Part One of this article covered the the different types of laws:
(1) Principles governing how we should love the Eternal and our neighbor—as binding upon us now as when they were given.
(2) National laws and punishments for disobedience—many can be used in our congregations and families, will be used on a national basis in the millennium.
(3) Ceremonial laws—most without a direct application today, but symbolically instructional.
Part One also covered the five principles of good law found throughout the scriptures: 1) Punishments must be stiff enough that offenders do not repeat the crime, yet not so harsh that they destroy them as useful citizens. 2) Persons offended must receive a just restitution. 3) Laws must make it difficult to obtain restitution falsely. 4) Laws must be designed to greatly reduce the chance of wrongful punishment—especially the death penalty. 5) Laws must not produce a harmful or negative effect on society.
We covered the laws found in Exodus 21. We will continue our study with Exodus 22.
If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall restore five oxen for an ox and four sheep for a sheep... If the theft is certainly found alive in his hand, whether it is an ox or donkey or sheep, he shall restore double (Ex 22:1, 4).
While this scripture is about animals, it certainly applies to all types of property. There are two obvious lessons here that we must not overlook: 1) Property is privately owned; animals and things are assumed to have owners. 2) The penalty for theft of property is not a jail sentence or a fine paid to the state, but restitution to the owner.
Why the different amounts of restoration: 5, 4 or 2 times the value? There is a very good reason! If the thief is selling what he steals, he is making theft a business—he is getting rid of the evidence in order not to be caught. He did not take an ox or a plow or an ax because he needed one, he took it because he wanted to get money. There is a fivefold restoration for stealing the animals or tools that a person needs to do his regular work. An ox was a trained animal that was used for pulling wagons, plowing, etc. A sheep did not do daily work, but was used for wool once a year, or eaten (once in its lifetime).
If the person steals something and keeps it, it is not usually done out of lust, weakness or maybe even by mistake. (A person that has stolen dozens of things and kept them all would eventually be identified by one of the rightful owners.) If a person needs an ax and steals one from his neighbor’s shed because the neighbor has four axes and might not miss one, he should still restore double, but not four or five times.
Also, a person may sometimes make an honest mistake and take his neighbors animals or tools thinking they are his own. If the offended person recognizes the mistake, he may decline the need for double restitution. On the other hand, if a theft victim cannot understand why his neighbor has kept four of his sheep with his brand in his pasture for three weeks without noticing it, then he is entitled to double restitution. The person with the extra sheep should be more “diligent to know the state of your flocks” (Prov 27:23).
Nevertheless, the penalty for someone that “accidentally” acquires another’s property or “borrows it without asking” is only a two-fold restoration, not four or five.
One other scripture that applies to this subject: “People do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy himself when he is starving. Yet when he is found, he must restore sevenfold; he may have to give up all the substance of his house” (Prov 6:30-31). Why this highest of all restorations for a crime that men do not despise? Because he could have had food without committing the crime: “If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs” (Deut 15:7-8). A man should not steal what he is allowed to ask for.
If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed. If the sun has risen on him, there shall be guilt for his bloodshed... (Ex 22:2-3).
There have been numerous cases where thieves have broken into houses and were injured or killed by the owners. Months of trials and thousands of pages of testimony have been generated as a result. Some thieves have collected big awards because of injuries they received. Did the thief threaten the owner? Did the owner have sufficient cause to believe his life was in danger? Could the owner have fled? Did the owner use more force than necessary?
The Bible makes the issue very simple. As a person who decides to fight an angry bull takes the risk of being killed, so does a person who breaks into a house. A person at home does not need to be a law professor to know what to do when someone breaks in. He may defend himself by any available means. Accidental deaths are extremely rare when everyone knows this simple law. Just as children (and adults) must learn not to play at the edge of cliffs or at the feet of large animals, so must they learn not to enter another’s house uninvited and unannounced.
...He should make full restitution; if he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft (Ex 22:3).
