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Bible Commentaries

Parker's The People's Bible

Exodus 21

Verses 1-36


Exodus 21-23

Amongst these bye-laws there are some sayings which may be considered hard, and on reading them we may ask in almost plaintive and despairing tones, "Who is sufficient for these things?" There are also some out-of-the-way responsibilities, which only Divine wisdom and justice could in the then state of society have imposed. We must not permit ourselves to lose the religious philosophy and the religious beneficence of the Mosaic legislation by going back upon it with our Christian instincts and culture. We must forget all we have ever learned in the Christian school, and think ourselves back into the comparative barbarism of the age. Then we shall see a light above the brightness of the sun, and feel round about us an influence which cannot be satisfactorily explained without taking into account the possibility of supernatural existence and Divine sovereignty. We shall lose the whole meaning of ancient writings, so far as their religious philosophy is concerned, if we compare them to their disadvantage with Christian standards and the advanced civilisation of the day in which we live. Critically examined, fibre by fibre as it were, this is not crude legislation; there is nothing rough and ready in this distribution of offices, duties, and obligations. This legislation is, on the contrary, highly spiritual in its assumptions, and full of sublime tribute to the nature which is addressed. The dignity of law pre-supposes the dignity of man. Little laws for little creatures, great laws for great beings that is the philosophy of the Bible system. Looked at, therefore, narrowly and critically, we shall find that, however crude in appearance may be some of these bye-laws, the substance under them, and of which they may be said to be the mere phenomena, is a holy quantity, a Divine substratum, nothing less than God, the Eternal Creator and Sovereign.

Without attempting to go through all the bye-laws, we can touch them here and there with sufficient distinctness and sympathy to understand the whole scheme of which some parts are here quoted.

"And if men strive together, and one smite another with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keepeth his bed: if he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed" ( Exo 21:18-19 ).

Are our little personal strifes noted in heaven? The answer is: Yes, every one of them. But can men strive together? Properly looked at, that would seem to be the harder question of the two. Coming suddenly upon a line of this kind, we should exclaim, in surprise, "The assumption is impossible. We must begin our criticism of a statement of this kind by rejecting its probability, and, that being done, there is no case left. How can men strive together? Men are brothers, men are rational creatures, men recognise one another's rights, and interests, and welfare; society is not a competition, but a fraternal and sacred emulation; therefore, the assumption that men can strive together is a false one, and, the foundation being false, the whole edifice totters down." That would be fine theory, that would be sweet poetry, it might almost be thrown into rhyme, but there are the facts staring us in the face. What are those facts? That all life is a strife, that every man in some way or degree, or at some time, begrudges the room which every other man takes up. The tragedy of Cain and Abel has never ceased, and can never cease until we become children of the Second Adam. Great degrees of modification may, of course, take effect. The vulgarity of smiting may be left to those who are in a low state of life who are, in fact, in barbarous conditions; but they who smite with the fist are not the cruellest of men. There is a refined smiting a daily, bitter, malignant opposition; there is a process of mutual undermining, or outreaching, or outrunning, in the very spirit of which is found the purpose of murder. But mark how beneficence enters into the arrangement here laid down. Not only is the man who smote his brother to pay for the loss of his brother's time; that would be a mere cash transaction. There are men ready enough to buy themselves out of any obligation; a handful of gold is nothing. Their language is, "Take it, and let us be free." That would be poor legislation in some cases, though heavy enough in others. To some men money has no meaning; they have outlived all its influences; they are so rich that they can bribe and pay, and secure silence or liberty by a mere outputting of the hand. But the beneficence is in the next clause, "and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed." The man must be made as good as he was before, therefore he must be inquired about; he must be taken an interest in; he must become a quantity in the life of the man who injured him, and, however impatient the man who inflicted the injury may become under such chafing, the impatience itself may be turned to good account. Some men can be taught philanthropy by only such rough and urgent schoolmasters.

"If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit. But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death" ( Exo 21:28-29 ).

