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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 22

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter is a continuation of the Book of the Covenant and consists of various and sundry laws, some causuistic (as in the first 17 verses), and some apodeictic. There is not an organized presentation here, but specific laws enumerated without regard to their connection one with another. The first 17 verses are addressed to the problem of theft and burglary. We agree with Honeycutt that, “This code made no attempt to cover every possible case,”(F1) and that the purpose was to establish principles that could be applied to many cases. Some of the most profound principles in the history of jurisprudence appear magnificently in these verses.

For once we are free in this chapter from the usual verbiage about the alleged sources of the Pentateuch. Noth admitted that, “No clear relationship to any one of the Pentateuchal narrative `sources’ is recognizable.”(F2) We believe that his quotation actually applies to every single line of the whole Pentateuch!

Verses 1-4

“If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. If the thief be found breaking in, and be smitten so that he dieth, there shall be no bloodguiltiness for him. If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be bloodguiltiness for him; he shall make restitution: if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If the theft be found in his hand alive, whether it be ox, or ass, or sheep; he shall pay double.”

Here is the foundation of the principle that a man’s home is his castle, as it was not considered murder to kill a thief in the act of entering a residence at night. That last proviso was altered in cases of breaking and entering in daylight, the difference being that, in daylight, the thief could be identified, apprehended, and brought to justice, and, in this distinction is seen the truth that, human life is of greater value than property, and “The life, even of a thief, is of consequence in the eyes of God.”(F3)

The mention of “bloodguiltiness” here has reference to the right of the next of kin to take vengeance by killing the slayer. Such a right did not include the right to kill a man who had killed a thief (at night) in the act of breaking and entering, but it did pertain to a similar slaying in daylight.

Another distinction is also significant. The thief who stole any of the animals mentioned and promptly disposed of them by slaughter or by sale would be required to restore five oxen, or four sheep, but, if he still retained the animals alive, his penalty would be reduced to restoring double. Why? Apparently, as long as no final disposition of the stolen animals had been made, the thief retained the right, or option, of returning them to the lawful owner. The lighter penalty was a presumptive mercy extended to the guilty on the possibility that he might have intended to restore them.

If one would like to know how the famous Code of Hammurabi handled a similar situation, here it is:

“If a seignior stole either an ox, or a sheep, or an ass, or a pig, or a boat, and if it belonged to the church or the state, he shall make thirty-fold restitution; but if it belonged to a private citizen, he shall make good ten-fold. If the thief does not have sufficient to make restitution, he shall be put to death.(F4)

Verses 5-6

“If a man shall cause a field or vineyard to be eaten, and shall let his beast loose, and it feed in another man’s field; of the best of his own field, and of the best of his own vineyard, shall he make restitution. If fire break out and catch in thorns, so that the shocks of grain, or the standing grain, of the field are consumed; he that kindled the fire shall surely make restitutions.”

The principle of a citizen’s responsibility for any action of his that might cause loss or injury to another is firmly enunciated. Although the two examples here regarded the careless kindling of a fire and the allowance of animals to run loose, the principle behind the injunctions here are far more broad and comprehensive. Today, following the principle established here, society holds great corporations, as well as individuals, responsible for their actions which result in damage, loss, or injury to others.

Verses 7-9

“If a man shall deliver unto his neighbor money or stuff to keep, and it be stolen out of the man’s house; if the thief be found, he shall pay double. If the thief be not found, then the master of the house shall come near unto God, to see whether he have not put his hand unto his neighbor’ s goods. For every matter of trespass, whether it be for ox, for ass, for sheep, for raiment, or for any manner of lost thing, whereof one saith, This is it, the cause of both parties shall come before God; he whom God shall condemn shall pay double unto his neighbor.”

