doing all of this? We are told clearly in verse 6, “and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

There are some old-fashioned words there, so let’s unpack them a little bit and make sure everyone is on the same page:

  • “Priest” an ancient office, for people whose job was to mediate between gods and the world
    • Exist in all ancient near east religions, but are a very special/specific office
  • “Holy” means to be set apart, different, pure.

When we put both concepts together, God intends Israel to be something very different than the cultures and people around them. Instead of only specific people having a relationship with God, the whole of the kingdom is to be representatives and mediators for God in this world. The way that they worship, and the way that they live, everything they do- is supposed to be set apart. Pure. It is designed to be different. It is designed to be Holy.

The purpose of the 10 commandments, and the 70 additional rules and regulations in today’s chapters is to shape, mold, and forge Israel into this Holy Nation. God wants Israel to be different than the world around them, in the same way that God wants US (you, me, CVC) to be different than our world.

That means, that as we read these laws, we should be looking at what makes them different than the rest of the world. The ancient Israelites weren’t the first people group to create or live by a code of law. In fact, there were many different “codes of law” in the ancient world. The most famous of those codes is the “Code of Hammurabi”, recorded by an ancient Babylonian King. On first glance, there is a LOT of similarities between the laws in Exodus and the Hammurabi code. Several of the laws seem to be almost identical in both wording and outcome. BUT, there are some really important differences as well that we will get to later.

Let’s quickly set out, in some very broad strokes, what the Hammurabi Code looked like.

  • Secular-there is no purpose beyond civic order.
  • Age, gender, profession, status impacted the punishments assigned
  • Allowed for harsh and physical punishments but generally allowed the substation of money in place of those punishments.
    • The end result was a system where if you had money or status, you could get away with anything. But if you didn’t… you faced brutal physical punishment- up to and including death.
  • Punishments, if unable to be met by an individual, would be transferred to their children.

Unlike the Hammurabi Code, Israel’s covenant laws are built on the idea that the foundation of a civil society rests not on the relationship between humans, but on the relationship between man and God. And, what I think is REALLY cool, is that the recorder does this both through their words, but also through the design and organization of this section.

Let’s take a look at the chiasm the authors built into today’s text.

  • The pattern goes like this: God. Sabbath. Laws. Laws. Sabbath. God.
  • This communicates something very significant to us as reader: The foundation of everything we read today, rests on our right relationship and right worship of God.
    • If we don’t have the relationship between man and God right- then the rest of this passage probably doesn’t matter
    • That was true of Israel 4000 years ago, and it is true of us now!
  • It also communicates to us what “laws” are most important for the author…
    • The laws focused on: Human Life, The vulnerable, and our finances.
    • If the author is telling us these are the most important sections, then I propose that we should listen to them!

Since the biblical authors have specifically highlighted Human life, the poor, and the vulnerable- I want to shift our focus to those aspects of God’s character and God’s heart. We are going to attempt to pull one or two laws out of the passage for each of these sections, as a way to showcase how we can use these laws to better understand God’s heart and his character.

The first part of God’s character that I want to draw our attention to is that God…

  1. Values Human Life.

On the surface, this should make a lot of sense to us. God created man in his own image, with the purpose to be his representative in creation. And, within this creation, God also creates a clear hierarchy. God is above Man, and then Man is given authority over animals. Read Exodus 21:28-30, dealing with a problematic ox. As you read, I want you to look for how that hierarchy is violated, and what the consequence is.

This is one of the Laws that people use to draw comparisons between Exodus and Hammurabi- because the Hammurabi code addresses these exact same legal situation too. In Hammurabi, the consequence in the first circumstance is…. Nothing. “The case has no basis for claim”. In the second circumstance, where the ox is a known gorer, Hammurabi says the owner owes the family 30 shekels of silver (about 4 months salary). In neither circumstance, does Hammurabi address the outcome for the ox

The Covenant laws handle these situations differently, and it is in those differences that we get to see the heart of God. In the case of an accidental goring, the owner carries the same guilt- “shall not be liable” is the exact wording. But – our focus needs to be on the ox, which goes unaddressed in Hammurabi is…. Stoned. Not killed. Not sacrificed. Not butchered or sold. Stoned. In the OT, stoning is a judgement reserved only for the most grievous offenses against God or against man. The use of the THAT word here is not accidental.

