Manuscript of this sermon is available for reading services.
Reading: Exodus 21, WCF 19:4 & 5
Text: Exodus 21
The Civil Law
Exodus 21 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
Ordinances for the People
21 “Now these are the ordinances which you are to set before them:
2 “If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without
payment. 3 If he comes [a]alone, he shall go out [b]alone; if he is the husband of a wife, then his wife shall go out
with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall
belong to her master, and he shall go out [c]alone. 5 But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my
children; I will not go out as a free man,’ 6 then his master shall bring him to [d]God, then he shall bring him to
the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently.
7 “If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to [e]go free as the male slaves [f]do. 8 If she is
[g]displeasing in the eyes of her master [h]who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He does
not have authority to sell her to a foreign people because of his [i]unfairness to her. 9 If he designates her for his
son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. 10 If he takes to himself another woman, he may not
reduce her [j]food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. 11 If he will not do these three things for her, then she
shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.
12 “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. 13 But [k]if he did not lie in wait for him,
but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee. 14 If, however, a man acts
presumptuously toward his neighbor, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from My altar, that he may
15 “He who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.
16 “He who [l]kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his [m]possession, shall surely be put to death.
17 “He who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.
18 “If men have a quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but [n]remains
in bed, 19 if he gets up and walks around outside on his staff, then he who struck him shall go unpunished; he shall
only pay for his [o]loss of time, and [p]shall take care of him until he is completely healed.
20 “If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies [q]at his hand, he shall [r]be punished. 21 If,
however, he [s]survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his [t]property.
22 “If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that [u]she gives birth prematurely, yet there is
no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband [v]may demand of him, and he shall pay [w]as the judges
decide. 23 But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, 24 eye for eye,
tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, [x]bruise for bruise.
26 “If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his
eye. 27 And if he [y]knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.
28 “If an ox gores a man or a woman [z]to death, the ox shall surely be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten; but
the owner of the ox shall go unpunished. 29 If, however, an ox was previously in the habit of goring and its owner has
been warned, yet he does not confine it and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall
be put to death. 30 If a ransom is [aa]demanded of him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is
[ab]demanded of him. 31 Whether it gores a son or [ac]a daughter, it shall be done to him according to [ad]the same
rule. 32 If the ox gores a male or female slave, [ae]the owner shall give his or her master thirty shekels of silver,
and the ox shall be stoned.
33 “If a man opens a pit, or [af]digs a pit and does not cover it over, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34 the
owner of the pit shall make restitution; he shall [ag]give money to its owner, and the dead animal shall become his.
35 “If one man’s ox hurts another’s so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide its price equally;
and also they shall divide the dead ox. 36 Or if it is known that the ox was previously in the habit of goring, yet
its owner has not confined it, he shall surely pay ox for ox, and the dead animal shall become his.
The Civil Law
The question is often asked do the civil laws written in the books of Moses have anything to say to us today. Many of the so call civil laws relate to the life of the nation Israel 3,500 years ago and include laws on slavery and agricultural practice. These laws seem to have little relevance to us today so how should we regard them and what lessons can we learn from them if any.
1. The law as covenant
The first thing to remember about the laws handed down via Moses is that they form a part of the covenant God made with his people. In Exodus 19:3 it says that the Lord God called Moses up onto the mountain and said, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel.” Then, what followed was the giving of the law including the Ten Commandments and their applications or case law given in the chapters that follow. This law in its entirety became the demand of the covenant for God’s chosen people.
The covenant was initiated by God, addressed to Moses who in turn passed it on to the nation Israel The purpose of this covenant relationship was that Israel would learn to be holy to the Lord through obedience to the Ten Commandments and other laws concerning worship, family relations, social life and social justice. In all of these matters the Israelites were to show that they were a holy nation belonging to God.
God’s law has a similar function today. It was with some relief that I heard that the General Synod of the Anglican church held in Napier recently decided not to approve the blessing of homosexual marriage. This was largely due to the influence of the Fellowship of Professing Anglicans within that denomination. This is good news because unless the church live in obedience to the laws of God is will lose its covenantal character as God’s holy people.
The law is integral to the covenant because it marks us out as those who have a relationship with God. It shows the world that the Lord is our God and we are His people. As we examine the laws of God in their entirety we come to understand that being a covenant child of God isn’t just about not transgressing the Ten Commandments such as not murdering, not stealing or not blaspheming. Covenant keeping is about everything we do; the way we relate to others, the way we dress, how and what we eat and drink where we go, how we work etc, so that we live lives which mark us out as those who are holy and separate to the Lord.
All of these various laws help us to understand that being a covenant child of God is a whole of life thing. They help us to live in such a way that that it becomes apparent that Jesus Christ really is Lord of all our whole life and not just parts of it.
So we can ask ourselves, “How apparent is it to others that I am a covenant child of God?”