“If a man shall deliver unto his neighbor” This has reference to the deposit of one’s goods with a trusted friend or neighbor, a custom universally followed in antiquity and until very recent days. There were no banks, bonded warehouses, depositories, or safety-deposit boxes known until comparatively recent times. Sometimes, one merely buried his treasure in a field, as was the case in one of our Lord’s parables. As recently as 1812, even in America, there were no banks available to ordinary people. This writer’s great-great-grandfather, a citizen of Luray, Virginia, deposited $44,000.00 in gold in the Public Mill in Luray, $4,000.00 of which was a bequest to the “poor of Page County,” and the rest of it for distribution among his heirs. The will of Samuel Coffman with the above provisions was probated in Page County, Virginia, several years after the birth of the youngest heir in 1812, and following his death, the date of which is not exactly known. The death of that youngest heir, David Carl Coffman (this writer’s great-grandfather) was written up in the Page-Courier on February 1, 1883. He received none of the gold which was divided among his four sisters, but he received the ancestral lands bestowed upon the family by a grant from the King of England, a large tract lying along the Shenandoah River.

The real problem in view here was that of a loss of the goods (through theft or by some other means) before they were returned to the owner. The surety who held the deposit in such cases confronted a real problem, that is, how to establish his innocence. It was allowed here that the man’s solemn oath in the presence of God was sufficient.

“He whom God shall condemn” Bringing such a dispute before the duly-constituted authorities was considered bringing it “before God.” Also, “He whom God condemns” is a reference to a judgment by the magistrates.

“For every matter of trespass” This reveals the exemplary nature of the judgments presented here. They were given for the principles involved.

Verses 10-13

“If a man deliver unto his neighbor an ass, or an ox, or a sheep, or any beast, to keep; and it die, or be hurt, or driven away, no man seeing it: the oath of Jehovah shall be between them both, whether he hath not put his hand unto his neighbor’s goods; and the owner thereof shall accept it, and he shall not make restitution. But if it be stolen from him, he shall make restitution unto the owner thereof. If it be torn in pieces, let him bring it for witness; he shall not make good that which was torn.”

The importance of the solemn oath of men in God’s presence is again stressed here. In the final analysis, there are situations in life where truthful testimony ALONE can reveal the facts, and this is true even today. The requirement that the surety was to make good in the case of a theft presumes that a thief entering the estate of a man would intend stealing from him, not from others.

“If it be torn in pieces” Many persons in ancient societies were charged with keeping other people’s property, that being the standard for all shepherds, and, as McKeating stated it, “A shepherd was accountable to the sheep-owner for any animal lost, unless he could prove it was lost owing to circumstances beyond his control.”(F5) This law lay behind the strenuous efforts of shepherds to rescue animals, or portions of them, attacked by wild beasts. The prophet Amos mentioned this: “Thus saith Jehovah, As the shepherd rescueth out of the mouth of the lion two legs, or the piece of an ear, so shall the children of Israel be rescued that sit in Samaria” (Amos 3:12).

The requirement that the one with whom deposits were left had to make restitution actually served “as the neighbor’s bond.”(F6)

One of the great principles in view in this chapter is that one’s intentions enter critically into the question of his guilt or innocence.

“In certain cases proof of evil intent cannot be satisfactorily obtained. Because the intention of committing a crime is involved, certain basic rules for establishing the fact of evil intent are required (instances of where this was hard to determine are in Exodus 22:8-9, and Exodus 22:11). In such cases, the suspect is given the benefit of the doubt, but is made to invoke upon himself a curse.(F7)

Right here then is the embryo of that cornerstone of American justice, that one is held as “innocent until proved guilty.” There is absolutely nothing in any of these God-given pronouncements which is narrow, discriminatory, or inappropriate. The principles of justice in all ages find their tap-roots right here.

Verses 14-15

“And if a man borrow aught of his neighbor, and it be hurt, or die, the owner thereof not being with it, he shall surely make restitution. If the owner thereof be with it, he shall not make it good: if it be a hired thing, it came for its hire.”

Esses explained this as meaning, “If you ask your neighbor to lend you something, you are then responsible for seeing that no harm comes to it. If you fail in that responsibility, you must make restitution.”(F8) However, if the owner was present when some injury was incurred, no restitution was demanded.

This law establishes the responsibility of all borrowers for what they borrow and for the proper return of it, or the replacement of it, if it was ruined, lost, damaged, killed, or whatever.