This law would revolutionize our criminal justice system. Today, many thefts are committed by minors—they are rarely required to make restitution and are usually put back on the street in a few weeks. White collar criminals often hide their booty in trusts or secret accounts—they rarely make restitution and serve short sentences. If either of these two groups knew that they would have to work hard for six years (no plea bargaining or reduced sentences) if they could not make a four-fold restitution, they would think again before stealing. In Part One, we explained how it is better for people to remain in society and become servants for a maximum of six years than it is for them to go to a prison and learn to be an expert criminal.
If a man causes a field or vineyard to be grazed, and lets loose his animal, and it feeds in another man's field, he shall make restitution from the best of his own field and the best of his own vineyard. If fire breaks out and catches in thorns, so that stacked grain, standing grain, or the field is consumed, he who kindled the fire shall surely make restitution (Ex 22:5-6).
People are responsible for the damage they cause as well as the damage caused by their animals or other property. A person who improperly parks his car or docks his boat is responsible if it strays into another’s property and damages it. In these damage cases (not thefts), the victim is compensated equally or better, but certainly not double. Why? The person responsible for the trouble is punished enough: they must make restitution and receive nothing in return. On the other hand, if a person received double when the neighbor’s cow ate his crops, he might be tempted to secretly leave gates open and encourage the neighbor’s cow to eat his crops!
If a man delivers to his neighbor money or articles to keep, and it is stolen out of the man's house, if the thief is found, he shall pay double. If the thief is not found, then the master of the house shall be brought to the judges to see whether he has put his hand into his neighbor's goods. For any kind of trespass, whether it concerns an ox, a donkey, a sheep, or clothing, or for any kind of lost thing which another claims to be his, the cause of both parties shall come before the judges; and whomever the judges condemn shall pay double to his neighbor (Ex 22:7-9).
There are always situations like this one: Tom agrees to let Mike borrow his chain saw and Mike lets Tom borrow his portable TV. The engine on the chain saw blows out in a few days and Tom tells Mike “not to worry about it”—he knew it was worn out. A few months later, Mike sells the blade of the chain-saw to a friend and throws the rest away. Six months go by and Mike asks for his portable TV back. Tom says he left it on the back porch so Mike could pick it up a couple of months ago, but cannot remember exactly when it disappeared. Mike remembers no such arrangement. But Tom wants his chain saw back, or at least some kind of compensation for it—he told Mike, “don’t worry about it,” but he did not give it to him.
This is a case where judges are necessary: people cannot agree on the facts and/or the meaning of the facts. The judges will ask questions. They may talk to witnesses. They will attempt to determine if someone is lying—if his or her story does not fit all of the known facts. Why the double restoration? To encourage people to be truthful in their dealings with their neighbors and avoid the judges if possible. For example, supposing Tom had accidentally left the TV at a beach party and never gave it back to Mike. If he is honest and confesses to him, then he owes him one TV. But if he lies or conveniently forgets what really happened and goes to the judges and tries to get out of payment, then, if found out, he will have to restore two TVs.
If a man delivers to his neighbor a donkey, an ox, a sheep, or any animal to keep, and it dies, is hurt, or driven away, no one seeing it, then an oath of the LORD shall be between them both, that he has not put his hand into his neighbor's goods; and the owner of it shall accept that, and he shall not make it good. But if, in fact, it is stolen from him, he shall make restitution to the owner of it. If it is torn to pieces by a beast, then he shall bring it as evidence, and he shall not make good what was torn (Ex 22:10-13).
These verses cover situations where the judges cannot determine exactly what happened. It is important to note that this situation regards articles that a man gives to his neighbor to keep, not that his neighbor asks to borrow from him (those situations are covered in the next section).
If there is determination of fault, the owner of the lost goods must accept the oath of the other. If it can be proven that the missing goods were stolen, but the thief is not caught, the man who kept them must make restitution, though not double. Why? Someone must bear the loss, and it makes the most sense to assign it to the person most capable of preventing the theft.
