In this study, we examine the laws that govern social justice. Previously in Exodus 22, we looked at the laws for restitution, and learned how God created laws to help mitigate a variety of issues. However, the specificity of these laws may lead us to wonder: how exactly are they relevant for us?
As we examine the laws that govern social justice in this study, it will be helpful to remember that the laws tell us something about God, the lawgiver. The laws and they tell us of a loving God: who cares for our livelihood and for us, His people. In this study, we see that the laws help to rightly order the Israelites’ relationship with one another.
When reading these verses, it would be helpful to ask ourselves: how do these law shape the way the people would act? What are the principles that undergird this particular law? And most importantly, what does this law tell us about God, the one who made these laws? These are the questions we seek to answer as we examine this sequence of laws.
(A) The Society of God: Laws given to shape right relationships among God’s people (Exo 22:16- 25)
Exo 22:16-17 tells us that a man who “seduces a virgin and lies with her” will have to “give the bride-price for her and make her his wife”. Here, two clarifications are in order:
This is not speaking of rape; rather, it speaks of a consensual relationship between a man and a woman, where a man seduces a woman, who willingly reciprocates his advances.
The bride price to be paid, if the father refuses to give his daughter up, is not a form of property law, whereby a woman was pegged to some monetary amount. Women were not seen as property. Rather, this bride price is compensation against the party who is wronged.
Hence, the verses show us how God wills for the Israelites to deal with a situation of consensual pre-marital sex between a man and a woman. Significantly, we see that the father has a right to disagree to this marriage, and to receive compensation, which would be an important safeguard in situations where the man is found unsuitable to care for his daughter.
It would be helpful to consider this law alongside the 7th Commandment, in Exo 20:14. There, we see that God commands extra-marital sex to be sinful and to be condemned, while the law in Exo 22:16-17 speaks of pre-marital sex. When we consider both verses, we gain a fuller picture of God’s view of marriage: marriage is sacred, and God protects this particular institution. The sacred covenant of marriage is a meant to reflect His commitment and covenant to His people.
Hence, what we can understand is that sex is for marriage, not merely for personal pleasure. Furthermore, we can see that God is concerned for our relationships with one another to display God’s character rightly, and we flourish as we live in God’s design. The purpose of the law extends beyond protecting the vulnerable and the weak, but also to protect the institution of marriage.
In the next verses, we see how God condemns sorcery, bestiality and idolatry, where any one who practices this must be put to death. What strikes out is that capital punishment is reserved for these three offences. And in order to know why, it would be important to understand the nature and severity of these offences.
What is sorcery? It is using powers to try to circumvent God’s will, to conjure potions, to try to speak of the dead, and generally to try to gain control of things in the world. This is sinful in God’s sight: for in the practice of sorcery, the people rebel against the holy God, the One who made all things.
What is bestiality? In having sexual relations with an animal, it distorts and perverts the order by which God created nature. In Gen 1, we learn how man is called to have dominion over the animals, to cultivate them. To bring in something reserved for marriage into a relationship with an animal perverts God’s very order of creation, leading also to disease and other practical losses.
Furthermore, this law ensures the distinctive holiness of God’s people, as a people set apart for Him. The Canaanites, the people around the Israelites, engaged in ritual worship, where physical union with animals representing their Gods was believed to draw them closer to their gods. Hence, this command ensures the distinctiveness of God’s people, ensuring that they would not be influenced by the sinful practices of the people around them.
Finally: what is idolatry? Idolatry is when the people speak of God as not the only God. By outwardly making sacrifices to other gods, the people dethrone God.
Therefore, we can see that these are not private sins; these are intentional acts of rebellion, directly opposing God. The outright and obvious nature of these sins leads to a distortion of who God is, and stumbles others, hence justifying a heavy sentence. In doing so, God shows that He protects His people. He leads them to understand that this is not the way that the people of God should act.
What do these commandments reveal about God? We learn that He is good and sovereign: whatever He wills is best; hence, it is sinful to use dark powers to control His world. We also learn that He is good and pure, and that He is the only God. We must not worship anyone else but Him.