Verses 16-17

“And if a man entice a virgin that is not betrothed, and he lie with her, he shall surely pay a dowry for her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins.”

The Hebrew language has two words for virgin, “[~`almah], an espoused virgin, and [~bªthuwlah], a virgin who is not espoused.”(F9) Isaiah 7:14 prophesied that, “A virgin ([~`almah]) shall conceive and bear a son, and will call his name Immanuel. By the choice of that word [~`almah], the prophet of God made it specific that The Son of God would be born to “an espoused virgin,” which, of course, Mary indeed was!

This pronouncement has to do with virgins who were NOT espoused. The seduction of an espoused virgin was punishable by death (Deuteronomy 22:23 f). Dummelow pointed out that:

“Among the Hebrews, and among the Arabs today, a woman who has been unchaste has almost no chance of marriage; thus, the seducer, it is here enacted, must marry her, or if the father object, make good the dowry.(F10)

A number of scholars today reject the rendition “dowry” in Exodus 22:17, Unger, for example, stated that, “The seducer still had to pay the marriage price (not the dowry) of fifty shekels (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).”(F11)

Verse 18

“Thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live.”

A novel view of this verse was advocated by Esses who did not believe that the death penalty was assigned to witches in this place, but that, “The prohibition is against patronizing a witch and thus enabling her to support herself by her nefarious profession!”(F12) He based that on the fact of other expressions being used in this chapter for the death penalty. We cannot accept such a view, because Leviticus 20:27 not only orders the death penalty for both witches (women) and warlocks (men), but also specifies the manner of death as stoning.

We fully agree with Johnson who mentioned the fact that this verse is widely quoted and used as a “proof of superstitious ignorance in the Scriptures.”(F13) However, the ignorance is not in the O.T., it is in the vain and shallow thoughts of those seeking occasion against the Word of God. A sorceress in the purview of this Divine order, was an open rebel against God. We should remember, “The tremendous power of magic in the ancient world and among the heathen races today, and its deadly nature as a negation of all true religion.”(F14) “Sorcery, or the pretended holding of communications with evil spirits, is a form of idolatry or rebellion against Jehovah, and punished as such.”(F15) There is no way that intelligent men can question the wisdom of God in this commandment making such a terrible crime a capital offense. In bringing Israel out of the gross superstitions and pagan idolatry of the times, it was the height of wisdom and concern for His people that lay back of God’s edict.

Of course, there is nothing in this verse that gives Christians the right to accuse people of witchcraft, try them, and condemn them to death as was done in Colonial times in America. That entire fiasco of the “Witch Burnings” in New England in the eighteenth century was due to the gross ignorance of the most learned pastors and divines on earth of the central fact of the whole Judaic-Christian religion, that fact being that there are revealed in the Bible TWO COVENANTS, the TWO big ones, the OLD COVENANT and the NEW COVENANT. Many of the instructions in the O.T. have utterly nothing to do with Christianity, and this commandment regarding witches is surely one of them. This division between the two covenants is even dramatized in the arrangement of the Holy Bible itself, which is divided into the OLD TESTAMENT and the NEW TESTAMENT. (See a dissertation on The Covenants at the end of the commentary on Exodus 24.)

Back to the subject of witches. The Hebrew word for “witch” in Exodus 22:18 is feminine.(F16) This accounts for the rendition “sorceress,” but it does not mean that only women committed this sin, despite the fact of most witches of that era being feminine. We find no fault whatever with God’s order to put such centers and sources of evil to death. It was absolutely necessary if Israel was ever to be brought into true fellowship with God. To be sure, Israel disobeyed this commandment just like they did every other commandment God ever gave. This is proved by one of their kings (Saul) consulting the Witch of Endor at a time long after this.

One other word about what witches did. “The Greek translation of the Hebrew word for witch is [@pharmakeus], a close relative of our word “pharmacy,” meaning one who deals in drugs and poisons, a poisoner!”(F17) One of the principal reasons for consulting witches of course was to arrange help in getting rid of an enemy, and the witches certainly knew how to help!