Well, there is a minimum and a maximum. The minimum is to merely obey the prohibition and that’s it. For example I may not have physically committed murdered someone, (that’s te bare minimum of obedience to the 6th commandment) but I may often have uncharitable thoughts about someone, or I may quietly despise someone which according to Jesus in Matthew 5 is on the same line as murder. Or I may not have robbed a bank but then I may have been a slouch at my office desk and not worked as hard as I should have for my employer. According to Paul is in Ephesians 4 laziness on the same line as theft. It can apply to the way we dress as well. There is an Old Testament law in Leviticus 19 which warns the Israelites not to cut their beards and hair a certain way or tattoo their bodies. If we read that in the light of the New Testament we find that Paul calls for modesty in dress in 1 Timothy 2 for women and in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul says it is disgraceful for a man to wear long hair or to be effeminate in 1 Cor. 6:9. With respect to the cutting of beards and tattoos the principal can be found in 2 Cor. 6 where believers are urged to be separate from the world. In other words who do you identify with in your speech, behaviour and appearance, the heathen or the covenant community, the world or the church?
Many of our neighbours wear clothing as marks of identification such as gang patches, or hippy clothing which is so immodest that it can cause members of the opposite sex to look sinfully at those who wear it. Covering ones’ body with tattoos seems to me to be distinctly un-covenantal. You see the question is who do you identify with most? The holy nation, the kingdom of priests who belong to God or those in the world around you?
As well as that there is the bare minimum and the maximum when it comes to law keeping. Someone once compared covenant obedience to the space between a floor and a ceiling. The floor is the minimum requirement of the law such as merely obeying the most obvious part of the prohibition such as do not commit adultery. Above that is the ceiling where a covenant keeper would strive to keep the various applications of the law as found in the Sermon on the Mount or wrt. the 7th commandment. “let there not even be a hint of immorality.” (Ephesians 5)
Now most people in society in general obey the prohibitions of New Zealand’s law such as not murdering or stealing. However its paying attention to the detail of the law which identifies us as covenant children as a chosen race, a royal priesthood a holy nation a people for God’s own possession that we might proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called us out of darkness and into his marvellous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
So that’s the first thing the law including all the various applications of it in both the Old and New testament identifies us as being God’s covenant children.
2. Continuity and discontinuity.
However we do need to take note of continuity and discontinuity wrt the OT law. In Exodus 21 some of the law is confined to the customs and usage of the day or confined to a particular period of time in God’s plan of salvation. For example, last week we noted that all the ceremonial law has been fulfilled in Christ. Here we are dealing with what the confession says is the judicial or civil law. The confession states that this judicial law does not apply other than in a general way i.e. according to the principles that the civil law contains which abide in every age.
For example looking at out text in Exodus 21 we notice that there are several laws there about slavery. Slavery in Old Testament times was an integral part of society for a range of reasons. Slaves could be taken by conquest of other nations, or by buying them at slave markets. Children born into slave families would belong to the master along with his or her parents. A convicted thief could make restitution for his crimes by working as a slave, and men could also pay off their debts by working as slaves. Slavery was part and parcel of the economic and justice system in Israel well suited to the rural-agrarian way of life. The slavery laws were made in order to prevent abuse and to ensure the well-being and ultimate freedom of slaves because the law also states that after 7 years or the Year of Jubilee slaves had to be set free. Since then industrialisation, kidnapping, trafficking and widespread abuse of slaves has resulted in slavery’s abolition and Paul’s letter to Philemon may have had something to do with that too. There Paul urged Philemon to treat his former runaway slave no longer as a slave but a brother.
So slavery laws as such are not that relevant to us in the 21st century today however there are principles we can learn from slavery laws such as making restitution, and working to pay off debt. These laws also speak to faithfulness and fairness in employer / employee relationships; that employees are hardworking and honest and that employers treat their employees with the same loving and considerate and humane spirit that was required by owners of slaves under the Old Covenant. With respect to slavery laws we see continuity and discontinuity.
Another example; in the Old Testament polygamy was tolerated. Verse 10 of Exodus 21 seems to indicate this and in any case we know that some of the OT covenant believers had more than one wife and were not condemned for it.
Even so monogamy is implied in the story of Adam and Eve. As we read on on the OT, though polygamy was not forbidden it seems that that God left man to discover by experience that monogamy was the proper relationship. The OT shows quite clearly that polygamy brings trouble. It often results in sin such as favouritism as with Jacob’s wives, or idolatry as with Solomon’s wives and jealousy between Elkanah’s wives.
Furthermore an abiding principle of Biblical interpretation is that the OT must be interpreted in light of the NT and we do not see any hint of justification for polygamy in the NT rather we see that covenant keeping in the NT is demonstrated by faithfulness in the context of monogamous marriage. So in the case of polygamy we definitely see discontinuity of the practice and strong affirmations of faithfulness in marriage.
