Dr Clifford Denton.
Mishpatim: Exodus 21:1-24:18
10th February 2024/1 Adar1
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and be there; and I will give you tablets of stone, and the law and commandments which I have written, that you may teach them. (Exodus 24:12)
Picture by Helen McNeill
The Ten Commandments set the foundation on which all the regulations governing the daily life of Israel would be set. Later we learn that everything rested on two principles, including the Ten Commandments themselves. Yeshua Himself made this clear (Matthew 22:36-40): He was asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” He replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
All that Moses taught came directly from God. He was commissioned to teach (Exodus 24:12), which is why it is right to call all that God required, Torah (teaching). Nevertheless, the term law is also used for many of God’s requirements. They were not “good ideas” or “suggestions” but unambiguous matters for justice and judgement.
Israel was sometimes called Jeshurun, which means upright one (Deuteronomy 32:15; 33:5, 26; and Isaiah 44:2). Law is not only a matter of dos and don’ts; it is that which makes something strong and upright. It can apply to any structure. For example, in Ezekiel, we read about the law of the Temple (Ezekiel 43:12), the design that establishes it and orders it for its special purpose.
Israel was to be a special people before God and so was to be ordered according to His ways in character and moral purpose. Since the requirements of God were to be taught rather than ritually imposed, they would understand what to do and why.
When we read the first set of requirements in this week’s Torah portion, following the giving of the Ten Commandments we, in our modern generation, are likely to be somewhat perplexed. What does it mean for us to consider the treatment of servants or restitution to a person who has been gored by an ox? Some of this seems rather harsh at first reading as well as possibly irrelevant to us even when we still witness wild animals, including dogs, harming or even killing someone in our streets.
Yet Yeshua said that not one of the smallest things, not a jot or tittle, would be taken from the law (Matthew 5:18) until all is fulfilled, and whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)
Therefore, right at the outset of our reading, the details of the laws that Moses was given to teach, we must also take seriously.
A help to understanding is in the context in which the Israelites lived. They came out of Egypt with all its laws and customs ingrained into them. The nations round about also had their laws and customs which set the tone for living in those days. When someone came to Moses for the first time for a ruling, he would take that issue to God and come back with the answer. If an accident had happened, for example, where an animal had hurt someone, what was to be done? In the mind of the aggrieved person would be something from their present-day customs. Would it be righteous before God for the Israelites to follow these customs of their day? For example, these are translations of some of the ancient laws from various other nations concerning the striking of a woman who is carrying an unborn child:
Sumerian Code 1 (1800 BCE): If one father of one household accidentally strikes the daughter of another, other, and she miscarries, then the fine is ten shekels.
Code of Hammurabi 209–214 (1750 BCE): If a man strikes a free-born woman so that she loses her unborn child, he shall pay ten shekels for her loss. If the woman dies, his daughter shall be put to death. If a woman of the free class loses her child by a blow, he shall pay five shekels in money. If this woman dies, he shall pay half a mina. If he strikes the maidservant of a man, and she loses her child, he shall pay two shekels in money. If this maidservant dies, he shall pay one-third of a mina.
Hittite Laws 17–18 (1500 BCE): If anyone causes a free woman to miscarry, [if] it is her tenth month, he shall pay 10 shekels of silver, if it is her fifth month, he shall pay 5 shekels of silver. He shall look to his house for it. If anyone causes a female slave to miscarry, if it is her tenth month, he shall pay 5 shekels of silver.
Middle Assyrian Laws 50–52 (1200 BCE): If a man struck a married woman and caused her to miscarry, the striker’s wife will be treated in the same way: He will pay for the unborn child on the principle of a life for a life. But if (the first) woman died, the man is to be executed: he will pay for the unborn child on the principle of a life for a life. If (the first) woman’s husband has no son, and she has been struck causing a miscarriage, the striker will be executed, even if the child was a girl: he will still pay for the unborn child on the principle of a life for a life. If a man struck a married woman who does not rear her children and caused her to miscarry, he is to pay two talents of lead. If a man struck a harlot and caused her to miscarry, he is to be struck with the same number and type of blows: In this way he will pay on the principle of a life for a life.
(A useful outline of this is in Mishpatim – Wikipedia)
The ruling given by God for Israel would be understood in the light of the mindset of the day:
Exodus 21:20–25: And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follows, he shall surely be fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
This particular example shows how important it is for us to refer to God’s laws today, even though at first sight they seem vague. Those who condone abortion should take careful note of the principle of justice contained in Exodus 21. It is the heart of the matter that we should consider, however it might be that harm is done to a child in its mother’s womb. To harm an unborn child is an abomination to God and a matter for His justice. We may not be from the ancient nations of Assyria, Egypt or Babylon, but we too devise laws as they did, and we are wise to make our laws in conformation to the laws of God. That is why there are to be responsible leaders (elders) in a nation.
All God’s righteousness and justice is summed up as eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:24-25), no more, no less. This unchangeable principle remains at the heart of all God’s judgements …… today as well as when first given.
Our nation has responsibility before God to interpret all God’s laws into its statute books. This is the beginning of our righteousness before God. The enforcement of these laws is, as it was in Moses’ day, to be through the balancing principles of justice and mercy. The grace which characterises our understanding of the New Covenant does not over-ride these laws but through the Holy Spirit, given to believers because of faith in the sacrifice of Yeshua on our behalf, we are enabled to live by spiritual wisdom rather than restraining law, though the laws still apply.
In a world where compromise to God’s laws and confusion as to God’s way to live increases apace, parents are in the best position to study God’s ways, do what is required and teach the upright way to walk to their children.
(Note on Helen’s picture. She writes: I’ve tried to convey in the illustration the beauty of God’s word floating around us and coming to settle and dwell in our hearts for God to accomplish His healing in us, and therefore in others and the world around us – to glorify God, Messiah and the Holy Spirit.)