Also, this law nearly eliminates “inside-job” thefts. It the person keeping the goods is responsible for making restitution for anything stolen, he has no motivation to steal them himself or let a friend steal them: If he is not caught: he must restore them, if he is caught, he must restore at least double. Would the owner then be tempted to steal his own goods from his neighbor’s house in order to both keep them and have a like restitution? If he is not caught, he will double the value of his goods. If he is caught, he will have to restore at least four-fold, and he might be killed during the break-in.
And if a man borrows anything from his neighbor, and it becomes injured or dies, the owner of it not being with it, he shall surely make it good. If its owner was with it, he shall not make it good; if it was hired, it came for its hire (Ex 22:14-15).
If everyone knew and practiced this principle, it would save thousands of fights and court cases every day. We may derive the following principles:
1) If you borrow something, you must be prepared to fix or replace it if it breaks.
2) Do not borrow something that you do not know how to use and might break.
3) Do not borrow something that is in poor repair and likely to have a major breakdown.
4) If you desperately need to borrow something (such as a car or truck in our day), but one or more of the above three rules are telling you not to do it, ask the owner to come with you to help you use it.
5) If you are lending something, make sure the borrower understands the possible costs of repairing or replacing the item.
6) If the owner stays with the borrower to use the item, the owner must keep a careful watch and make sure it is used correctly.
7) If you rent things out for a price, your customers are not automatically responsible to fix whatever goes wrong. Either be prepared to take responsibility for all problems, or write out each party’s responsibilities before the transaction takes place.
The Eternal does command us to lend to our brothers and help them when they need it. It is always good to discuss and remind our brother of these righteous principles before we lend to them.
If a man entices a virgin who is not betrothed, and lies with her, he shall surely pay the bride-price for her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money according to the bride-price of virgins (Ex 22:16-17).
Deuteronomy 22:29 adds: “he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days.” Many people in Western societies would find this completely unacceptable: Just because a couple gets excited and has a sexual experience, should they be required to stay married for the rest of their life? Would not that be a disaster for parents as well as any children? Why should the man pay money? Why should the woman’s father be allowed to decide whether the marriage takes place?
Before we answer these questions, we must look at how poorly the methods of our Western societies are working. While birth-control methods abound, the tens of millions of unplanned conceptions attest to the fact that they are not always used or effective. Millions of these children are killed before birth. Millions more are raised by only one parent. Far too many are raised by people that are neither financially or emotionally ready to take care of them.
Our societies make little effort to teach people that they are responsible for their sexual behavior and the little lives that they might create. Billions of dollars are spent trying to reduce the effects of this irresponsible behavior. The standard government solution to the problem is spending billions more on similar programs: sex education, welfare and day-care for single mothers, institutions for unwanted children, venereal disease research, free medical care, and other programs that encourage more sex, irresponsibility and unwanted babies. Even if these programs miraculously became 90% effective, would it be acceptable to still have hundreds of thousands of aborted and unwanted children each year?
Let us compare the Eternal’s system with the present-day approach.
Today, sex among unmarried people is socially acceptable. In the heat of passion, babies, diseases and birth control are too often forgotten—until one of the “lovers” finds themselves with a baby or a disease—or both. The Eternal wants happiness for the parents and the children to be born. He commanded us to marry before we do anything that might bring a child into the world. If an unplanned child is conceived within a marriage, it may be a financial hardship for the family, but at least the child will have a caring father and mother—an irreplaceable blessing.
The “bride price” mentioned here assured that the groom was capable of earning money before he married, and it compensated the parents of a daughter—a son would inherit their land and take care of them when they are older, but a daughter would live on her husband’s land and would not be responsible for helping her aged parents.
Now look at the Eternal’s law from the perspective of a man thinking about enticing a woman. If he just wants a good time now, the woman could tell her father about him later and he could be stuck with her for the rest of his life—a fearful thought. On the other hand, if he thinks he does love her and wants to marry her, the woman’s father could always say no. He would still have to pay the bride-price, he would have a bad name, and he would not have a wife. If he does not have the bride-price, he could become a servant. It would seem much better to wait and to ask to marry the woman, rather than entice her.