We also learn that God cares about the way we perceive Him. He wants us to know Him rightly. This is important, because how we know Him shapes how we live. How we know Him shapes how we live, and how we live shapes our worship of Him.
How does this apply to us today? The text speaks of right relationships: be it before marriage or within marriage, and how these relationship must reflect the God we worship.
Furthermore, we are led to see Christ: the Bridegroom for the church, His bride. We see the fulfilment of the covenant, where He dies at the cross, bearing the weight of our sin, dying for His people’s sake. The Bible speaks of this relationship as one between Christ, and His church.
We are therefore led by this law to ask ourselves: How do we uphold the importance of marriage? If marriage is not merely physical, but serves as an image of Christ and His church, we are led to reflect: Are we living and growing and serving a local church, knowing that it is won by the blood of Christ? As a husband is the head of the household, so is Christ the head of the church.
While it can be frustrating to deal with sin in the life of the church, the way we deal with that points to our relationship with Christ. At the same time, if we think about the importance of God punishing those who do not reflect Him rightly, we learn that we also to practice church discipline, and even to practice excommunication, if a person lives in open persistent sin. We often are wary of even talking about ex-communication. However, it is important to note that ex-communication means that we do not shun the individual, but that we go to him or her with the Gospel. It is nonetheless important to ensure that distinction is maintained: to treat them as non-believers. Hence, it is important to be part of the church, and for the church to guard its membership.
(B) To Once Sojourners in Egypt: Laws given to set Israel Apart for God, to Care for the Vulnerable and to Uphold Justice (Exo 22:21-23:9)
In Exo 22:21-27, we can clearly see God’s heart for the vulnerable among the Israelites. Some important details from these verses are shown below:
From Exo22:21, we see how God commands the Israelites to protect the sojourners among them. The sojourners are vulnerable to oppression, because they move around, living day to day without stable dwellings. We learn that God commands His people to protect them, because reminds they too were once sojourners in Egypt. Since the people of God receive compassion, they are to be compassionate to others.
Exo 22:22-24 show us that God protects the widows and orphans from mistreatment. Here, it is striking that God promises a response to mistreatment in a very personal way, where “… my wrath will burn and I will kill you with the sword.” (Exo 22:24) This is the first time we see God mentioning the sword in the laws, showing us that God Himself assumes the protector role over widows and the orphans. What a weighty and scary thought: That God Himself will arise from His throne, to slay the unrighteous!
Exodus tells us that God would avenge those who have been mistreated. Here, it is important to remember that vengeance is carried out by God, not the oppressed, and He does it in the most fairest of ways. Taking the perspective of the victim, it would be important and satisfying to know that justice is being served and that people who have wronged others will not walk away. We also learn from Exo 22:23 that God Himself would hear the cries of the widows and the fatherless. What a wonderful and comforting thought: That the creator God hears the cries of the weakest and most vulnerable people in society, and does not neglect or forget them.
Finally, from Exo 22:25-27, we learn how God protects the poor from exploitation, knowing their vulnerabilities. We learn from these verses that God knows the needs of the poor. He is not too far away. He know, for he hears the cries of the poor. Hence, we may trust in Him.
The way that these 6 verses apply to us today is readily apparent: are we caring for the sojourners, the needy, the vulnerable, the poor? While many of us may not be actively causing harm, we still show a lack of care for them in many ways. Within our own churches, who are the people we often talk to? Do we only speak with people we are comfortable with? Do we step out of our comfort zone, to reach out to people in difficult situations? And in our own ways, if we are silent and if we ignore the poor, the vulnerable among us, are we not doing the same as the oppressor?
The subsequent law in Exo 22:28 speaks of how we are to treat the authorities above us. Exo 22:28 creates an association between “reviling God” and the way we treat the “ruler of the people”. And if we ask ourselves what this verse tells us about God, we learn that God is sovereign. He places over us rulers as He wills. The verse guards us against a sovereignty that is apart from God: to think that we could curse the rulers that God has set before us, which in turn says that what God has given is not good.