Regarding the people today who make their living dealing with what they call “the occult arts,” they are likewise sinners, though probably not on the same scale as those envisioned in this verse. Deception is their stock in trade, and this writer has never heard of one who was a true believer in Christ. They cannot reveal the future. In 1964, the arrest of several of the most notorious of them at Coney Island in New York revealed that not a single one of them could prophesy his own arrest, several of them pretending to tell the arresting officers why they had come to visit! One police lieutenant was greeted with this remark, “I’m glad you have come. I know why you are here, and I can solve all your problems!” Such people cannot tell fortunes, read cards, tea leaves, crystal balls, or trace the future in the patterns of oil poured on water. As regards the entire conception of witches, one word describes it all - fraud!

Verse 19

“Whosoever lieth with a beast shall surely be put to death.”

This crime was a capital offense under the Old Covenant. The commandment here was repeated in Leviticus 20:15-16 and in Deuteronomy 27:21. Many of the pagans actually ascribed such actions to their god Baal! The Hittites (also in Canaan) “condemned to death those who practiced this unnatural act with a pig, but those doing it with a horse or mule were free of penalty.”(F18) It may come as a shock to some, but this form of sodomy (See Webster’s Dictionary) is current in Houston, Texas this very day. This writer has served as a member of the Houston Housing Board of Appeals for the past dozen years, and quite recently, our Board approved the placement of a mobile home on a horse farm (within the city), so that a guard occupying the mobile home could prevent such unnatural acts with his mares. Our Board renewed that permit in May, 1984; and the appealant affirmed that his precautions had reduced but not eliminated the molestation of his stock!

Regarding the death penalty, declared by God to be deserved by such sinners, this is in the same category as witchcraft. Civilized states have made their own rules about things such as this, but we can be certain that the eternal judgment of God will enforce whatever penalties are just upon evil men who never repent and never turn to Christ for forgiveness.

Verses 20-24

“He that sacrifices unto any god, save unto Jehovah only, shall be utterly destroyed. And a sojourner shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him: for ye were sojourners in the land of Egypt. Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If thou afflict them at all, and they cry at all unto me, I will surely hear their cry; and my wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.”

Harford noted that “custom gave no legal status whatever”(F19) to strangers, resident aliens, widows, or orphans. These groups were totally ignored in the law codes of those times and for centuries earlier, but here the loving protection of the just and merciful God is made to be for all such persons a bulwark against the injustices of mankind.

Rawlinson commented on Exodus 22:24 here that, “It was, in large measure, on account of the neglect of this precept, that the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, and destruction of its inhabitants, was allowed to take place (Jeremiah 22:3-5).”(F20)

In full harmony with the sanctions against perversion and witchcraft, both of which had theological implications and were in essence denials of the true God, the order visible here in Exodus 22:20 was designed to establish among God’s people the principle that idolatrous gods were non-entities and that the only God is Jehovah - the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. The notion among some people to the effect that God’s methods were harsh and brutal betrays upon their part a TOTAL IGNORANCE of the dimensions and the importance of that problem.

Verses 25-27

“If thou lend money to any of my people with thee that is poor, thou shalt not be to him as a creditor; neither shall ye lay upon him interest. If thou at all take thy neighbor’s garment to pledge, thou shalt restore it unto him before the sun goeth down: for that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skirt’ wherein shall he sleep? and it shall come to pass, when he crieth unto me, that I will hear; for I am gracious.”

The old versions used “usury” for the word “interest” in this passage, but the word “usury” in Hebrew usage did not carry the connotation of exorbitant and excessive interest as does our English word. It simply means “interest” as translated here.

Jewish writers insist upon a meaning in this passage which may well be valid. They give as an alternative reading for the words “with thee that is poor,” making it to read, “even when poverty is with thee.”(F21) The meaning of this is: “Even if you yourself are short of money, you must still set aside part of what you have for the poor.”(F22)

Is it wrong to charge interest on loans today? With regard to “loans” made to brothers in Christ, as a matter of charity, in order to reduce their distress, or hunger, or such, the answer must be affirmative. Not only should a loan like that be without interest, but it should be without thought of any repayment at all, i.e., a gift to a brother in need.

