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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 23

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 22-33

4. The stipulations of the Book of the Covenant 20:22-23:33

"It is worth noting that the stipulations are enfolded within matching frames that stress the exclusivity of Yahweh (Exodus 20:22-23; cf. Exodus 23:24-25; cf. Exodus 23:32-33), His presence in specified places (Exodus 20:24; cf. Exodus 23:14-17; Exodus 23:20; Exodus 23:28-31), and a proper protocol and ritual by which He may be approached by His servant people (Exodus 20:24-26; cf. Exodus 23:18-19). It is within the context of a vertical covenant relationship, then, that the horizontal, societal, and interpersonal relationships of the Book of the Covenant take on their ultimate meaning." [Note: Merrill, "A Theology . . .," p. 41.]

"The section before us has something to say about each of the ten commandments, even if only incidentally." [Note: Youngblood, p. 101.]

Verses 1-12

The fundamental rights of the Israelites 21:1-23:12

It is very important to note that various law codes already existed in the ancient Near East before the giving of the Mosaic Covenant. These included laws in the Akkadian civilization located in Mesopotamia in the twentieth century B.C. (e.g., the Laws of Esnunna). [Note: Pritchard, pp. 161-63.] There were also the laws in the Sumerian civilization in the nineteenth century (e.g., the Code of Lipit-Istar). [Note: Ibid., pp. 159-61.] Moreover laws in the Babylonian civilization that followed in the eighteenth century (e.g., the Code of Hammurabi) [Note: Ibid., pp. 163-80.] existed, as did others. People living in the Near East at the time of the Exodus (fifteenth century) knew these laws and lived by them more or less. The Mosaic Covenant presupposes this body of legal literature. It was not given as a comprehensive legal system to a people living without any laws. Rather it was a series of instructions God gave as Israel’s king for His people to govern their behavior in certain specific matters. This fact explains why the Torah (lit. instruction, i.e., the Law of Moses) does not contain fundamental instruction in many basic areas of law, such as monogamy. The instructions in the Law of Moses confirmed certain existing laws, cancelled other laws, and changed still others for the Israelites as the will of God for them. [Note: For further explanation, see Cassuto, pp. 257-64.]

Moses revealed the laws that follow analogically (i.e., on the basis of the association of ideas). Analogical thinking has been more characteristic of eastern cultures and rational thinking more typical of western cultures throughout history generally speaking.

Verses 1-9

Justice and neighborliness 23:1-9

This section appeals for justice toward all people. The subject of the legislation now shifts from love for all to justice for all. The Israelites should treat all people justly, not only the rich but also the poor (Exodus 23:3), the enemy as well as the friend (Exodus 23:4). Jezebel later did to Naboth what Exodus 23:7 warns against (cf. 1 Kings 21:9-14).

Verses 10-11

The people were to observe the sabbatical year (cf. Leviticus 25:2-7; Deuteronomy 15:1-3). The Israelites’ failure to observe 70 sabbatical years resulted in God removing Israel from the Promised Land to Babylon for 70 years to give the land its rest (2 Chronicles 36:20-21).

Verses 10-12

Rest 23:10-12

"Till now the text dealt with positive and negative precepts that are valid at all times; now we have a series of precepts that are to be observed at given times, commandments that apply to seasons that are specifically dedicated to the service of the Lord, and are intended to remind the Israelites of the covenant that the Lord made with them, and of the duty resting upon them to be faithful to this covenant." [Note: Cassuto, p. 300.]

Verse 12

God intended Sabbath observance to give His people and even their laboring animals needed rest (Exodus 23:12).

Verse 13

This verse is a summary warning against idolatry (cf. Exodus 20:22-23).

"The continual return to the theme of idolatry throughout this section of the book is preparation and background for an appreciation of the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32)." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 293.]

Verses 13-19

The reiteration of basic principles of worship 23:13-19

Verses 14-17

All the male Israelites had to make a pilgrimage to the sanctuary (tabernacle) three times a year for the feasts of Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits (Weeks, Pentecost), and Ingathering (Booths, Tabernacles). Women and children would have normally accompanied the males. This requirement fostered the maintenance of the national and social unity of the 12 tribes as well as their spiritual unity.

Verse 18

"The first part of this verse has nothing to do with eating anything leavened. Rather it means that individual Israelites were not to kill the Passover lamb while leaven was still in their houses. The second half of the verse makes no reference to fat as such; but as the parallel verse in Exodus 34:25 b says, the ’sacrifice from the Passover Feast’ (here lit., ’sacrifice of my feast’) shall not ’remain until morning’ (cf. Exodus 12:10)." [Note: Kaiser, "Exodus," p. 445.]

The "fat" means "the best part," here the whole sacrifice.

