Exodus Bible Study (God Saves)

Exodus 21-23, The Book of the Covenant


God has come powerfully and majestically down to Mount Sinai and spoke the Ten Commandments to the people. So terrifying was this event that the people of Israel asked Moses to be their mediator (20:19). So the Lord is telling Moses what to tell the people. Unfortunately, many stop reading chapter 20 as the end of the commandments. But Exodus 21-23 is the application of the Ten Commandments. This section of God’s law is called the Book of the Covenant in Exodus 24:7. As we read these laws, we recognize that these were God’s laws to Israel under the first covenant, the Law of Moses, and are not the laws of the new covenant under Christ (cf. Hebrews 8:6-13; Hebrews 10:1-10). But this does not mean that these laws have no meaning for us for in them we see the character and nature of God. As we noted in our last lesson, the law reveals the character and mind of the lawgiver. In these laws we are understanding God and through this can better understand who he is and his will for us.

Slavery (21:1-11)

This is a hard issue to speak about because we bring a lot of preconceived notions with us due to more recent history when it comes to the topic of slavery. “Slave” is a difficult word to translate in the scriptures because it easily communicates the wrong idea. If we use the word “slave,” then people will think of forced slavery and mistreatment. But that is not what this word is referring to. Listen carefully to this: God always condemned forced slavery. You were never authorized to kidnap a person, sell him or purchased a kidnapped person, which is expressly stated in Exodus 21:16. You were never allowed to mistreat a person. Ever. The slavery in the scriptures is not speaking about this. To help prevent this misunderstanding, some translations read “servant.” The problem with the term “servant” is we might think of someone like a butler or Downton Abbey. But this is not right either. When we read slave or servant in the scriptures we must think about an indentured worker. This was a way to pay off your debt. If you could not pay a debt you owed, you could sell yourself to the person you owed, working for them until the debt was paid. This paragraph goes through the protections given to slaves. But I want you to notice verse 2 in particular. No matter what the debt, a slave could only be indentured for six years. In the seventh year the slave had to go free, owing nothing.

This is picturing the beautiful grace of God. First, God speaks to slavery to remind Israel that they were slaves who were forced into labor against their will, mistreated, and oppressed. Second, it is by the grace of God that we are set free, debt free, and given freedom. The New Testament proclaims this glorious truth in many places. One such place is in Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1 ESV). You were a slave and now you are free. Do not forget who you were and what God did.

Capital Punishment (21:12-32)

The next paragraph deals with capital punishment. It is important to read verse 12.

Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:12 ESV)

It is very important to see this considering the Ten Commandments say to not murder. Capital punishment is not prohibited in the law to not commit murder. The principle that God lays out is here in verse 12: causing death means death to the one who did it. That is the general principle, which goes all the way back to Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed for God made man in his own image.”

What God is doing is showing the high value of life. A slap on the wrist will not do. You will also notice that there was not a jail. You did not go to jail for killing. Your life was required if you killed another. There were many crimes where the death penalty was to be applied. Some of the crimes we would not be surprised by but there are a few that are. Notice verse 15.

Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:15 ESV)

There would be a lot of dead children today. Notice you do not have to kill your parents. You just have to strike your parents. If you attack your parents, you are going to die. Notice verse 17 also.

Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:17 ESV)

If you were disgraceful and dishonoring to your parents you were to be put to death. This is how rebellious teenagers, young people, and adults were handled for cursing or striking their parents. This shows what honoring our parents does not look like.

Life is further described in verses 22-25.

When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:22–25 ESV)

This is a very valuable concept that we learn from the mind of God regarding life. In all the arguments over life and when does it begin, we notice something critical. An unborn child is considered life. So much so that God said if a pregnant woman was struck so that the child died, then it was life for life. A fine was not paid if death of the unborn child resulted.

This leads to another critical principle from the mind of God. It is the principle of an eye for an eye. This principle has been greatly misunderstood as allow personal vengeance and personal retribution. But that is not the context of this teaching. The principle that we are seeing throughout this paragraph is that the punishment must fit the crime. The punishment must not be too lenient or too harsh. Thus, if the unborn child was born and there was no harm, then there is just a fine for the trauma. But if the unborn child dies or is wounded, then the punishment must fit the crime. That is the picture God is offering and it is the picture Jesus confirms in the New Testament (Matthew 5:38). The Jews had turned this into personal retribution rather than a principle for justice to be used by the governing authorities.

God also distinguished between murder and manslaughter (accidental death) in Exodus 21:28. God shows that accidents are different than negligence and difference punishments were given. It is useful to point out that an animal was always killed when a human life was taken by the animal. In fact, if the owner had been warned about their animal and it killed a human, the animal and the owner were both killed. We see our society losing this idea. Remember when at the Palm Beach Zoo last year that a tiger killed a zookeeper. The animal was then killed. That is God’s law, even though there was quite a bit of outcry. Human life is supreme and an animal dies if it kills a human. We must not lose sight of the supreme value of human life.

The Need For Restitution (21:33-22:15)

Restitution is another key component to God’s law. It did not matter who you were, restitution plus more was required, regardless of social class. This is a distinction from many ancient Near Eastern law codes. Hammurabi’s Code depended upon your social class as to what you were able to obtain in restitution when wronged. With God, all are equal before him and the Law. We are seeing descriptions of how one loves his neighbor as himself. Committing an offense required restitution and, not only restitution, but even more is repaid depending on the infraction. We see this pictured beautiful in the account of Zaccheaus in Luke 19:1-10. Zaccheaus declares, “And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8). Jesus’ response is that salvation has come to his house. This is the heart of repentance. When we do wrong, we try to fix what we have done. We live in a time where the typical response to a wrong committed or financial damage is, “Oh well.” But that is not right or just. God describes compensation being paid for what we have done toward others if they have suffered loss.