In the one case provision is made against what we term an accident, and accidents are treated within their own narrow limits; but from accident we pass to purpose. The ox was "wont to push with his horn in time past," the ox was known to the owner to be an unmanageable ox; notice had been given to the owner of the temper of the ox; the ox, in short, had won for itself a bad character and reputation. If the owner allowed such an ox to go where danger and injury were possible, the owner was not released on the plea that an accident had occurred: he was held guilty of manslaughter. Is that ox still living? Yes. Is it possible that there are men to day who have oxen "wont to push with their horns," and who have killed ten thousand men, and are yet permitted to live and carry on this work of devastation? Do not fritter away the meaning of the injunction by fixing on the literal term, ox. The meaning is not to be confined within any one definition; the great solemn meaning is this: If your trade, occupation, method of life, is inflicting injury anywhere, and you have been made aware of it, you are responsible for the injury that has been done, and you cannot throw off that responsibility. It was not the ox that did it, it was the owner of the ox. Guilt comes home to man. How stands the case? Each must answer for himself. The case applies to ministers of the Gospel, and teachers of every kind of doctrine. If a man preach any doctrine that poisons the life of the hearer, that degrades his best ambition, that narrows and diminishes his life's quantity, that fills him with discontent, peevishness, distrust, and jealousy; and if that preacher has been made aware of the effects of his doctrine, he is responsible for all the heart-ache, for all the up-breaking of life, for all the poisoning of health, and, at the last, hell will be too good a lot for so huge a murderer. The same applies to all men who lecture upon platforms, or who issue vicious books or other literature from the press. Whoever is guilty of the propagation of ideas that injure life, that impair its majesty, and that crush its best endeavours, is a murderer, and he must be held liable for the consequences of his deed. I fix the charge thus particularly upon those who are in the spiritual and intellectual function, that I may the more broadly and pungently suggest the lesson to every man in every other sphere and line of life that he may apply the doctrine to himself. This is the Divine doctrine: it is the rational doctrine, it is the right doctrine. There is nothing so supernatural about this as to cause us to resent it on the ground of its being supermundane, too lofty for us to realise. Reason is satisfied; conscience says "Amen"; the just heart rises up and says, "The judgment is true and righteous; let it stand." But what a revolution would be created in all teaching, in all commerce, in all social relations, if this one bye-law, respecting the "ox wont to push with his horn," were carried out this day!

"If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep" ( Exo 22:1 ).

That is the only way of getting at a thief. You cannot reason with him. He dismissed his reason before he committed his felony. He had first to strangle his reason; he committed murder in the sanctuary of his soul before he committed theft in the fields of his neighbour. What then is to be done with him? He must be made to feel the folly of theft; he must be made to feel that theft is a bad investment; he must be made to feel that he has played the fool even in the excess of his cleverness. The thief would be made to know what dishonesty is, when for the one ox he must pay five in its place. He could have evaded an argument; he could have doubled upon a covenant, and have quibbled about the ambiguity of its terms; but he could not shuffle out of this four-square arithmetical arrangement. Five oxen for an ox, four sheep for a sheep; and by the time the thief had played at that game two or three days, he would have put on the garb, at least, of an honest man!

"If fire break out, and catch in thorns, so that the stacks of corn, or the standing corn, or the field, be consumed therewith; he that kindled the fire shall surely make restitution" ( Exo 22:6 ).

This is right. The Bible really builds upon granite bases; there is nothing merely fanciful in this legislation. This is sound common-sense, and common-sense in the long run wins the esteem and confidence of the world. No man may trifle with bread. Bad enough to burn down any kind of property; but to consume stacks of corn is to commit murder with both hands; to light the standing corn when it waves in the fields is to thrust a knife, not into one heart, but into the very life of society. How can restitution be made? It cannot be made. You cannot replace corn; money bears no relation to corn; corn is not an arithmetical quantity. Destroyed bread is destroyed life. Who destroys bread? He who makes poison of it; he who turns it into a drink that takes away the reason and deposes the conscience of men. He who holds back the bread-stuff until the time of famine that he may increase his own riches by an enhanced market value is not a political economist, unless, under such circumstances, a political economist is a heartless murderer. And if it is wicked to set fire to corn, is it a light or frivolous matter to set fire to convictions, faiths the bread-stuff of the soul? Is he guiltless who takes away the bread of life, the bread sent down from heaven? Is he a pardonable incendiary who burns down the altar which was a stairway to the light, or reduces to ashes the Church which was a refuge in the day of storm?

"If thou meet thine enemy's ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again. If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden, and wouldest forbear to help him, thou shalt surely help with him" ( Exo 23:4-5 ).

Man never imposed that law. That is not a trick of human wisdom. It is too profound, too exacting, too full of implications of the noblest kind to have been invented by human nature. Who would not take vengeance upon his enemy's ox? Who would not hamstring the bullock? Who would not be pleased to see his enemy's ox going astray, running furiously mayhap along the wrong road? Who would not felicitate himself on such an occurrence, and think with cruel gladness about his enemy's disappointment and loss? But the other picture is more vivid still: "If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden.". The enemy himself would be present personally or representatively, because the ass is not unburdened but burdened; he is, therefore, upon an appointed road and journey. Who would not rather taunt his enemy with the petty disaster and tell him to send for his friends to help him, and not to his hated and hating ones? "Who is sufficient for these things?"

But this is Judaism? It is humanism. But this old law is abolished? No, never can be abolished. It is one of the very laws which Jesus Christ came to "fulfil." Who can do it? To help the cause of a friend would be a pleasure, but to lift up the burden from the back of the ass of an enemy tears us in pieces: tests our quality. Nor can we do it in a mere law-keeping spirit. We know that to keep this law we must be above the law; grace must have begun its redeeming and inspiring ministry in our hearts before we can keep this law in the perfectness of its meaning. We have all opportunities of doing honour to this law. Our enemies need help to day. The man who spoke basely about us may need bread at our hand at this moment; his trade is in a bad way, though a good trade in itself. We could bring custom to his hand, and help him out of his embarrassments. If we hesitate to do so we must no longer bear the Christian name. Do release Jesus Christ from the responsibility involved in such reluctance, or in such disobedience. First let him go! We cannot love Christ and hate an enemy.

