Monday, November 06, 2006

Exodus 22

Exodus 22: Laws about protection of property, and other laws

Synopsis

This chapter continues the list of laws that God was handing down to the Israelites.


  • If someone steals an animal, and the animal is found in his/her possession, s/he must pay back double. (i.e., if you steal a sheep, and are caught with the sheep, you have to give the original owner back two sheep.)
    • If the thief sells or slaughters the stolen animal, it’s specified that s/he must pay back five head of cattle for an ox, or four sheep for a sheep, instead of just double.
    • If the thief has nothing with which to pay back the theft, s/he is to be sold, to pay for it.
  • If a thief is caught breaking in, and the owner kills the thief, the owner is not to be held guilty of bloodshed.
    • Unless it happens after sunrise—then the owner is to be held guilty of bloodshed.
These laws seem fair, to me. And, as pointed out in the previous chapter, “fair” is the key word: the law is all about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. People are not to be punished disproportionately for their crimes; if you steal a sheep, you’re not to be executed, you’re simply to pay back the owner, with interest. I also find it interesting that the law makes a distinction between crimes that happen at night, vs. crimes that happen during the day. I assume this implies that there may be other options, besides killing the thief, if the crime is happening during the day.


  • If someone lets their livestock stray, and the livestock eats from someone else’s field, the owner of the livestock is to pay back the owner of the fields. It specifically says that the owner of the animals must pay back the owner of the fields “from the best of his own vineyard” (verse 5).
  • Similarly, if someone starts a fire, and it burns someone else’s field, the one who started the fire must make restitution for whatever has burned. (It doesn’t specifically say “from the best of his vineyard”, though.)
In these rules we see that the Israelites are to respect the property of their neighbours. I find it very interesting that the first rule mentions that the person should be paid back from the best of the guilty party’s vineyard—you can’t just let your flocks eat someone else’s field, and then give them the withered grapes you don’t want from your own!


  • The next law deals with the case where someone gives their neighbour articles to protect, and those articles are stolen, while under the protection of the neighbour:
    • If the thief is caught, then there is no problem. The thief is to pay back double, as was specified in the earlier laws about livestock.
    • If the thief is not found, the neighbour who was entrusted with the goods is to appear before “the judges” (the footnote indicates that this might also be translated “before God”; verse 8), who will determine if the articles were really stolen, or if the neighbour entrusted with the goods stole them. If they (or God) determine that the neighbour actually stole the goods, double must be paid back.
  • Similarly, in all cases where there are more than one party claiming the same property, they’re to appear before the judges (or before God), who will determine to whom the property really belongs. And, in this case, the person to whom the property does not belong will have to pay back double to the person who does own it.
I really like the fact that, when two people are claiming something belongs to them, the person who is lying is treated as if they’d stolen the property. They are, in effect, being found guilty of “attempted theft”, since they’re trying to claim property that doesn’t belong to them.


  • If someone gives an animal to their neighbour, for safekeeping, and it dies (or is injured) while unattended, the person entrusted with the animal is to “take an oath before the LORD” that s/he didn’t kill/injure it. And then: “The owner is to accept this, and no restitution is required” (verse 11b).
    • On the other hand, if the animal was stolen, the person responsible for the animal is to make restitution to the owner.
    • If the animal was killed by a wild animal, the person entrusted with its care is to bring the remains of the animal as evidence, and then s/he won’t be held responsible.
There are some nuances to these rules that I find fascinating. These upshot seems to be that if the person entrusted with the care of the animal was responsible for the loss, then s/he is to pay it back, but if it was something out of his/her control, then s/he is not.


  • If you borrow someone’s animal, and it is injured or dies while in your care, you must pay back the owner for it.
    • However, if the owner is present, when the animal dies or is injured, no restitution is to be given.
    • Also, if the animal was hired, instead of borrowed, there is not be any restitution made; the money paid to hire the animal is supposed to cover the loss.
I don’t actually have much to say about these rules, except that I find it interesting that the owner of the animal is not to be paid back, if s/he is with the animal when it dies. Presumably the owner should look out for his/her own animals, whenever possible.

In the NIV, the next few laws are under the heading of Social Responsibility, but to me, they don’t all seem to fall under that category.