The situation is equally bad from the woman’s perspective. If she just wants a fun time now, her father may demand that she settle down and marry the man. Yet if she is trying to “catch” the husband of her dreams, he could be denied to her. In any case, if she loses her virginity, she has greatly decreased the chances of her marrying at all. The problem will stay with her whether anyone finds out about the affair or not.
If the Eternal’s law were practiced, sex outside of marriage would be understood to be the disastrous practice that it really is.
You shall not permit a sorceress to live. Whoever lies with an animal shall surely be put to death. He who sacrifices to any god, except to the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed (Ex 22:18-20).
Most of these laws are self-explanatory. All of them deal with people that are perverted and practicing things harmful to others around them. Several kings of Israel led their people into destruction because they listened to sorceresses or others influenced by demons. Modern research has shown that AIDS and other diseases are a direct result of bestiality.
It is important to realize that the death penalty was only carried out at the testimony of two or three witnesses that had seen the crime (Deut 17:6).
You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child. If you afflict them in any way, and they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry; and My wrath will become hot, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless (Ex 22:22-24).
The society described in the Bible is certainly one based on families with their own home and land and a father leading the way. These verses are a warning to those that would take advantage of people that are less fortunate. Also, it is a promise to hear the oppressed if “they cry at all to Me” The Eternal does not require righteousness, obedience, or any other specific conditions; the afflicted person need only cry to Him for deliverance. People that are afflicted should take the Eternal at His word on this.
If you lend money to any of My people who are poor among you, you shall not be like a moneylender to him; you shall not charge him interest (Ex 22:25).
Interest should never be charged to someone that borrows money because he is poor or in need. However, a person that has money to invest, can certainly lend it at interest to someone that will use it. (Matt 25:27). This principle is greatly violated in our society in that banks, credit card companies, and other lenders often try to induce poor and less-educated people to buy more than they can afford on credit, and then they charge them very high interest rates for years to come.
If you ever take your neighbor's garment as a pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down. For that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin. What will he sleep in? And it will be that when he cries to Me, I will hear, for I am gracious (Ex 22:26-27).
Another caution to those that would oppress others, and a promise to those that are oppressed.
You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people (Ex 22:28).
It is easy to forget and vainly use the Eternal’s name. Also, even though the Eternal never designated a person as coming between a man and his God, He does expect us to speak truthfully, and if possible, positively about our leaders.
You shall not delay to offer the first of your ripe produce and your juices. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to Me (Ex 22:29).
Again, these are things that are easy to forget. The beginning of Deuteronomy 26 contains instructions for offering the firstfruits. The latter part of this verse has nothing to do with sacrificing humans, but refers to the instructions in Exodus 13:2,11-13. The human firstborn were never sacrificed, but were redeemed.
Likewise you shall do with your oxen and your sheep. It shall be with its mother seven days; on the eighth day you shall give it to Me (Ex 22:30).
These same instructions for allowing animals to be with their mothers for their first seven days are repeated in Lev 22:27. While no direct explanation is given for this action in the scriptures, it is probably similar to the circumcising of new-born male humans on the eighth day: it provides both a physical health benefit and teaches a spiritual lesson. What do the seven days represent? Probably the Eternal’s “seven thousand year plan.” Just as a new-born cannot be accepted by God until after the seventh day, so we cannot really be with God in the New Heavens and the New Earth until the first seven thousand years are up.
And you shall be holy men to Me: you shall not eat meat torn by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs (Ex 22:31).
Like the previous verse, a physical principle of avoiding meat that is likely to be spoiled or carrying disease, and a spiritual principle of staying away from that which is unclean.
These first two parts have covered Exodus 21 and 22. Many more interesting chapters of practical, divinely-inspired law remain.
—Norman S. Edwards