Exodus 21-23

Good morning! Expanding from the Ten Commandments yesterday, today’s chapters (Exodus 21-23) describe a framework of moral and legal practice which is both utterly foreign and yet perhaps still understandable. I find it fascinating to imagine the human dynamics by which these laws came about. These situations came about often enough that ancient Hebrews established patterns for dealing with them in a fair manner. I invite us to bracket our inclination to measure these laws against today’s morality as much as possible, and instead read them with a sense of curiosity for what they teach us of early Jewish life.

Chapter 21 gives laws concerning slavery, violence and property. Note that slavery did not last forever, except by the slave’s choice. The law also places limits on the power of strange men over women, and declares certain kinds of violence again slaves and unborn children to be out of bounds. That which is permitted still sounds brutal to us, but according to some scholars this moral code was considered a protective check on autonomy in its own time.

God’s concern for justice on behalf of the resident alien, widow, orphan, poor, etc. is made explicit in 22:21-27. Here we also find instruction not to exact interest when lending money, which is in keeping with the practice of Muslims as well. Dedication of the firstborn might actually have involved sacrificing the first child or animal born, but later law includes provisions for redeeming children from that fate.

Exodus 23 opens with instructions for basic civility: treat beasts and enemies with mercy; tell the truth; resist mob justice. Notice how the commands to treat servants with kindness stems from a foundational awareness that Hebrews were once aliens and slaves in Egypt. The experience of being an oppressed people leads to greater empathy toward others who are less advantaged. (Could this be one reason there is a long history of collaboration between Jewish and African-American communities?) Sabbath rest extends to land, animals, slaves and resident aliens as well as the entire Jewish community. The command not to “boil a kid in its mother’s milk” has given rise to the categorical distinction in strict kosher households between mixing meat and dairy products (or even kitchen utensils). Chapter 23’s closing oracle describing the conquest of Canaan anticipates what we will read in the book of Joshua, foreshadowing the religious and geographic conflicts that persist in that same territory to this day. Happy reading!

Read Exodus 21-23.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Exodus 24-26. Thanks for reading!

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