Chasing Justice in Exodus

THE MISSING WORD

I was surprised to find the word “justice” only appears in one, short, often ignored section of the book of Exodus.

We all know at least some of the story of Exodus – Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to the promised land, the plagues, the Red Sea, etc… What few of us focus on are the chapters upon chapters of rules and rituals. The entire second half of the book, chapters 20 through 40, are almost entirely devoid of narrative. They are lists and rules and minutia of how the tent for worship should be arranged. And while we ignore these chapters because they are not fun, they are important because in them God is redefining his people.

Why then, if Abraham’s decedents are going to be known as people of righteousness and justice, are there almost no uses of the word “justice” when he and God are laying out what it means to be a people of righteousness and justice?

vexedIt vexes me.

I’m terribly vexed.

The only uses of the word can be found in Exodus come in chapter 23. Specifically, verses 2, 6, and 8.

You shall not bear a false report; do not join your hand with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not follow the masses in doing evil, nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after a multitude in order to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his dispute. If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying helpless under its load, you shall refrain fro leaving it to him, you shall surely release it with him. You shall not pervert the justice due to your needy bother in his dispute. Keep far from a false change and do not kill the innocent of the righteous, for I will not acquit the guilty. You shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of the just. You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt. 

Unfortunately, these few references assume the definition of justice is understood. Therefor, to grasp what is being said here about justice, we need to look at these verses in their full context – chapters 19 through 23 of Exodus.

Don’t worry, we aren’t going to work through those verse by verse. We’ll just hit the highlights.

SETTING THE SCENE

At the beginning of chapter 19 we find the Israelites right after escaping their Egyptian masters. They’ve traveled through the desert to formally pow-wow with God at Mount Sinai. Verses 4 and 5 lay out the reason for this pause in the journey to the Promised Land.

(The Lord said) “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be My own possession among the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

There are two things we should pause to note:

  1. All the rituals and rules that follow have been set out for this reason, the the Israelites would know how to live as God’s representatives in the world. These are not rituals and rules required for salvation. It is not – “Do these things and you will be saved.” It is “Do these things so you can be set apart from the world around you.”
  2. These commandments and the amendments that follow have historical context. They were given in a harsh and cruel world where life was not valued, death was routine, and inalienable human rights were yet to be invented. It is hard to put ourselves in this place, but to appreciate what we are going to read, we should try. To transfer the spirit of these words to our modern culture is good. To transfer a literal interpretation of these words, removing them from their context and forcing them into ours, is silly.

Louis CK

So the people get all dressed up and come to the mountain. God shows up in a cloud, and the instruction begins. First come the 10 commandments. The first half talk about how the people are to relate to God, and the second half give an overview of how people relate to people. (I might break these down in detail if I ever expand on this essay. For the sake of getting to chapter 23, I’m going to skip past them.)

There is a funny side note at the end of the presentation of the Big 10. Exodus takes the time to note that all the people perceived was thunder, lightening, the sound of trumpets, and the mountain smoking, which rightfully freaked them out. So Moses interprets for them.

After the Big 10 come the amendments. This is where I’d like to focus the rest of this essay.

AMENDMENTS TO THE BIG TEN

The first amendment after the Big 10 is a restating of how the people are to relate to God (Exodus 19:22-26).  The second set is where I believe the conversation about justice begins.

Before we jump into them, I’d like to you pause and ask yourself, “What would my amendments be to the 10 Commandments?” After our founding father’s penned the constitution, they immediately added a Bill of Rights. They added ten statements meant to protect the majority from the government that was just created (by majority I mean land owning white men – because no one cared if a black woman in slavery was able to freely speak her mind or own a gun). I think that is where most of us would go. After being given the Big 10, we would push back. Maybe a list of “Things that are allowed” or “From God we will receive.”

Or maybe we would simply expand on the list of the 10 rules to make them more understandable, more usable for everyday life. “In reference to rule seven – Don’t murder – we find that this is applicable under the following conditions…” Again, these explanations would focus on how the Big 10 apply to most of “us,” those in power who are making decisions.

The amendments in Exodus don’t start that way.

They aren’t push backs. Rather, they up the anti, ruling out loop holes those in power might look to exploit.

And they don’t expand on the rules to simplify everyday use. In fact, the following two chapters deal with specific circumstances.

STARTING WITH SLAVES

The first grouping of these amendments give rights to slaves. They explain how a slave should expect to be treated by a society living as God’s representatives. Again, these rules have historical context. They should not be taken as a commendation of slavery. Rather, they take the world  as it is and tell those living in it how they should stand apart. The first amendment, in fact, demands that slavery is temporary.

If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as free man without payment. – Exodus 21:2

Take that in for a minute. God hands down these ten rules that he wants to define his people. Ten things he believes will set his people apart from the rest of the world. Then after he hands them over, what is He most concerned about – those in slavery. He is most concerned with how the powerless and oppressed will be treated in this new society he is building.

MOVING FROM SLAVERY TO HITTING EACH OTHER AND TAKING EACH OTHERS THINGS

In verse 12, the amendments change direction. They stop talking about the rights of slaves, and start talking about what happens to one person when he/she hurts another. Here are a few examples:

“He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.” – Exodus 21:12

“He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” – Exodus 21:16

“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. And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.” – Exodus 21:26-27

As before, these verses do not condone hurting people. They assume that people will hit one another, and explain the consequence of violence against your neighbor.

