Exodus: Law as Torah

Law continues the mission of Torah to instruct.

An open Torah scroll

Exodus 21-23 forms a block of laws that are inserted into the narrative that the Book of Exodus is telling. (Scholars give these three chapters the title The Book of the Covenant.) There does not seem to be any grand organizing structure that governs the arrangement of the laws. Instead we find a mixture of laws dealing with a miscellany of concerns. 

For this reason many people reading Exodus for the first time can feel that they enter into a kind of tangled maze. What are we to make of this miscellany? Frustrated, we quickly skip over this section, eager to get back to the narrative.

Israelite law is a complicated field. It has stimulated a mass of scholarly exposition and debate over the centuries, especially in Jewish circles. One example, the massive learning to be found in the Talmud

Americans make a strong distinction between the two realms of social and personal life. But the Torah does not. The life of Israel is seen as a unified whole.

I am in no way so deeply learned in this subject that I can claim with any authority as an interpreter of Israelite law. I will not try to explicate these three chapters of Exodus in any detail. But I would try to make a few broad statements that might assist ordinary readers to navigate their way through this block of material that can feel so foreign to the average reader, especially if they come from a Christian background as I do. What I say owes a special debt to a number of Jewish scholars I have read.*

God as the Law’s Authority

First, we should note the opening words (Exodus 21:1) of the Book of the Covenant: These are the ordinances that you [Moses] are to set before them [the Israelites]. We see from the closing verses of chapter 20 that the speaker is God. The import of this opening sentence is that the laws in the Book of the Covenant are not presented as cultural customs and precedents coming from the tribal life of Israel. They are set before us as expressions of God’s will.

We notice, too, that the laws in the Book of the Covenant cover both cultic/religious activities and secular/social activities. Americans make a strong distinction between the two realms of social and personal life. But the Torah does not. The life of Israel is seen as a unified whole. God’s concern in ordering the life of the people covers all aspects of their lives, not just the activities directly involved in religious worship. So we find laws governing agricultural life as well as laws governing sacrifice and religious festivals all expressing God’s area of concern.

Social Context of Agricultural Life

Second, the laws of the Book of the Covenant reflect a life anchored in villages and in an agricultural economy. There are no laws that reflect the concerns of urban dwellers. For, example, there are no laws governing trade and commerce nor the work of urban artisans. 

This anomaly may be evidence for the antiquity of the laws in the Book of the Covenant. They may source back to the very earliest years of the Israelite people, before Israel had begun to develop an urban culture. Life appears simple and uncomplicated. For example, the instructions for building the altars for sacrifice specify that the stones used should not be finely dressed, but rough and unhewn (Exodus 20:25). On the other hand, this instruction may reflect that the editors who put Exodus together preferred a more simple, unadorned style of worship in contrast to the sophisticated liturgies we might encountered in the grand, ancient temples of the Near East. 

No Distinction Among Social Classes

Third, the Book of the Covenant shows no awareness of any stratification in society, apart from the reality of slavery. By contrast, ancient Mesopotamian law codes (like the law code of the Babylonian king Hammurabi) assume that society is divided into  three classes: the upper class of aristocrats and property owners, the lower class of peasants and laborers, and the lowest class of slaves. Provisions in the law vary according to one’s social class, especially in the assignment of fines and punishments. 

…the Book of the Covenant shows that it places higher value on the rights of the person than on the rights of property.

There is none of that in the Book of the Covenant. If there is any stratification in Israelite society, it is to have no impact on the administration of justice. All free Israelites are to be treated fairly before the law. 

Rights of Persons Take Priority over Rights of Property

Fourth, the Book of the Covenant shows that it places higher value on the rights of the person than on the rights of property. This, too, is in stark contrast to the Mesopotamian law codes, where preferences are given to the rights of property owners. Two examples illustrate this.

The first is the law governing the interaction between a creditor and a debtor expressed in Exodus 22:25-27:

If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.  If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down;  for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.

This law assumes that a debtor had given his lender his cloak as security governing repayment. But the debtor may have only one cloak. That cloak serves not only as clothing, but also as a blanket when he sleeps on a cold night. The law shows a concern for his welfare, and so places a restriction on the right of the lender to retain the cloak during the night. The welfare of the debtor comes before the rights of the property owner.

