Exodus 21 is not just a list of laws. They are laws revealed by God at the foot of Mt Sinai to His people. We are not just reading a list of practical wisdom that Israel’s elders came up with. The people’s God came down and revealed Himself to them in the giving of His law. These civic laws remind God’s people of who they are and God’s actions define their identity. They are not defined by their sins, nor their past slavery, nor even their present situation. Only God defines them.
And in this passage, God’s laws reveal His just nature. Justice as an abstract concept is not too far from all of our lives. We’ve all considered it at some point and some of us even work in a related field. But what does God want His people to know about justice? Why? And what do these things tell God’s people about God?
(A) The Civic Law teaches us how to love our neighbor in the presence of our God: treasuring justice, love and equality
Exodus 21:12-32 is mainly separated by commentators into three parts: capital offenses, restitution (repaying others as a substitute for punishment), and criminal negligence. With the table below we can see what the laws guard against, how they guard them, and whom they guard.
The consequence for the crimes described in the first six rows is death. As we can see from Exo 21:12-14, taking someone’s life is cause for death, whether the act was premeditated or not. “Striking one’s parents” seems like a mild offense to us today, but this verse refers to striking with the intent to kill. Cursing one’s parents was also serious as it implies complete disregard for them.
Exo 21:18 onwards lists crimes demanding restitution. Notably, the crime described in Exo 21: 26 contrasts with what we read in Exodus 21:5-6, about the loving relationship a master needs to have with their slave.
The classes of victims described by these versed include slaves, which was radical in the culture and context of the Israelites. The idea that a life of a slave was as valuable as that of a free man was different compared to other ancient Near Eastern penal codes, where slaves were regarded as second-class citizens. Even the life of an unborn baby in the womb was protected by the law, as seen in Exo 21: 22. The large range of classes of victims shows that all of life is to be protected—some violations against life deserve death, and others deserve harm.
The point is that the earth is the Lord’s, the fullness thereof, and all who dwell in it. God determines the purpose of everything. Family is guarded because the family is meant to build up the nation. The nation of Israel is guarded because Israel was meant to reveal God’s glory. Anything that dismisses God’s glory leads to death.
Parents are protected more significantly in these laws than they are protected in any modern legal code. Jesus speaks of this law in Matthew 15:4-6. In verses 5-6 he states to the Pharisees, “But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honour his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.” He puts the commandment to honour one’s parents and the law against cursing them together to illustrate one big principle: of love and respect. The laws are phrased as a negative prohibition. Yet at its heart, it’s telling us the right thing to do, which is to honour one’s mother and father. The Pharisees were saying that whatever one gave the temples which would otherwise have gone to their temples was a service to God. Jesus stated how that was wrong. Dear Christian, have you been serving God fervently in all of life but have you neglected God? Have you been doing things for the gospel but when did you last care for your father and mother? When did you sit down and pray for them or for them? Jesus is challenging us today.
What does it mean for us today? Paul tells us in Eph 3:10 that God means for His manifold wisdom to be displayed through the church. So, when was the last time you cared for another church member? What about your pastor? Do you go to church, stand up and sing a few songs, listen to sermon and go off for lunch? Do you care for the church? Do you long for the church to show God’s glory to the world? God’s Word is immensely practical and relevant for us today.
But Exo 21 wasn’t the first place that this idea originated. The underlying principle that all of life is guarded. and that there is dignity to life was present right in the beginning, in Gen 1! Gen 1:27 is the basis for all of this. Life has value and meaning because God created and gave life meaning. We readily agree because we live in a post-Enlightenment world but what is the basis of our belief?
Exo 21 calls us to think about how we treat one another. How do you treat the colleague that cannot help in your career progression? How do you treat the stranger? If we are honest, we don’t think of everyone as having human dignity according to the way God has created them. We need the law to remind us of these things.
For the third consecutive year, life expectancy in America is on the decline. It is not because healthcare is poor or terrorism is taking life. It’s suicide. These are real things that people struggle with around. The law reminds you and me that their lives are also incredibly valuable because God has created them in the image of God. This is why life is to be protected, cherished and valued.
God is concerned about justice. There is a God who really cares deeply about justice. When we don’t care about it, we don’t care about what He has given and we don’t care about what He cares about. In the Prophets, we read about God been deeply grieved by the injustice in Israel and He chides and punishes them for the injustice in their society.
How seriously did God take the issue of injustice (cf. Is 59:1-16, Rom 6:23)? God took the “life for life” clause seriously. Rom 6:23 tells us that the wages of sin is death. To deal with our sin, God sent Jesus, the just man for unjust sinners. God is truly the lover of justice. Only when we see this, then our hearts will be warmed ! Only then we can know Him and know life abundantly (c.f. Jn 14). Life abundant is not a long life or a good life, but it really means a life that glorifies God, a life that God intended to have to reflect and image His nature.
As His followers, we are called to care about justice too. We have to see the God behind it for our own hearts to take this seriously too.
(B) The Civic Law points us towards our need for mercy and teaches us to love it.
The law shows us standards for just restitution whenever we wrong one another. But God doesn’t encourage us to apply the same standards of justice when another wrongs us. Our response is, instead, to show mercy. This is what Jesus said in Matt 5:38-39.
Jesus holds up what seems like a double standard, and it is incredibly troubling for us. Forgiveness involves us absorbing the cost of that action or the hurt, as Bible teacher and writer Tim Keller describes it. This is troubling and difficult for us because we know that there is only a finite amount that we can bear. But Jesus doesn’t call us to ground acts of mercy on ourselves. He doesn’t tell us to try harder. The law calls us to live lives of mercy by pointing us to see how we’ve all been recipients of mercy. When Jesus hung on that wretched cross and had every ground to pour down judgment for every time we have despised life, denied God’s purposes and just dismissed all of these things, He did not do so. Instead, He said “Father forgive them…”. It is from this great wellspring of mercy. Mercy received becomes mercy to give.
Paul in Eph 2:1-7 calls us to see how we who were once dead in our transgressions and sins are now recipients of his incredible mercy. This is the basis of us showing this kind of mercy to those around us.
But what does this look like practically? The mercy that we have received calls us to endure suffering and even count it as joy to share in the sufferings of Christ (c.f. 1 Peter 2:18-20). The Christian who has received mercy and grace will naturally care for those who are suffering around (c.f. Jas 1:27) . All around us are people who we can help very practically. Jude 20-23 is also important for us in the church.. Sometimes we are the most uncharitable towards those who are within the church, towards those who take up a lot of our time and energy. These verses call us to encourage and care for the person who doubt in the church, because of the mercy of God.
Jesus tells us in John 13:34, “ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” With Christ’s sacrifice, and awaiting His return, we can care for people we dislike, disagree with, or find burdensome. Why? Because we have known the rich mercies of Christ. How does knowing the mercy of God for you in Jesus help you to practically live a life of mercy and justice? Who can you show mercy and justice to this week?