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Whoa. Why are we suddenly combining all these chapters?
Fear not, Shmoopers. We've got your back. This chunk of Exodus is considered to be one of the oldest pieces of legal mumbo-jumbo in the entire Bible.
The thing is, the tone and content of this group of writings doesn't match the Ten Commandments and the stuff before it. We basically go from cosmic concerns about human life to technical laws about slaves and property.
The document looks a lot like Mesopotamian legal code, and the Hebrew itself is a bit older. If you were writing this volume, and you needed to insert an older document into the new stuff, the moment right after the Ten Commandments is a great place to do it. It's like a network putting a new TV show on right after something they know people will watch. Better ratings, you know?
P.S. This all comes to us as a revelation from God to Moses. Apparently God is a sucker for property law.
The whole thing is worth reading, but we're going to give you a greatest hits section that gets at all the relevant pieces. Most of these laws are laid out in a format that was very common in the ancient world at the time: "If…then…" Hypotheticals were the basis for law—and for exceptions to it.
Okay. On your mark, get set…
20:22-26: Altar Law
God makes it clear here that he doesn't want any gold or silver idols around his altar: "You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings" (20:23-24). This sounds kind of new age. Back to the earth, right? Also, check out how pastoral this statute is; anyone could build an altar to this guy. Oh, and one other thing: if you use stones, just make sure that they're not "hewn" stones that have felt iron. Only the super-organic stuff.
21:1-11: Slave Law
Here we get some specifics: Male Hebrew slaves have to serve six years; children born to slaves remain slaves; female slaves can be used as concubines; and some slaves, if they don't want to be freed, can be enslaved for life. Bottom line: slavery was a huge part of ancient culture.
21:12-27: Violence Law
Punishments abound here. Unpremeditated murder gets you sent away, but premeditated murder, kidnapping, matricide, and patricide all get you killed.
Notice how infanticide isn't mentioned at all. Why? Because child sacrifice was a reality. (But in 21:22, the author notes that injuring a pregnant woman and inducing miscarriage has a financial penalty.)
Check out this passage in 21:20-21: "When a slave owner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner's property." Yowza. Talk about walking a fine line between gruesome murder and property management. That's how these people thought, though. Slavery just was a part of life.
P.S. Famous line alert! When the author talks about injuring a pregnant woman, he notes that, "If any harm follows [the woman's miscarriage], then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." (21:23-25). There it is. Biblical justice in action.
21:28-36: Property Law
Basically, don't be dumb with your animals. If a crazy, wild ox you own kills someone, it's your fault. If a docile, nice ox kills someone, it's not your fault. Common sense type stuff.
But check out how stinkin' specific the passage gets though: "If someone leaves a pit open, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restitution, giving money to its owner, but keeping the dead animal."
Well, we're glad we settled that. At least we get to keep the dead animal.
22:1-15: Restitution Law (Compensation)
Even though the Ten Commandments tell the Israelites not to steal, they have laws just in case someone does it.
Notice how agricultural these laws are. We're done talking big-time revolution/freedom story, and we're on to drab legal jargon about how many oxen Bob should get for his stolen one.
These animal laws certainly make us think twice about whether this is a different text from a different time. It's like moving from a Ben Stein lecture to a Michael Bay movie, Bible style.
22:16-31: Sorcery, Betrayal & Child Sacrifice
Just when you thought things couldn't possibly get any more boring, suddenly we get this crazy set of laws.
Verses 16-18 deal with women's issues, which, needless to say, were a lot more messed up back in the day. We get prohibitions against female sorcery ("You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live") and a determination that a man who sleeps with a virgin shall "pay an amount equal to the bride-price for virgins" in case her father doesn't want to sell her. Yowza.
Then, we get prohibitions against bestiality ("Whoever lies with an animal shall be put to death"), sacrificing to other gods, and an important paragraph on reciprocal justice.
What is reciprocal justice? Have a look-see: "You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans."
Basically, the idea is that your experiences should dictate both your actions and their consequences. We're not quite at the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12), but you can see the idea emerging in these kinds of passages.
As if all that weren't enough, we then move on to banking interest law, pawn law, rotten meat law, offering law, and a law against cursing your leader. Rapid fire, boom, boom, boom.
Finally, we get something big in 22:29-30. Child sacrifice law. Child sacrifice was common in the ancient world, but the Israelites wanted to replace it with circumcision. You can feel the tension between those two in this passage: "The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me."
Ever wondered why Jewish male babies are circumcised eight days after they're born? Sounds like a way better deal for the firstborn than death.
23:1-9: Universal, Fair Justice
This one's easy: don't mess with other people.
Don't lie at someone else's trial; bring back Bob's donkey when it gets lost; don't take bribes; be nice to immigrants.
Oh, and here's an interesting issue that relates to our times: "When you bear witness in a lawsuit, you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit." Decide the case on its own merits, and don't be biased against one side. Sounds like the pledge they make you take at jury duty.
23:10-13: A Sabbath Year?
Yep, the Sabbath doesn't only apply to weeks—it applies to years.
If you're a farmer, save enough during years 1-6 because in year 7, the poor and the wild animals get to use your fields. If you were a farmer, how would you feel about this?
Turns out this is actually smart in agricultural terms. Some crops, like cotton, tax the land, and you can't grow anything on the soil until the nutrients are replenished.
23:14-19: Festivals, Fairs & Pageants
Festival time, folks. God declares that three festivals shall be held each year: one at Passover; the Festival of Weeks, now celebrated as Shavuot in Judaism, at the beginning of the harvest; and the Festival of Booths, now celebrated as Sukkot in Judaism, at the end of the harvest.
These are big moments for the ancients. Eventually, they'll pilgrimage to festivals at the Temple of Solomon.
23:20-33: Conquering Canaan
God promises that an angel will aid the Israelites in their conquest of Canaan and warns the Israelites not to be seduced by the inhabitants' worship of other gods. No matter how low-cut their dress.
God also mentions that he won't get rid of all of these people overnight. Otherwise, the wild animals would overwhelm Israel (you'd think they could handle things with 600,000 men).
Instead, it'll happen gradually over a number of years.