After the hitting, God specifies what happens when you take your neighbors things. For example:

“If a man lets a field or vineyard be grazed bare and lets his animal loose so that it grazes in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best of his own field and the best of his own vineyard.” – Exodus 22:5

“If a man borrows anything from his neighbor, and it is injured or dies while its owner is not with it, he shall make full restitution. If its own is with it, he shall not make restitution.” – Exodus 22:14

As a father of five, I can testify that two things a parent says over and over are, “stop hitting him,” and “don’t take his toy.” I feel I can relate to (what I imagine is) God’s exasperated tone.

“Jethro, did your sheep eat all of Aaron’s grass?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Aaron, did you then punch Jethro?”

“Yes. I did. In the face.”

(Deep, exhausted sigh) “Aaron, you get Jethro’s sheep. Jethro, you get to punch Aaron in the nuts one time.”

That’s parenting.

SUNDRY LAWS – BUNDRY LAWS

The next set of amendments are often grouped together as “Sundry Laws,” which means “rules that don’t relate to each other but are all listed together.”

I think this is wrong. These rules continue the same theme as the slavery rules, the hitting rules, and the property rules before them.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, all these amendments are about power. They ensure that those without power – the slave, the poor, the weak – are protected from the those with power – the land owner, the rich, and the strong.

The following rules are the same. They are about power. Specifically they are about worship –  the giving of yourself to something else, making it your master.

  1. If a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged, and lies with her, he must pay a dowry for her to be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the dowry for virgins.
  2. You shall not allow a sorceress to live.
  3. Who ever lies with an animal shall surely be put to death.
  4. He who sacrifices to any god, other than to the Lord alone, shall be utterly destroyed.

All four rules are about maintaining your autonomy by not giving yourself to things you shouldn’t. These laws aren’t only for you, they are for the community, because when you enslave yourself to other things, you impact your neighbor.

BRINGING IT BACK TO THE START

Finally, God ends the amendments where he began them, with the protection of the powerless.

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” Exodus 22:21-24

Make note who God relates too. He is one the side of the powerless. The poor are his people. He is concerned with the rights of the slave. He demands a society defined by blood relationships cares for strangers. He is worried about those who have been abandon by their care giver, those in danger of drowning in the patriarchal sea – the orphan and the widow.

JUSTICE IN EXODUS

After coming full circle, we arrive at our verses that mention justice.

“You shall not follow the masses in doing evil, nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after a multitude in order to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his dispute.” Exodus 23: 2

 “You shall not pervert the justice due to your needy bother in his dispute.” Exodus 23:6

“You shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of the just.” Exodus 23:8 

All three are commands to not try and manipulate “justice.” They are warnings to those with power, those who have the ability to manipulate justice, to avoid the temptation. Again, they are statements intended to protect the weak.

We often remark that “Justice is blind.” In fact, our most recognizable image of justice is a blindfolded woman holding scales. In Exodus we find the root of that saying.

Biblical justice is intended to balance the scales so that those without power have the same rights and protections as those with power. Biblical justice is all about equality based on our common humanity. 

God lays out the Big Ten and then takes three chapters to say, “In this new society, where everyone is going to represent me, the poor, needy, and weak are important. They are not to be ignored by the majority. They are to be protected and cared for. Don’t hit them. Don’t take their stuff. Care for them when you see them. And if you don’t, know that they are mine and I will show up for them.”

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS

There has been a lot of discussion over the past several years around how to growing churches in America. We’ve debated the style of music that should be played, and the style of sermons that should be preached. We’ve fought over pews or chairs, building or schools, hymnals or screens. We’ve done everything we can to make the Sunday morning experience attractive to the outside world.

Maybe what we should have been doing instead is finding the most oppressed, poorest, weakest people in our community, wrapping our arms around them, and declaring to the world, “I am one of them.”

We must be the people who balance power so the weak are not ignored and trampled by the powerful. According to Exodus, that’s what it means to “do justice.”

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2 thoughts on “Chasing Justice in Exodus

  1. I think a lot of this requires a massive culture change in the middle-class American church. For example, this week’s Sunday school lesson at my church (using a major publisher’s book), was on John 14. In reference to 14:6, it mentioned that many people try to soften Jesus’ words about salvation–“but also about sexuality, morality, ethics, and integrity.”

    Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that John 14:6 was initially directed at the 11 disciples–who were about to commit the even graver sin of denying Christ, and who nevertheless were an incredibly important part of God’s plan. The listed sins are ones that middle-class Americans often use to stereotype the poor–who can’t afford to get married (at least in a middle class church wedding with all the trimmings), or who frequently don’t have good fathers on whom to model their behavior, who may engage in petty theft or take advantage of social programs for the poor (since accepting government benefits is for some reason less moral than accepting a tax deduction). But this list ignore other sins like racism, injustice, pride, greed, gluttony (which means both overindulging per se and also taking so much that there’s not enough left for others), selfishness, and other sins of the American middle-class.

    I don’t think the writer was even conscious of his own biases when he wrote the lesson; it’s just an ingrained part of American church culture–which will not be an easy thing to fix. But blogs like this one suggest that there is a growing countercultural movement in the American church (which doubtless has its own warts), and that makes me excited.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. And I meant to add, that the listed sins are all sins of the individual. Other sins, like racism and structural injustices, are sins of the community. While there can be problems with excessive communitarianism as well, the US–both the nation and the church–suffers from excessive individualism, and this makes it hard for our church members to understand the ‘kingdom of God’ community that Jesus sought to create, or to see it as a problem when people are actively or passively excluded from that community.

    Liked by 1 person

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