The result of the animals action resulted in the death of man. No matter the economic value of the ox, the human has infinitely more value. There has to be a consequence to the death of a man… and it is the ox that must pay for its grievous offense.

In the second scenario, we see another difference arise. Here, the ox still suffers the same fate- but the owner is now also liable and faces the same sentence as the ox. They KNOW that their animal is dangerous to humans, have been warned, and still allow the unfortunate circumstance to occur. Their negligence costs another human their life and carries with it the appropriate punishment. But that isn’t the end of this story. Remember, we are looking to see how God values life and we find an interesting counterbalance. The offender can be ransomed- a monetary cost that can stand in place of their life. Not just a flat value of 30 shekels, but an undisclosed and likely variable amount negotiated with family of the deceased person. This communicates to us that human life has value beyond a fixed dollar amount- that Human life has intrinsic value that cannot be simply distilled down to an economic number. This is a radical departure from the cultures surrounding ancient Israel… which, if you remember, is exactly God’s purpose in the enacting of these laws.

God also uses these laws to demonstrate that He…

2. Cares for the Poor

Read Exodus 22:25-27, as well as a commandment in Exodus 23:10-11.

Even on a first reading, it is pretty clear that God is providing a framework to protect the poor from exploitation by those with more wealth or finances. We shouldn’t make a profit at the expense of someone else’s economic misfortune- indeed, the prohibition on money lending is limited here to those who are poor. If you need a business loan, bring on the interest. If you need the money to survive, it needs to be provided interest free.

Let’s take a closer look at the cloak, in Exodus 22. In the ancient world, just like today, it was common practice to take collateral against a loan to help ensure that the loan would be paid back, and offset the loss if it was not. In the most destitute of circumstances, the only thing a person might have to offer as collateral would be the clothing off their back. But, the cloak is more than just an article of clothing… it was something essential for survival. It kept you warm. It served as your blankets and bedroll. It was likely the only protection that the person had. God’s command here is to… give it back. This law is functionally commanded compassion to those who are in need. That is compounded by how God declares his own character, saying “I am compassionate”. Our God is compassionate- and his desire for us is to be compassionate. The passage also adds another small, but important, echo. “If he cries out”. We should hear this phrase, and immediately be transported back to the beginning of Exodus- when God heard the cries of Israel in Egypt, showed them compassion, and came to their rescue.

So far in the law, we have seen that God:

  • Values Human Life
  • Cares for the Poor

We also see…

3. God’s protection of the vulnerable.

Read Exodus 22:21-24.

It doesn’t take any fancy commentaries or seminary training to see God’s protection of the vulnerable in that passage! Our ESV passage uses the word Sojourner- but other translations use foreigner, stranger, or alien. Like we learned when CVC went through the book of Ruth a few years ago, foreigners were among the most vulnerable people in ancient cultures. The very next verse, God also adds widows and orphans to his protected groups. The people who have no way to provide or care for themselves in an ancient patriarchal culture. As we read these 3 verses, I want to draw your attention to a couple of key point that might fly under the radar. The first is that God doesn’t apply limits to these groups. You shall not wrong. Shall not mistreat ANY. God does not inform Israel to only care for Israelite widows. He doesn’t limit it to those who “deserve it”, or “can contribute”. He provides no qualifications at all- a simple, unambiguous ANY. 

A large portion of today’s 3 chapters are laws directly governing to the ancient practice of slavery. And while we could skirt by and avoid talking about it, I think taking that approach would be doing us all a disservice.

