Opening Prayer: Almighty God, we thank you for your covenant with us. We thank you that you have brought us near by the blood of Jesus, and that his faith and obedience have become our faith and obedience. We ask therefore that you would renew that covenant with us now, give us your judgments that we might be your faithful sons. Through Jesus, your faithful Son, Amen!
We now continue our study of the book of Exodus after our study of the Ten Commandments. Ex. 21:1 through 23:19 (or 33) begins the “judgments” of God following the “words” of God (Ex. 20:1, cf. 24:3). This Book of the Covenant (24:7) is Moses’ initial sermon on the Ten Words. Since we have looked at some of these details previously in our study, we will focus on several broad principles established here.
An Altar of Earth
Immediately preceding the Book of the Covenant, Yahweh instructs Moses concerning the altar that he may be worshipped at (20:22-24). It must not be made of carved stones; it must be made of unhewn stones or raw earth. The altar must be a picture of the Mt. Sinai, and its significance is based upon God’s promised blessing not the work of man’s hands. Yahweh also prohibits exposing of nakedness on his altar (20:26). It is important to remember that the Garden of Eden was itself also on a mountain (Ez. 28:13-14), and it was there that the shame of nakedness was first exposed. Later, the priests are given coverings just as Adam and Eve were (Ex. 28:42, Gen. 3:21). But this introduction to the Book of the Covenant sets the thematic tone for the “judgments” that are set before Israel.
The instructions for building the altar include the prohibition against making gods of sliver and gold, and this is at least in part because God has spoken directly to them from heaven (20:22-23). The word “elohim” is a common designation for God/gods through the Old Testament, but it is used several times in the Book of the Covenant to describe the judges (Ex. 21:6, 22:8, 9, 22:28(?)). This should not seem that strange since people are made in the image and likeness of God. This goes back to the garden where the serpent said that Eve would become “like God” if she ate from the fruit (Gen. 3:5) and apparently this was true (Gen. 3:22). The early chapters following the Fall trace the story of the “sons of God” (Gen. 5:1-3ff, 6:2), and Israel is explicitly called the “son of God” (Ex. 4:22). Likewise, Psalm 82 refers to judges and rulers as “gods” (Ps. 82:1-8, cf. Ps. 58:1-3). Therefore, God making covenant with Israel is bringing them back into an Eden-like relationship with him. He speaks to his people on the mountain as he did in Eden, and gives them tasks to guard and keep.
The judgments begin with instructions concerning slaves and giving freedom and then work from the most serious crimes against other humans (premeditated murder – 21:12) to less serious crimes (accidental property damage – 22:17). The word “judgment” is used three other times in the Book of the Covenant (21:9, 21:31, 23:6). These “judgments” are not merely more rules or laws; they are descriptions of how people are to be protected and delivered. In the garden, Adam and Eve were required to guard the garden, in Israel, God is required to guard their neighbors, families, and friends. God is teaching his son, Israel, how to distinguish between good and evil. This is what God began in the Exodus (Ex. 6:6, 7:4, 12:12), and now he is teaching his Son, Israel, how to do it too. Adam and Eve had seized this knowledge and lost it, but now in the kindness of God, it is being given to the new Adam, the new rulers, the new gods. God is renewing his image in his people; he is making them like him, teaching them to deliver the oppressed, protect the defenseless, and execute justice.
Conclusions & Applications
The primary sin of Adam and Eve was refusing to trust God and being impatient for God’s blessing. God’s plan was always to make Adam and Eve more and more like himself, but they seized for this likeness and lost it. Like Adam and Eve, you are called to patient faithfulness in the tasks in front of you, trust that God will bless you with greater glory in his good timing.
In Christ, the covenant has grown up to maturity. These “judgments” have become flesh and blood in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the final Word and the last Judgment of God who came to set captives free, proclaim liberty to the oppressed, and to defend those in distress. Of course Jesus is the natural Son of God, but because we have been given his Spirit, we are also sons who call God ‘Father.’ This means that you are called upon to be gods, images of the true and living God. What kind of gods are you? Are your judgments acts of deliverance? Or have you erected false gods of gold and silver, lifeless and impersonal images to substitute for real love and protection? The great danger of false gods is the curse of becoming like them. You can tell if you are worshipping the state if you are just as ineffective.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!
Closing Prayer: Gracious Father, we thank you that you have adopted us into your family, that you have made all of us sons in your Son. We thank you that you are transforming us more and more into the image of your Son. Give us wisdom that we might issue judgments to truly defend the orphans and widows, deliver the strangers and the oppressed, and set free the captives and slaves of every sort in our community.