Before we leave this paragraph, the Law addresses another common question that people have regarding God’s attitude toward defending ourselves. Notice what God says in Exodus 22:2-3.

If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. (Exodus 22:2–3 ESV)

Notice that there is the allowance for self-defense. Breaking into another’s home and night and the owner kills him is justifiable homicide, according to the Law. The homeowner was not held responsible. However, notice in verse 3 that if it was in the day, then killing him is not justifiable. The assumption appears to be that in the day you can assess the level of danger. At night you cannot make this assessment. Remember the general principle is that the punishment must fit the crime. Killing for stealing is not equal. Only if your life is in danger is the use of deadly force allowed by God’s law. The laws in our country reflect the same ideals.

Social Justice (22:16-23:9)

Exodus 22:16-23:9 continues the theme of social justice and the need for justice for all individuals under God’s law. If you had sexual relations with a single woman, you were required to marry her (22:16-17). Sorcery was punishable by death. Lying with an animal was punishable by death. Sacrificing to other gods was punishable by death. They were commanded to not mistreat widows and orphans, a teaching that confirmed in the New Testament in James 1:27. You are not to lend money with interest to your own brethren. You are not to provide false reports. Another important reminder for us, a law of God that is found in the Law of Moses and also the New Testament. “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people” (Exodus 22:28). Do not speak against God and do not speak against the rulers over us. I want you to focus your attention on Exodus 23:4-5.

If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him. (Exodus 23:4–5 ESV)

Notice that the law spoke to doing good to your enemies. Do not repay evil for evil. Loving your enemies, which is taught all throughout the New Testament, is declared as the concept for the Law of Moses. You were to help your enemy when possible. When we study these passages of the Law of Moses we are able to see that the religious teachers in the first century were not accurately representing God’s will to the people. They taught that you should love your neighbor and hate your enemy (Matthew 5:43). But this is not what the Law of Moses taught, nor is it the message of Jesus.

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. (Luke 6:27 ESV) God has always desired his people to do good to all people (cf. Galatians 6:9-10).

Sabbaths and Feasts (23:10-19)

Exodus 23:10-19 speaks to the Sabbaths and feasts that the people were to keep. But God begins with generosity to the poor. In verses 10-11 teaches to let the land they farmed to have a Sabbath rest on the seventh year, allowing the poor of the people to eat from it. Then God declares that there will be three feasts that will be kept by the people: the Feast of Unleavened Bread (which is also the Passover), the Feast of Harvest (which is also called the Feast of Weeks, and we know as Pentecost), and the Feast of Ingathering (which we also know as the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles). The Feast of Ingathering was a celebration of thanksgiving for the harvest they had received, also remember their freedom from Egyptian slavery. These three feasts required all of the men of Israel to appear before the Lord (23:17). This meant that they appeared before the tabernacle and then before the temple when it was completed by Solomon.

Warnings (23:20-33)

The book of the covenant ends with some warnings and final instructions. But there is something stunning about what God says as he ends the book of the covenant. Look at Exodus 23:20-22.


Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. (Exodus 23:20–22 ESV)

God says he is going to send his angel (also can mean messenger). This messenger will protect them on the way and bring them to the place that God had prepared. Now the strict warning is given in verse 21 to pay careful attention to him and obey his voice. Do not rebel against him because your sins will not be forgiven if you do so because God’s name is in him. But if the people listen to the messenger, doing what God says, then God will be an enemy to your enemies. The rest of the paragraph describes the blessings of the kingdom that would be established. God will bless them with provisions and take away sicknesses (23:25-26). God will drive out their enemies little by little (23:27-30) and they will inherit the promised land (23:31). It’s an amazing promise but we know the people of Israel failed and did not enjoy the promises God made because they rebelled. In fact, Isaiah depicts this to be the case.

In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them. (Isaiah 63:9–10 ESV)

So was the hope of Israel lost because of their disobedience? I want you to listen to what Malachi tells the people as the last literary prophet to Israel.

“Behold, I send my messenger…” (Malachi 3:1 ESV). These are the exact same words as Exodus 23:20. God is going to send his messenger (angel) to bring them into the place that God had prepared. The people needed to pay careful attention to him and obey his voice, not rebelling against him or your sins would be not forgiven because God’s name was in him. If they obeyed his voice then God would become an enemy to your enemies, leading the people into the promised land and enjoying the kingdom promises. The prophecy of Malachi keys into Exodus 23:20 that the promises made to Israel are still coming and they needed to wait for the coming of the messenger who will lead them in the way. Now listen to how the Gospel of Mark begins:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (Mark 1:1–3 ESV)

Mark combines three prophecies, one from the primary prophet, Isaiah, one from Malachi which we just looked at, and one from Exodus 23:20. “Behold, I send my messenger before you” comes from Exodus 23:20 and is remembered in Malachi 3:1. When John came, he was fulfilling what Exodus 23:20-33 was promising and the people needed to listen to him to be ready for the arrival of the kingdom. The pictures of Exodus 23:20-33 are what we have if we come to obey and have a relationship with Christ. The heart of God has been revealed by his law. He brings us into the place God has prepared if we listen to his voice and do not rebel. God will be an enemy to our enemies and bless us with the blessings of the kingdom of God. In this kingdom we are giving eternal life with God that the enemies cannot destroy or take from us. Praise be to God who has granted us to enter his kingdom and may he ever listen to his words and obey his voice so that we can enter into the eternal rest.

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