  • If a man seduces a virgin and sleeps with her, he is to pay the “bride price”, and she will be his wife.
    • If her father refuses to give his daughter to the man in marriage, the man is still to pay the bride price.
Not living in a society that has the concept of a dowry, the concept of a bride price seems a little foreign to me, but other than that, these rules make perfect sense. If the man were to seduce a virgin, and then just leave her, it would quite literally ruin her life, because, in that society, no other man would accept her as his wife.


  • Sorceresses were to be put to death
  • Anyone who had sexual relations with an animal was to be put to death
  • Anyone who sacrificed to any god other than the LORD was to be “destroyed”.
On the surface, these three rules sound unrelated, but they might actually not be. In that day and age, acts like sorcery and bestiality may have been performed as part of the worship of other gods. (I don’t have specific information on this, to know for sure whether this is correct. I do know that acts like child sacrifice and sexual relations with temple prostitutes were performed as part of the worship of other gods, so it’s quite possible that sorcery and bestiality would have been as well.) If that’s correct, then there is a definite reason why these three rules would be grouped together like this.

Also, whenever the Bible uses the term destroy, the footnote in the NIV always says this: “The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the LORD, often by totally destroying them.” In effect, I don’t know how this makes the execution different from the previous two executions mentioned; I’m not sure if this means it was to be carried out differently.


  • The Israelites were not to mistreat aliens. There is even a reason given for this one: “for you were aliens in Egypt” (verse 21).
  • The Israelites were not to take advantage of widows or orphans.
    • This law doesn’t have a punishment set out, because the LORD Himself will carry out the punishment: “If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless” (verses 23–24).
  • If money is lent to a fellow Hebrew who is needy, no interest is to be charged.
    • If the person gives his/her cloak, as a pledge for the money, it is to be returned by sunset, regardless of whether the money has been repaid, “because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate” (verse 27).
This set of laws is trying to teach the Israelites to be compassionate. The three groups listed—aliens, widows & orphans, and the poor—are the ones in the society who were the most defenseless. God is making it clear to the Israelites that He cares for these people, and they were to care for them too.


  • The Israelites were not to blaspheme God
  • They were not to hold back offerings, from the produce of their fields.
    • They were also to give to the LORD their first-born sons, and the first-born of their cattle and sheep.
      • It’s not specifically stated here, but the first-born of the livestock were to be sacrificed, but the first-born sons were not. Somewhere else there are rules laid out for what is to be sacrificed in place of the first-born sons.
      • The first-born animals were to remain with their mothers for seven days, before being sacrificed.
  • The Israelites were not to eat meat from an animal that had been killed by wild beasts. And, again, God gives a reason for this one: “You are to be my holy people” (verse 31).
Some of the laws given in the Old Testament sound strange to our ears, but often the reason for such laws is to set the Israelites apart from their neighbouring nations, as a people Holy to God. This is what I see in these rules—especially the last one.

Thoughts

The first laws mentioned in this chapter deal with livestock, but I’m assuming that this extends to other property as well. That is, if you steal a candlestick from your neighbour, and are caught with it, you have to pay your neighbour back two candlesticks.

When it comes to the law’s concern for the aliens, the widows & orphans, and the poor, I’m not sure how inline this would be with other societies of the day. It’s quite possible that, without these laws, any “rich” Israelites would have simply considered themselves blessed by God—and, therefore, have considered the poor and less fortunate not to be blessed by God. There are many people in the world who would say that this means you don’t have to care for these people. But these rules demonstrate that, although these people may be less fortunate, God really, truly cares for them, and the Israelites were to do so as well. Did this actually happen? Well, it will be a long time from now before we get to it, but time and time again, when the prophets came to criticize the Israelites in later years, the main complaint God levelled at His people was that they were not caring for the poor.

Also, in the NIV version of the Bible that I use, a gendered pronoun is often used. (Is “gendered pronoun” the right phrase I’m looking for here?) I have “un-gendered” the pronouns for this blog; for example, verse 1 says “If a man steals an ox or a sheep…” whereas I would put “If a person steals an ox or a sheep…” I believe the text in the Bible is phrased the way it is because of the society at the time; verse 1 is talking about a man stealing an ox or a sheep because, realistically, who else would be? In my day and age, however, society isn’t as rigidly divided along the male/female lines, and it wouldn’t be as clear-cut that only men would be doing some of the things mentioned. (It is still divided, but not as rigidly.) If you disagree with this, my intent is not to offend.

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