Verse 19

The commentators have accounted for the prohibition against boiling a kid (young lamb) in its mother’s milk in many different ways. Some scholars believe it was the opposition to commingling life and death, a source of life and its product, or Israel and the nations, that was the basis for this prohibition (cf. Leviticus 22:27-28; Deuteronomy 22:6). [Note: Jacob Milgrom, "’You Shall Not Boil a Kid in It’s Mother’s Milk,’" Bible Review 1:3 (Fall 1985):48-55; Merrill, in The Old . . ., p. 63.] Another view is that it was a way of specifying that only weaned animals were acceptable as sacrifices (cf. Exodus 34:18-26). [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 294.] The most popular explanation is that this was a pagan practice that showed disrespect for the God-given relationship between parent and offspring. [Note: E.g., Meyer, p. 270.] The Ras Shamra tablets have shown that boiling sacrificial kids in their mother’s milk was a common ritual practice among the Canaanites. [Note: See Charles F. Pfeiffer, Ras Shamra and the Bible. For other views, see Kaiser, "Exodus," p. 445.] This ordinance is the basis for the separation strict Jews make in their diet by not mixing dairy and meat products. Observant Jews even provide separate equipment and kitchens for the preparation of these dishes.

Verses 20-23

God stressed the importance of obedience in these verses. The angel referred to was undoubtedly the Angel of the Lord (cf. Joshua 5:13-15).

Verses 20-33

Yahweh’s relation to Israel 23:20-33

In this final part of the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:22 to Exodus 23:33), God gave the Israelites promises and precepts relating to their conquest of the Promised Land. Suzerainty treaties normally concluded with an explanation of the benefits that would come to the vassals if they obeyed the king’s commands and the difficulties they would experience if they disobeyed. That is characteristic of this section of the covenant, though the emphasis is positive.

"Similar opening [Exodus 20:22-26] and closing remarks are also found in the codes of Hammurabi and Lipit-Istar." [Note: Cassuto, p. 305.]

"Following the text of the covenant code Yahweh assures His people of His ongoing commitment. He had not brought them out of Egypt and made covenant with them only to forget them in the wilderness. He had promised to give them land, so now He speaks of the process by which they would enter the land and the circumstances they would face there (Exodus 23:20-33)." [Note: Merrill, "A Theology . . .," p. 47.]

Verses 24-26

Moses stressed the worship of the true God as opposed to the idols of Canaan again. Note the repeated emphasis on obedience and worship also in Exodus 23:20-26. [Note: On the promise that God would give the Israelites good health, see my comments on 15:26.]

Verses 27-28

God promised His people various provisions if they would be obedient. We should probably understand the hornets (Exodus 23:28) figuratively. There is no reference in the text to God using real hornets to drive out the Canaanites, but He did use other hornet-like forces (cf. Joshua 24:12).

"Perhaps ’the hornet’ is a symbol of Egypt, just as Isaiah 7:18 uses the ’fly’ and the ’bee’ as symbols of Egypt and Assyria, respectively." [Note: Kaiser, "Exodus," p. 447.]

Verses 29-30

God told the Israelites that they would not drive out all their enemies the first year after they entered the land (Exodus 23:29). They did not. However, Israel was less successful than she might have been due to incomplete obedience.

"’Little by little’ does the work of God proceed through the individual soul. ’Little by little’ do the conquests of the Cross win over the world. ’Little by little’ is the unfolding purpose of Redemption made manifest to men and angels." [Note: Meyer, pp. 281-82.]

Verse 31

God further promised a wide land area. It stretched from the Red Sea (probably the Gulf of Aqabah, the southeastern boundary) to the Mediterranean Sea (the western boundary). It also ran from the wilderness (probably the northeast edge of the Sinai wilderness, the southwest boundary) to the Euphrates River (the northeastern boundary; cf. Genesis 15:18). Some writers believed that this is a reference to the river that now forms the border between modern Lebanon and Syria. [Note: E.g., Kaiser, "Exodus," p. 447.] Yet in the Hebrew Bible "the river" usually refers to the Euphrates. Israel did not occupy all of this territory due to her disobedience to God.

Verses 32-33

These verses contain a final warning. Israel was to make no covenants with the Canaanites or their gods because she already had a covenant with Yahweh. The Israelites failed here too (e.g., Joshua 9:3-15).

"The Decalogue begins with the command that Israel have no god other than Yahweh. The Book of the Covenant begins (Exodus 20:23) and ends (Exodus 23:32-33) with that same command, and all that lies between that beginning and that ending is designed to assure its obedience." [Note: Durham, p. 337.]

It is very important to observe that God conditioned obtaining all that He promised the Israelites as an inheritance on their obedience. They could only enter into it by obeying God. Their inheritance was something different from their salvation, which came to them only by faith in God (Genesis 15:6; Exodus 12:13; Exodus 14:31). The New Testament likewise teaches that justification comes solely by faith in God, but only obedient Christians will obtain the full inheritance that God has promised us (cf. Hebrews 3:12 to Hebrews 4:14). [Note: For a good explanation of the Old and New Testament teaching on the subject of the believer’s inheritance, see Joseph C. Dillow, The Reign of the Servant Kings, pp. 43-110.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Exodus 23". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/exodus-23.html. 2012.
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