Last week we framed this covenant renewal scene as God’s aim to clothe His son, Israel, in His glory. The wind and words of Sinai were ultimately accomplished at Pentecost, through the Spirit of Jesus, undoing all guilt and shame. The initial commands regarding worship are an invitation into this glory. We continue into the “judgments” today.
We already considered the introductory directions concerning worship (20:18-26). But the judgments themselves begin with instructions for the care of male and female servants (21:1-11). This may seem random, but it fits with the historical context, as Israel has just been redeemed from slavery. But the law of love of God and neighbor is also illustrated here: you can’t say you love God if you don’t love your neighbor, and this particularly includes the most vulnerable neighbors around you (servants, women, elderly). The judgments begin here and then proceed from the most severe abuse of neighbor (murder) (21:12) to the less severe crimes (accidental damage of goods) (22:15). We should note that these commands are connected to the introductory instructions of worship since all of life is before the “altar” of God (21:14). While penalties are provided for the most severe crimes (22:14, 16, 17, etc.), the principle is stated at the end of the section covering direct physical harm: eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth (21:24-25). Some acts of scorn amount to murder, such as cursing or striking one of your parents (21:15, 17), and this is consistent with Jesus’ teaching that hatred and cursing is a form of murder (Mt. 5:21-22). Likewise, kidnapping amounts to taking life (21:16). The Bible considers animals and property to be extensions of their owners, and this is the basis for restitution. Owners are liable for the actions of their animals (21:28-32, 35-36) or anything else under their control that may cause physical harm (21:33-34). Likewise, stealing and property damage are considered lesser but still real attacks on a neighbor, and justice requires restoration and healing (22:1-17).
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 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 requires them 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. 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.
Micah famously says that God requires that His people do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God (Mic. 6:8). This is a summary of the restoration of the image of God in man, and Paul says that this glory is being restored through the announcing of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as we all behold with open face as in a glass the glory of the Lord, being changed into the same image, from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18). And this glory is for doing the justice of God (2 Cor. 5:21).