Exodus 20:22-26, Exodus 21:1-36, Isaiah 44:6, Matthew 22:36-40
I know every word of the Bible is inspired. I know it’s all useful for teaching and righteousness, but what is happening in this passage?! These rules don’t make any sense, and they make me mad. Did you read the one making provision for what to do if you hit your slave and knock her down? If she can get up after two days, it’s no problem, because she is your property?! (Exodus 21:21). Are you kidding me? I feel like I don’t even know where to start.
But I think that’s exactly how I can get a sense for the justice in these laws—they are a start, a beginning. In Exodus, God’s people had just escaped the unbearable cruelty of their Egyptian masters. So, for them, a start was to begin by treating each other with more justice and mercy than they had received at the hands of the Egyptians—to give an individual human life value.
In Egypt, they were beaten with no recourse and no accountability. Contrast this lawless and brutal reality with the orderliness of the laws in Exodus. Under these new laws, there were consequences for loss of life and destruction of property. And these laws introduced the basic “a life for a life” concept, which was the cornerstone of ancient justice.
It’s tempting for my personal sense of justice to be the primary lens through which I read these rules. But God is just and merciful, and abounding in loving kindness (Psalm 103:8). So while it’s hard for me to understand why these laws don’t fit my idea of perfect justice, it helps me to look at what Jesus said to His friends about the law.
When Jesus’ disciples tried to interpret the law—to distill all the rules into one basic idea—they asked Him, “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?” Jesus responded with this simple, beautiful, and uniting command, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands” (Matthew 22:36-40).
And, though these ancient civil laws of Israel may strike us as strange and even upsetting, we can see that the center of them was this: Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor.
But there’s more—because it’s totally unsatisfying to look at a passage like this and think, I don’t get it, but I’ll just accept it and ignore the difficulties. God isn’t afraid of our questions, our doubts, or even our objections. However, He is quite interested in transforming us. This means that we don’t get to brush this stuff away. Instead we are called to dig in, to seek to understand.
The beginning of this understanding, however, doesn’t come to us by leaning on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5). Rather, we approach the difficulties remembering what we know: God is holy, just, merciful, and He is love (1 John 4:8). Yes, He is more loving than we are, and His laws for ancient Israel come from that love. When we make gods of gold for ourselves—or even gods of our own intellect, opinion, and understanding—we miss the mark. The law and God’s grace both exist for the same reason: to save us and to teach us to love the Lord. Begin there.