The fifth commandment is in view in Exodus 21:15 & 17 where it says, “He who strikes his father and mother shall surely be put to death” and “he who curses his father and mother shall surely be put to death.” These statutes are applications of the 5th commandment, “honour your father and mother.” A further application of that commandment is found in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 where it says, “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother and that when they have chastened him he will not listen to them then they shall take him to the elders saying “this is our son. He is stubborn and rebellious, a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his city shall stone him and put the evil away from among you.”
This was not about a one off offence by a young boy who repents and accepts chastisement. This is talking about a grown son perhaps in his early or mid 20s who has been chastised and warned repeatedly but instead of accepting correction he hits and curses his parents and does not repent. It has reached the point where it is time to inform the elders who have the responsibility of deciding and carrying out the appropriate punishment.
There are two important points to note her. The first is that that the powers of the parents are limited by God. Under ancient pagan customs there were no such limitations. For example in Ancient Rome the father had absolute power over his family to have an unborn child aborted or even to kill an unwanted infant. Under Biblical law in the case of a grown up and rebellious son, parents were not to take matters in their own hands, the community elders must had to be consulted and decide what was to be done.
The other point to note is that the law requires that parents align themselves with God’s law rather than with a criminal son. If parents refused to align with the law and shield a disobedient son instead then they were hindering justice rather that upholding it and become party to the offense.
In the New Testament the principle of children obeying their parents is reinforced, for example in Ephesians 6:1-4. However we find that the power of the sword has shifted from the leaders of the theocratic community which was Israel (a kind of combined church state if you like) to the state alone. In Romans 13 God vests the governing authorities with that power. Meanwhile the church holds the keys to the kingdom admitting believer into and releasing covenant despisers from the kingdom of God.
Further on in Exodus 21 there are laws relating to the 6th commandment, “thou shalt not kill” which point out the difference between murder and manslaughter. There are laws relating to a person’s responsibility to keep his neighbour safe from being gored by his bull. Again these are all applications or case studies in the moral law and when interpreted through the light of the New Testament are also of great value today.
They help us understand what living as a covenant believer is all about; that its not just about the floor and merely obeying the prohibition but it extends to the ceiling. The covenant keeper looks out for his neighbour’s property as well as his own. He keeps his dog behind the fence or on a chain. He cooperates with the governing authorities, treats his employees well, does his best for his employers not just the bare minimum. He doesn’t merely avoid profaning the name of God but does everything to make the glory of God’s name know.
3. So the civil law is part of the covenant, there is continuity and discontinuity, and in the third place it is within the covenant of grace. We are not saved by law keeping.
Since the fall into sin being right with God is not possible for anyone at all under the covenant of works. One cannot be right with God by flawed attempts at obedience. This is why an integral part of the covenant of grace is the sacrificial system which provided the Israelites with a way to maintain their covenant relationship with God even though they sinned. God graciously gave them the ability to provide animal sacrifices which could be used to atone for sin. He also provided mediators, priests and intercessors between God and his people.
The ceremonial laws foreshadowed the perfect, once and for all sacrifice of Christ as an acceptable offering for sin. Therefore the moral law has this other important use according to Galatians 3:24 which says “therefore the law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith;…. and further on for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ. This is evident in our text as well.
In Exodus 21:23 we find that the price of a slave was thirty shekels of silver which was exactly the amount Judas Iscariot was paid for betraying Christ. The Son of God was appraised as being equal in value to a slave That tells us how little the world values Christ but it also tells us how Christ was humiliated and bore the curse of our sin in every imaginable way. He was reduced to the status of a criminal slave. He truly did become sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God.
And yet Christ never sinned if we think about obedience as being that space between the floor and the ceiling, Christ filled it right up. Jesus obedience was perfect and therefore His sacrifice was enough to remove God’s wrath from us and reconcile us to Him.
So the civil law is a part of our covenant life, there continuity and discontinuity. It is part of the covenant of grace and therefore the motivation for our life as covenant children becomes gratitude. How might that look? Well suppose you were to study Exodus 22:21 which says, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Would we not have been strangers to the covenant community the church if not for the grace of God and the blood of Christ? Yes we were strangers according to Ephesians 2:12, without hope in the world but we have been drawn near by the blood of Christ. And so now we belong to the Lord and are holy, and that is a gift of God’s grace. Therefore the law and its applications and case law principles becomes a rule of gratitude for us, a law of love.
In that light we will appreciate even more the meaning of Jesus words that not a jot or a tittle of the law shall pass from the law until all is accomplished.
Circumstances and details differ according to age and custom, but the principles remain and as the Westminster Confession puts it, “Jesus Christ in the gospel does not only not dissolve the obligation in any way but he greatly strengthens it and graciously reveals to us the full blessing of living as covenant children.”