The last two weeks we spent looking at the Ten Commandments. It is unfair to call those ten the most important rules that God gave man but each one carried significance for both the Israelites of Moses’ day and our day as well. The next several chapters of Exodus are going to contain many more rules for the Israelites. A lot of them are not going to have a direct correlation to us today. For instance, probably no one here is in any danger of having their bull accidentally gore someone.
So we can skip over these chapters as they’re not applicable right? Of course that would be the easy thing to do. The thing is that God knew what He was doing when He gave us the Bible. It isn’t a surprise to Him that we’re now reading these rules even though they were directed at the Israelites about 3500 years ago. These rules could have been included somewhere else where they would have been just as important to the Israelites but faded with antiquity so that we don’t have to scratch our heads wondering about their significance.
So, even though many of these rules don’t have direct significance to them today, we’re going to look at them and study them because they tell us a lot about God and what He expects of us. We won’t spend a whole lot of time analyzing the minute details of the laws but we’ll look at the big picture. And what we’ll find is that the principles still apply even if the details are different. For instance, if a farmer acted recklessly and someone lost their life or prosperity because they didn’t take care of an animal they knew was a problem, there was a price to be paid. The same can be applied to a person on Wall Street who acts recklessly and causes someone to lose their home or retirement money.
Rather than look at every specific law over the next several weeks, I’m going to pick a few as examples and try to paint the overall picture of what God is saying through these rules.
1 “These are the laws you are to set before them:
2 “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. 3 If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.
5 “But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ 6 then his master must take him before the judges.[a] He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.
Immediately, this sounds foreign to us because it’s talking about servants and really slavery. Slavery took many forms in the ancient world and one isn’t the same as another. The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites and there was no freedom to be found from it until Moses. The kind of slavery that this passage is talking about is much closer to what we might call indentured servitude.
During the colonial period, many people came to America but not everyone could afford the price of the journey. So they would agree to work for a wealthy person in exchange for passage to the new world. A set number of years of service was agreed upon and the person would fulfill their obligation once arriving. This is the same kind of thing going on in Israel. People would agree to enter into a period of service in exchange for what they owed in debt.
Once that period of service was up, their debt was fulfilled. But then something strange happens. A servant could agree to stay on with his master. This is an idea that is fairly foreign to us today because people switch jobs every couple of years. Not too long ago a lot of people started working at one place and stayed there until retirement.
Here, the servant has the opportunity to commit to staying in one place. If he’s treated well and likes his master it may be in his best interest to stay. Out on his own he might fall into debt again and end up serving someone worse in order to pay off his debts. If the master doesn’t treat him well, once he has paid his service, he’s free to leave and doesn’t owe anything more.
Here’s where this becomes real to us. We are all servants today. No one is completely free even though we consider ourselves free. Some people are slaves to addiction. Others spend their life pursuing power or fame. Many people are slaves to money. Christians are called to be slaves to righteousness.
We are not called to be free. Jesus did not die on the cross so that we can do as we please. God did not give us His grace so that we can live life without obligations. Instead, we are called to be disciples. I invite you to read the gospels some time about what Jesus says about being a disciple. It is easy or carefree living. If we are called to be disciples, we are called to be servants.
How do I know that we are to be servants? It’s because we are called to be Christlike. And how can Jesus be described better than a servant? Philippians 2:5-8 precisely describes Jesus as a servant.
5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7 but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
So how does all of this tie together? In the end, we’re either slaves to sin or we’re slaves to righteousness. If we’re slaves to sin, we’re really in bondage. We don’t get to choose what we do or where we do it. We do as our sinful nature directs us and we’re forced to suffer the consequences of our sinful actions.
On the other hand, we can choose to be slaves to righteousness. Or if you don’t like the word slave, let’s use the term servants of Jesus. We can be like the servants that Exodus 21 is describing. We say that we love our master and that he’s treated us well. And because of that we’re committing the rest of our life to him and he will take care of us while we serve him. Does that sound like a description of Christianity? It should because it is.
Built into this picture of voluntary service we also have a picture of Jesus. A servant who wished to remain with his master had his ear pierced with an awl on the doorpost. In the same way Jesus willing was pierced as He gave up His life in the ultimate act of servanthood.
A passage that sounds like a confusing topic of servants and slavery goes much deeper but much simpler. We’re going to see this time and time again throughout these chapters of rules. This comes down to love. In this case it’s love for a master who obviously loves his servants.
23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
The second half of the chapter feels like tedium because as I’ve already explained, the rules aren’t directly applicable to us today for the most part. So how can we make them applicable or are they applicable in any way?
Verses 23-25 are among the most controversial in all of the Bible. They are loathed by every liberal scholar that I can think of. And they might even make some people here cringe. They are regarded as outdated and out of touch. They are considered heavy handed and overbearing.
Before we fully form an opinion of these verses and this entire section, let’s take a look at what Jesus has to say about this.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[g] 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
So what on earth is Jesus saying here? Earlier in chapter 5 Jesus appeared to make the rules tougher. Don’t murder doesn’t just mean don’t kill someone but don’t even say something to harm them. Don’t commit adultery means don’t even think lustful thoughts. Now all of a sudden Jesus is making the law easier? And if that’s the case, does that mean that Jesus is reversing the law?