There is a different situation in which we believe the charging of interest is not merely right and honorable but absolutely necessary. Wherever money, which is capital, is loaned for the purpose of creating, maintaining, or expediting commercial ventures, the interest charge is necessary, honorable, and vital. It is the only way to prevent the defrauding of the lender. For example, if the annual rate of inflation is 10 percent; and a commercial loan is extended, it will require an additional return of 10 percent added to the principal, just to assure the return of the same value received by the borrower from the lender. Without the interest charge, the lender would be merely giving his money away, and the Word of God nowhere suggests or commands anything like that!

“If thou at all take thy neighbor’s garment to pledge” The garment in view here is that large, substantial blanket, or pancho, used not only as the principal covering in daytime, but also as the only bedclothes the man had. The taking of a garment like that in pledge was forbidden. The fact of the lender’s having to return it every night would have meant, in effect, that the borrower could keep it! Many of the Jews of a later day sorely abused the rights of the poor. “Ye oppress the poor… ye crush the needy… they have sold the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes!” (Amos 2:6; Amos 4:1). The principle here applied to any absolutely necessary possession, such as the mill, or either of its stones (Deuteronomy 24:6).

Verses 28-31

“Thou shalt not revile God, nor curse a ruler of thy people. Thou shalt not delay to offer of thy harvest, and of the outflow of thy presses. The firstborn of thy sons shalt thou give unto me. Likewise shalt thou do with thine oxen, and with thy sheep: seven days it shall be with its dam; on the eighth day thou shalt give it me. And ye shall be holy men unto me: therefore ye shall not eat any flesh that is torn of beasts in the field; ye shall cast it to the dogs.”

Reviling God was a most serious offense, and cursing a ruler was here made parallel to it. Why? Because, “The powers that be are ordained of God,” as an apostle warned (Romans 13:1-10). Right here is the seed of that extensive teaching in the N.T. relative to a Christian’s responsibility to his government, and the requirement for assembled churches to pray for magistrates, rulers, and all men in authority. Without the God-ordained authority of government, the whole world would quickly revert to the primitive sadism of a jungle.

The thing of principal importance in this passage is Exodus 22:29, where the dedication of the first-born was mentioned. Of course, this is an abbreviated account, the full details having already been given by Moses back in Exodus 13:1-16, where specific instructions for the “redemption” of the firstborn were laid down, instructions already understood by Israel and absolutely unnecessary to be repeated here, but the critics, trying to find infant sacrifice as an allowable part of the worship of Jehovah in the history of Israel, allege such a thing on the basis of the abbreviated statement here. Ridiculous! There is not the slightest hint in the whole Bible of God’s ever condoning, suggesting, receiving, or countenancing in any manner whatever, any such thing as human sacrifice.

Well, how do the critics attempt to circumvent that? They attribute the key portion of Exodus 13 to another and later source, “J.” This diabolical purpose of the critics is frustrated by the fact that their injection of “J” at Exodus 13:13-15, automatically forces an interpretation that their document “P” is left without a redemptive provision, thus “proving” by their explanations that, “the horrible rite of infant sacrifice was an element of the religion of Israel even in post-exilic times!”(F23) There is not a person on earth who does not know that a proposition like that is false!

“Ye shall cast it to the dogs” The reason underlying the forbidding for food the flesh of animals slain by other animals in the field was the fact that such animals were not properly bled. Note the use of dogs here as the scavengers of that era. The attitude of the Holy Scriptures toward dogs continues throughout to the very last chapter where, among those who are excluded from the City Celestial, are the “dogs,” a metaphor of unholy and shameful men.

How amazing it is that dogs are so beloved in our own country! They have a status almost equal to that of children in countless homes, and, in the light of this, many of the Scriptural intimations from the references to “dogs” remain unclear to some.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Exodus 22". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/exodus-22.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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