To be very clear, the frame of slavery in these chapters is not the same as the slavery that stains American History- where humans were captured, kidnapped, sold, and traded on the sole basis of their race and skin color. In fact, that very practice is STONGLY outlawed in these very chapters: Exodus 21:16 states “Whomever steals a man and sells him, AND anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death”. I think it would be very appropriate if we were to add that verse to the list of verses that support God’s value on human life.

Rather, the slavery here is primarily an economic solution for people who have outstanding debts beyond what they can repay. Just like ancient Israel had no welfare, ancient Israel had no bankruptcy either. That means if you fell into some great debt, the only option was a form of indentured servitude to pay back that debt. It is still ugly and still dehumanizing, but it was something so engrained in the ancient world that no one could even imagine an economic system that didn’t include slavery. Here is how biblical scholar Andrew Lincoln describes it:

No one in ancient times could conceive of an economic or labor structure without it. While there were brutal forms of slavery, the concept—indentured labor in which the laborer was not free to market his skills to other employers—was considered a given. No one—not even slaves—thought the whole institution should be abolished.

Andrew Lincoln

Now, I don’t want to absolve the practice from its ethical concerns. While they were slaves, human beings had no authority, autonomy, or rights. They were at the very specific whim of their master until the debt was declared met- the slaves were incredibly vulnerable to economic, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Add to a patriarchal culture, and female slaves constitute some of the most vulnerable populations within the ancient near east, Israel included. With that in our mind, turn with me to Exodus 21:7, which starts – for me personally- the hardest passage in these chapters.

Read Exodus 21:7-11.

Outside of God’s law, the daughter-once sold into slavery (likely to pay a families debt)-would be 100% at the whim of the slave owner. He could marry her, marry her to his son, starve her, sell her to Egypt. In essence, once she was sold- and that is the end of the story.

God turns that narrative completely on its side, in ways that would be utterly surprising to the Israelites- the slave owner here has very clear responsibility to the slave. Additionally, the woman here has very clear rights. The first place we notice this how her status changes. If the owner decides to marry her- she becomes his wife, with all of the rights and social support that come with that. If he marries her to his son, the slave owner is obligated to treat her as his daughter- a recognized and valued member of the family. In each of these (still awful) circumstances, God’s law requires that the woman’s status be elevated and that she be protected.

There are other protections here too. If the slave owner is unhappy, he has only two options. 1. Allow her family to purchase her back (he shall let her be redeemed). 2. Continue to provide her with food, clothing, and status because he has made a commitment to her. If he violates any of these options, then the woman has the right to leave, for free.

Here is my challenge to you as you read these passages in your small group, or in your personal study. In our own struggle with the content, don’t lose sight of what is happening here. God has reached into a horrible human practice, identified the single most vulnerable person, and provided them status, protections, and rights beyond what anyone in that culture could have imagined or considered possible. Laws that are so contrary to the way that “the world works” that God’s people would be different. Set apart. Holy.

God’s purpose in giving these laws to Israel is that they would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These laws were designed to showcase the character of God to the rest of the world, through the example set by the Israelites. In essence, the nonbelieving world should have been able to look at Israel- how they valued human life, how they cared for their poor, and how they protected their vulnerable- and been able to see in those things the heart and character of God. Throughout Exodus we have heard God declare “That his name would be known” to the whole world. And his laws were one of the major ways that he designed and orchestrated that.

As I reflect on that purpose, I don’t think it is any stretch to see how God desires that of Christians, in our current culture and climate. Now, to be very clear, the modern American church is NOT Israel- but we ARE the bride of Christ, and we are his hands and feet in this world. The way we live, the way we love, the things we value- they communicate to the unbelieving world around us the character and the heart of the God that we serve.

So how do we do that well?