There is a lot of confusion about the passage in Exodus and Jesus’ commentary on it. For starters, Jesus did not abolish the earlier law of God. That would mean that anything is open for interpretation and can be possibly be done away with because times change, people are more civilized now, etc. But if Jesus didn’t abolish the old law, the new word that He gives sure seems to be in conflict with it. How does it work itself out?
If you read all of the wacky laws in Exodus 21 there is a common theme. The theme is human worth or human dignity. Every life has worth. Currently, the life of a human being is about a million dollars. That’s the average payout by the insurance company for someone who is killed in an accident on the job or something of that nature. It seems absolutely absurd and almost demeaning to put a dollar figure on it because to the family that lost someone they are priceless. But the point in Exodus is that every life has value and restitution needs to be made for a life that is lost or harmed.
Just as an aside note, verse 32 sets the price of a slave who is accidentally killed as 30 shekels of silver. Jesus was betrayed for 30 shekels of silver. Judas valued the life of Jesus the same as that of a slave. To someone who loves Jesus, He is priceless.
Back to the issue of an eye for an eye now. As I said, this is meant to put a value on human life. This is a very simple equation that says an eye is worth an eye of someone else. It is meant to be a deterrent to prevent crime and uphold life. If I intend to harm someone, is it worth harming them knowing that same harm is going to be inflicted upon me as well?
If you intentionally kill someone, you will be executed if caught. That’s a pretty stiff but clear penalty. Today if I kill someone it will probably be a year or two before the case is tried and a verdict is reached. If it is not considered first degree murder I might serve 8-12 years in prison and that time can be lessened for good behavior and such. If I’m convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death there’s certainly going to be an appeal. And several appeals after that. On average I’d spend 15-20 years in appeals before the sentence is carried out. That’s 15-20 more years than my victim received.
Now there’s all kinds of debates as to what serves as the best deterrent and whether prison is meant as punishment or should serve as an attempt to rehabilitate people and all this and that. The only thing I can guarantee about this method of law enforcement is that there weren’t repeat offenders when it came to murder and billions of dollars were spent incarcerating people for crimes.
But what does Jesus mean about turning the other cheek? Does that mean that the death penalty is immoral and that we should just forgive them? The answers to those questions, in order, is no and yes.
The death penalty and all of these eye for an eye penalties are to be enforced by the state. It would be the judges of the nation of Israel, the leaders of the day, who would determine innocence or guilt and then would carry out the punishment. It is not the right of the victim or the victim’s family to seek revenge for the wrongdoing. At least not most of the time, we’ll discuss the kinsman redeemer and cities of refuge at a later date. But the idea is never to take revenge. Instead it is to right a wrong, to make retribution. The right to do so belongs to the government, not the individual.
As individuals we’re to forgive however. We are to seek peace. And the reason for this is because we’ve been forgiven as Christians. Jesus tells parables about forgiveness and in the Lord’s prayer we pray “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” That means we are asking for forgiveness as much as we’ve forgiven others.
Just because we’ve been forgiven doesn’t mean that all consequences are erased. The man who becomes a Christian in prison and completely changes his life isn’t set free just because he’s changed. And the people that were hurt by that man don’t have the consequences of his actions removed just because he’s been forgiven either.
Let me give you an example. I’m in Walmart parking lot. It’s rainy and visibility is bad. Next thing I know, someone drives next to me and scrapes along the side of my car and keeps on driving. There’s no way that they couldn’t have known what happened, it’s a hit and run. I have to file a report with the police for my insurance and they write everything down. I come to church on Sunday and sitting in the parking lot is a vehicle with a long scratch down the side of it and paint the color of my vehicle.
Now, I have a few options and a few things I need to do. I have to report this to the police. It’s immoral and probably even illegal if I know information about an investigation and I don’t share it with them. Plus there’s the issue that the insurance isn’t as nice to you when a repair is considered a hit and run as opposed to paid by someone else’s insurance.
But what about how I treat the offender. Do I get mad and yell at them? Do I take them to court and sue because if nothing else I’m out the deductible for my insurance? Do I press charges because this is a legal issue and not just damaged property?
Here’s how this passage boils down and how Exodus and Matthew balance each out. I need to forgive the person no matter how mad they have made me. That’s the idea of turning the other cheek. I shouldn’t press charges against them for a hit and run if it’s my option to drop the charges. But the insurance company is going to have this reported to them and that person’s rates are going to jump. Or maybe they were driving without insurance and that’s why they didn’t stop to begin with. Now I don’t have the ability to waive that penalty. Even though I’ve forgiven the person their insurance is going to go up or the government is going to fine them for driving without insurance.
That’s the two passages. Jesus details my responsibility to forgive someone who has harmed me. Exodus details the government’s responsibility to protect the people. I can forgive someone but there are still consequences for our actions. An eye for an eye is about the consequences of our actions. I should seek revenge and try to take the eye for an eye. It is the responsibility of the government to do this to protect the people. It is my responsibility to forgive and then love them even if they’ve done me wrong.