A second example comes in the laws governing slavery in Exodus 21. The Book of the Covenant assumes that slavery will be a fact of life in Israelite society. But it shows a concern for placing safeguards on abusive behavior by slave owners. One example is found in Exodus 21:26-27:

When a slaveowner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye. If the owner knocks out a tooth of a male or female slave, the slave shall be let go, a free person, to compensate for the tooth.

Similarly the Book of the Covenant assumes that slaves have the right to enjoy rest on the sabbath day just as the master and his family (Exodus 23:12). Its ordinance is consistent with the commandment on keeping the sabbath day in the Ten Commandments, where the commandment explicitly embraces slaves and the farm animals in addition to the free members of the family (Exodus 20:8-10).

There is a consciousness that slaves remain persons, even if they serve in a state of bondage.

Sensitivity to the Needs of Society’s Marginalized

The Book of the Covenant also shows a consciousness of its setting in the exodus experience. The laws (as do the prophets later on) show an acute sensitivity to the needs of society’s poor and marginalized. The marginalized are referred to in the stock phrase: the widows, the orphans, and the resident aliens.

For example, in Exodus 22:21-24 God says this to the Israelites:

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.

And in Exodus 23:9, these injunctions are explicitly tied to Israel’s experience of bondage in Egypt:

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Israelites are to constantly keep in mind their own bitter experience as marginalized people in Egypt as they regulate their own behavior towards the marginalized in their own midst.

This awareness of the poor and marginalized lies behind the Book of the Covenant’s demand for uncorrupted justice in lawsuits. In Exodus 23:6-8, we read:

You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and those in the right, for I will not acquit the guilty. You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.

And most unexpectedly, the Book of the Covenant seems to even have a consciousness of the enemy as a person, too. We find this surprising instruction in Exodus 23:4-5:

When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back.When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.

This should startle Christians. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus counsels his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44). Christians often assume this is some unprecedented new teaching on Jesus’ part. But the Book of the Covenant makes clear that Jesus is teaching in the tradition of the Jewish Torah. 

Law as Agent of Character Formation

Lastly, we notice something surprising about the Book of the Covenant. It offers a miscellany of laws governing social and cultic life, but it is far from being comprehensive in covering all aspects of Israelite life. There are many omissions, as I have already noted when it comes to covering urban life and urban commerce and trade. There are no laws governing the highly conflict-ridden area of inheritance. 

This surprises us, because we would expect a much fuller coverage if the Book of the Covenant is meant to be a comprehensive law code that judges and administrators can consult when faced with particular lawsuits. Instead the Book of the Covenant is patchy in what it covers. 

Mindset breeds character. And character. when deeply embedded into our personalities, can ensure that our behavior begins to take on the character of instinct. We act because of the way we are. 

Why it that? The Jewish scholar Edward L. Greenstein suggests that is because the laws in the Torah are not meant strictly to be a law code. They serve a didactic function. It is not accidental therefore that they are included in the Torah. He writes:

…the word torah itself means “instruction” or “teaching.” The laws of the Torah are one of its means of teaching; they are the specific behaviors that God inculcates his ways–what we call values–in his human creatures. If we are to understand these values we must read the laws, in a sense, as a sort of body language that outwardly symbolizes something of much deeper significance…The various norms that God commands the Israelites in the Torah were calculated to instill abstract values through concrete acts.**

This suggests for me a way Christians can read these laws of the Torah. The world they describe may seem very different from the world in which we live today. But as we meditate upon them, we can begin to absorb some of those enduring values that constitute a godly mindset, whether we are Jewish or Christian. Mindset breeds character. And character. when deeply embedded into our personalities, can ensure that our behavior begins to take on the character of instinct. We act because of the way we are. 

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* For a non-scholarly reader (like most participants in small Christian Bible study groups, I would recommend two resources that I have found helpful. Both are learned, but very accessible to the average reader:

** Edward L. Greenstein, “Biblical Law” in Back to the Sources. Pages 84-85.