I think it would be wise for us to start with the wisdom provided by the Ancient Israel scribes through their Chiasm. The foundation for everything is a right relationship and the right worship of God. How could we embody God’s character if we don’t actually KNOW God’s character? The answer is… we can’t. So perhaps, the action step for you today is to come talk to one of the staff or Elders upfront after the service to find out more about Who is this God of the Universe is, and what it looks like to be a part of his family. Or maybe it is stopping by guest connect on your way out, or a sending text to our response number. But, if you feel God stirring in you a desire to know him better- don’t ignore that calling.

After that, it becomes about attempting to prioritize in our lives the things that God himself says that he cares about. Having in us a heart that sees the world the way God sees the world. And, I mean these things both individually, but also collectively as our CVC church body. If, I, Kyle do not model a compassionate heart for human life, the poor, or the vulnerable- how will my neighbors see God’s heart for them? And if CVC does not model a compassionate heart for human life, the poor, and the vulnerable, how will Brecksville, Broadview Heights, or all of NEO see God’s heart for them?

It’s not just enough to KNOW God’s heart- but we need to take steps to better live OUT God’s heart. Here at CVC, we are doing that in many, many different ways. And I want to take the final moments of our time together to invite you into the gospel work our ministry partners are doing all around Northeast Ohio. As a church, we have identified several ministries – that we often refer to as our “Big 10”, that are actively pursuing God’s compassion, healing, and restoration across a wide variety of Kingdom issues. Several have been showcased in the recent weeks from this very stage, and there are more still to come over the next month. When you give to CVC, you are helping to financially support all of these organizations. But also, they need our energy and support to make kingdom impacts. So maybe the take home for you today is that you need to turn your head knowledge into heart action by engaging with one of these ministry partners.

God Values Human Life

One of our Big 10 partners is the Cleveland Pregnancy Center- an organization dedicated to providing biblical, life-affirming resources and services to those affected by an unexpected pregnancy- including ultrasounds, parenting classes, supplies, and mentorship.

Last summer, a member of our Church by the name of Katie, was connected as a “mentor mom” to a client of Cleveland Pregnancy Center by the name of Brittany, right before she was going to have her daughter. Katie and Brittany hit it off, and over the course of the last year have developed a deep friendship that Katie described to me as being “part of her family”. Early on in the mentorship process, Katie invited Brittany to services here at CVC and Brittany and her boyfriend have been coming ever since. Katie talked about how beautiful it has been to watch Brittany and her fiancé grow in their faith, knowledge, and commitment to the Lord during this season of what could have otherwise been a difficult and challenging season.

This mother’s day we will be starting our “annual loose change for life” where we have a chance to financially bless CPC. But they also need volunteers- specifically mentor moms who are willing to step into the lives of women facing unexpected pregnancy, and model the heart of God to them in a real, tangible way.

God Cares for the Poor

Several of our “Big 10” ministries directly address God care and compassion for the Poor.

Care on the Square (sometimes called COTS) is a ministry founded and run by CVC members providing food and support in Brunswick, Slavic Village, and Downtown Cleveland- last year they provide 147,000 meals and 177,000 pounds of food to a total of almost 11,000 people. They are being highlighted at all CVC BVH services on April 21st, where you will have an opportunity to engage with them directly.

The City Mission is a Cleveland based organization founded to give help and hope to Cleveland’s hurting and homeless. Their work begins with meeting the basic human needs of food, shelter, clothing- and through Laura’s home providing support to women who are in Crisis. Last year, they served 991 people, provided 73,000 nights of shelter, and 134,000 meals.

God Protects the Vulnerable

Just a few weeks ago, we welcomed RAHAB ministries to share about how they are providing care and support to girls and women affected by sex trafficking  in Akron, Canton, Youngstown, and Cleveland. Last year, they had more than 8,000 interactions with almost 800 individual survivors of sex trafficking.

These statistics and stories are not being presented here to boast of CVC’s impact or to pat ourselves on the back- but as spotlight to ask- how much more could we do? What would NEO look like if we would all embody God’s value of human life, His care for the poor, and His heart to protect the vulnerable.