Exo 22:29 urges the people to not delay in offering from the fullness of your harvest and the outflow of their presses. Here, the presses refer to crops: of barley, wheat, and oil. Why? In doing so, the people were to remember that everything we have belongs to God; hence, the best of what we have is his. As in the next verse, we are guarded against feeling a sense of entitlement from what we have, and from a wrong vision of ourselves. The act of parting with our very best forces us to recall the God who provided these things for us. And above all, we learn that we need Him to provide for everything we have, guarding our hearts against a reliance on ourselves alone.
Exo 22:31 then proceeds to remind God’s people that they are consecrated to Him, and thus will not eat any flesh that is torn by beasts in the field. To understand this further, remember that the Israelites were in the wilderness, and hence may be tempted to eat any carcass of half-dead animal, similar to roadkill. To understand why they cannot eat any form of flesh or meat, it’d be helpful to consider the sacrificial systems: where blood is sacred, and treated as crucial for the atoning of sins. Hence, God’s people cannot consume just any kind of blood, and animals killed by the roadside cannot just be consumed. To have it within them is to be unholy; living as if they were common, and did not belong to a holy God.
What does this law guard people against? It guards people from a very small and common view of God. If we think that we can defile our body without consequence, that what one consumes does not at all matter, it shows a very low and common view of God, as one who does not matter in everyday life. Hence, there is a need to be intentional over what is consumed, and to remember that we, as a people of God, have been consecrated (or set apart) for Him. The placing of this verse right after the command to be compassionate unto the vulnerable and poor is significant as well! From this order, we learn that the motivation to love one another, to be in right relationship with one another, is that they have been set apart by a holy God.
From Exo 23:1-9, we learn about what it means to be a truthful witness (verses 1 to 3) and a fair judge (verses 6 to 8) We can see multiple characteristics of both from these 9 verses:
We see that the model witness is one who does not just go with the crowd’s opinion, not joining hands with the wicked, and joining in their evil (Exo 23:2). The truthful witness shows a justice that cannot be swayed. Similarly, we learn that the fair judge is one who executes justice proportionately, giving to al what they deserve. We learn from here that the view of justice is one that can’t be bought.
Remember again that the laws say something of the lawgiver. Hence, God’s commands for a fair judge and a truthful witness reveal the nature of His justice: a justice is what cannot be changed by circumstances, or bought by money. That is His standard for what is just, for what is right. We see God’s standards of righteousness in these laws.
We see how God also commands people to rescue the oxen or donkeys of their enemies, when these animals are going astray (Exo 23:3). The significance here is that the people are prevented from a form of vengeance, that says: “I don’t need to tire myself to bring this animal back; after all it belongs to my enemy. I can just ignore it!” Here, we learn here that justice against our enemies is not something to take into our own hands, such that if our enemy’s animals is under the burden, we have to rescue it. This is a sense of justice that acknowledges that my own execution of justice is sinful. This is a form of justice that demands trust in the just and the true God Himself, that vengeance is carried out by Him. This law guards us against we ourselves deciding on how to treat our enemy. And we have the assurance of the verses we saw earlier, which speak of God’s perfect justice. He will execute justice perfectly.
As we reach the end of this study, we might be wondering: What is it that we can we take away from these laws, that speak of so many specific, everyday situations? Rather than dismissing this portion of scripture as unimportant, we must see that our understanding of who God is affects our daily lives. We learn from these passage that God cares about our everyday interactions. He cares about how we see Him, and how we portray Him. He cares for those in the fringes of society, and how we react to the vulnerable among us. He cares for how we trust in Him, on how we hope in Him. All these aspects are wrapped up in how we live as a Christian: to know that my belief in this God has implications on my daily life. Hence, we are compelled to ask ourselves: what kind of impact and witness would we have to others, if we lived by His laws? And what hope does Christ’s redemptive work bring to us, for those of us who have rejected Him? Finally, how should our theology, our understanding of God, shape the way we live our lives? Let us remember and hold fast to the truth that we serve and worship a real God, even in the smallest aspect of our lives.