But is not sentiment now supplanting law? Have we not left the marble halls of justice, and entered a chamber decked with coverings of tapestry? Certainly not. Read on:

"Neither shalt thou countenance a poor man in his cause" ( Exo 23:3 ).

There is no mere sentiment in that. The meaning is: A man is not to be excused because he is poor. The effect of the law is, that a man is not to be treated with mere pity on the ground of his poverty; the judge is not to say "If you had been a rich man you would have been punished, but being a poor man we take pity upon you." When a man stands before the law, he stands neither rich nor poor; he stands as one who appeals to the law of right; he is there as a criminal: let him prove his innocence. So the Bible is not softly sentimental. It has not one law for the great, and another for the small, one ordinance for the rich, and another for the poor; it is exceeding broad, it is impartial, it has in it the elements and the guarantees of complete security.

And is it all law hard, iron, pitiless law? Is all life reduced to a schedule of regulations an infinite placard of times, seasons, appointments of a merely hireling kind, so much equivalent for so much labour? Read on:

"Three times thou shalt keep a feast unto me in the year. Thou shalt keep the feast of unleavened bread (thou shalt eat unleavened bread seven days, as I commanded thee, in the time appointed of the month Abib; for in it thou earnest out from Egypt: and none shall appear before me empty): and the feast of harvest, the firstfruits of thy labours, which thou hast sown in thy field: and the feast of ingathering, which is in the end of the year, when thou hast gathered in thy labours out of the field" ( Exo 23:14-16 ).

There is to be feasting as well as law-keeping; there is to be a recognition of the Lawgiver as well as a continual attempt to obey the letter of the law. There was to be a feast of memory the liberation from Egypt there was to be a feast of firstfruits, and there was to be a feast of ingathering. When men put the sickle into the wheatfield there was to be a feast unto the Lord. Fifty days were supposed to elapse between the putting in of the sickle and the full ingathering of the harvest. At the end of the fifty days, there was to be a feast of ingathering, a looking up into heaven, a recognition of the Divine and supernatural element in life. They whose faces had been towards the earth, and whose hands had been put out in daily labour, were to look up to heaven and stretch out the hands to the skies, and to say by attitude and by voice, "We are not the hirelings of men: we are the servants of the living God." We need these festivals; we need the holy day; we are better for touching one another in Christian companionship and worship. We ought to be the more righteous, the more lofty, for spending one hour in the house consecrated to Jehovah's praise. We cannot keep the law in all the fulness of Christian obedience until we have been with Christ, and learned of him. It is not our enemy's ox that is in distress, but our enemy himself. We are not called upon to study the mere framework of regulated society, and to attend to enactments and stipulations which will keep that society in skeleton-outline together; we have not come into a political society, but into a Christian brotherhood. We are not to be kept back from smiting only that we have outlived long ago but we have to come into the spirit of forgiveness, largest pardon, multiplied, heaped up, forgiveness and pardon yea, here we may resort to all tautology of expression, if in the infinite redundance of our speech we do but give some feeble hint of the passion of love that has been created in our hearts by the Spirit of the Cross of Christ.

Thus the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ, and Christ came not to abolish the law, even about ox, and ass, and theft, and burning of standing corn, but to fulfil it, to glorify it, to carry it up to higher meaning, and thus to consolidate the New Society his Church and make it infinitely precious and secure.

We look with some curiosity upon all these endless laws and exactions, and think ourselves well quit of a mechanism so detailed and vexatious. Herein we rejoice before the time. We are not quit of one of them. Is not our life also set in a marvellous network of law? If all the laws which are continually operating upon us and impoverishing us by their taxation could be set down in a book, we should marvel with exceeding astonishment at the mechanism under which our own boasted liberty is breathing. We call ourselves free, and rejoice that all the exactions of the past are done away, and that now it lies very much with our own will to say when life's work shall begin and end and of what it shall exactly consist. We enjoy no such liberty. We cannot put our foot down upon any point of the earth that is not throbbing with the energy of law. Not a hand can be put out that is not entangled in the meshes of never-ceasing ordinances of life and nature. Cause and effect proceed eternally. The seedtime and the harvest are still linked by bonds that cannot be sundered. The evil-doer finds a thorn in his pillow every night. The oppressor is made to feel that he himself is under domination. Every morning has its duty, every night its sacrifice; the whole year round is but one unceasing opportunity for self-expenditure and self-control. Our liberty consists in our being able to do all the law requires with a steadier hand and a loftier purpose. The law itself is not susponded. Not one moment less of time does God demand; not one penny less of gold, not one thought less of spiritual consecration and intensity of mind; only by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ we have come to such complete devotion of soul that what aforetime was grievous is now pleasant, and what at the beginning was almost impossible has now become the chief delight of life. Never suppose that law has been lessened in its force or in its details; the effort is wholly on the other side, that we ourselves have been blessed with greater power and have been brought into sweet consent with the Divine purpose.

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Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Exodus 21". Parker's The People's Bible. 1885-95.