Last updated: January 24, 2011
Biblical translations are from the ESV
19:1 On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai.
God’s promise that Israel would worship at the mountain (3:12) is about to be fulfilled. The arrival at Sinai is the culmination of the preceding chapters of Exodus.
19:2 They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, 3 while Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: 4 You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.
The image of “eagles’ wings” is often interpreted as the divine care of the Israelites in the wilderness journey, over against the destruction of the Egyptians in Egypt. But the image may be intended to relate the two events. Already in early Mesopotamian art the eagle is contrasted to the serpent, likely representing the conflict between good and evil and the power of the eagle to destroy. The destructive power of the eagle is also evident in the Hebrew Bible where the bird is associated with war (Deut 28:49; Jer 48:40; 49:22; Hos 8:1; Lam 4:19). The eagle is wild (Lev 11:13; Deut 14:12) and fierce, swooping down from heaven on its prey (Job 9:26; 39:27). When this image is applied to war, the point of emphasis is the swiftness with which destruction comes (Jer 4:13; Hab 1:8; Obad 4). But as is evident in Exod 19:4, the speed of the eagle and the strength of its wings are also metaphors for swift rescue (2 Sam 1:23; Isa 40:31; Deut 32:31). Both images may be present in Exod 19:4.1
19:5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”
Priests stand between God and humans to help bring the humans closer to God and to help dispense God’s truth, justice, favor, discipline, and holiness to humans. Israel was called to such a function. How? The answer is not spelled out in the present context, but it surely was to take place in four ways: (1) Israel would be an example to the people of other nations, who would see its holy beliefs and actions and be impressed enough to want to know personally the same God the Israelites knew. (2) Israel would proclaim the truth of God and invite people from other nations to accept him in faith as shown by confession of belief in him and acceptance of his covenant, as Jethro had already done. (3) Israel would intercede for the rest of the world by offering acceptable offerings to God (both sacrifices and right behavior) and thus ameliorate the general distance between God and humankind. (4) Israel would keep the promises of God, preserving his word already spoken and recording his word as it was revealed to them so that once the fullness of time had come, anyone in the whole world could promptly benefit from that great body of divinely revealed truth, that is, the Scriptures.2
19:7 So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the LORD had commanded him. 8 All the people answered together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the LORD.
The conditions of the covenant are reported by Moses to the elders and transmitted to the people. Then all the people answered as with one voice: ‘All that Yahweh has spoken we will do.’ This, of course, is a similar response to that given by the people in 24.3, 7, and herein lies the problem. How can the people agree to accept as the grounds of the covenant ‘all that Yahweh has spoken’, when God’s will has not yet been revealed to them? This observation lies at the basis of interpretation which would identify the covenant invitation of ch. 19 with the reading of the law and the sealing of the covenant in ch. 24. But in spite of the form common to both, the larger context of 19.8 in its present position provides a different nuance to the people’s reply. A covenant has been offered; the people respond with enthusiastic acceptance, but the whole section only anticipates what is to follow. Israel will shortly learn what God’s will is to which she has committed herself. In a real sense, the rest of chs. 19 and 20 unfold the full implications of the covenant and the nature of the covenant God, thereby casting the people’s eager response in a new light. From the perspective of the whole passage Israel has not sealed the covenant, but rather only begun her period of preparation.3
19:9a And the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.”
The authority of Moses was introduced in his commission (4:1-9). Moses feared that the people would not believe (aman) in him and thus not listen to his voice (qol; 4:1). Indeed, his authority has waxed and waned during the changing circumstances of the Israelites in the land of Egypt and in the wilderness journey. The initial belief of the people in Moses as the representative of Yahweh (4:31) faded immediately upon the first signs of resistance from Pharaoh (chap. 5). Again the faith of the people in Moses at the Red Sea (14:31) turned quickly to murmuring in the wilderness journey at the first sign of crisis (15:22-26). But now God states that the divine voice in theophany will so terrify the people that they will elect Moses to mediate all future divine speech, permanently intermingling the voices of God and Moses. The result is that they will believe in him forever (see 20:18-20). T. W. Mann describes this development as the exaltation of Moses on analogy to the exaltation of kings through victory in war within the Assyrian literature. But the merging of divine speech and Mosaic teaching appears rather to lay the groundwork for a theology of law as authored by Moses yet representing the voice of God. It is the central role of law in the religious life of the Israelite people that will ensure their permanent belief in Moses. J. Neusner encapsulates the eternal status of Mosaic authority in the law in the following way: “God revealed the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai. Authority rests upon God’s will and word to Moses.”4
19:9b When Moses told the words of the people to the LORD, 10 the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments 11 and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.
Consecration means “making holy,” which means “making acceptable to be close to God.” The consecration demanded of the Israelites in this instance involved becoming spiritually ready to get close to God (thus the two days of preparation indicated in the words “be ready by the third day”) as well as eliminating that which was objectionable to God (thus the washing) and avoiding things that could distract from attention on God (thus the avoidance of sex required in v. 15). Does this verse, when coupled with v. 15, imply that getting dirty is evil or that having sex is evil? Not at all. Rather, it asserts that there are special occasions of prayerful preparation and worshipful activity that call for avoidance of the usual, nonsinful personal indulgences and demand special, focused, self-denying attention to God. The common denominator is prayer: close focus upon God requires both time in prayer (three days in all, two of preparation and one of encounter) and an attitude of special attention to God (coming as clean and well dressed as one would in the case of appearing before anyone he or she wanted to honor) as well as a denial of things that focus on the self so that one can focus on God (v. 15, avoiding sex, which is intrinsically private and personal and not something properly done in connection with encounters with others outside of the marriage pair).5
19:12 And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. 13 No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.”
Elaborate capital punishment rules kept the people from touching the mountain and even from touching anyone who ended up put to death for touching the mountain. Why? The answer is that God desired in this way to teach his people the seriousness of dealing with him. The mountain was his mountain, belonging to him, and thus was holy. Although people specially prepared and consecrated to encounter God may approach him more closely than would otherwise be the case, no human in this world can get as close to him as any person in heaven can. He has chosen to restrict his presence, manifesting it to a degree but not fully. One way to teach this to the Israelites so they would not foolishly think he was a human-conceived god like an idol – who could be handled or kissed or otherwise manipulated physically or approached casually – was to restrict access even to the mountain that God would touch in his theophany and to the “contagion” of touching anyone who had in fact touched the mountain. If a king required approaching with the greatest care, should not the King of Kings be honored even more carefully and respectfully? The boundary markers (“limits”) placed around the base of the mountain served to prevent people in their daily course of grazing flocks and gathering manna and the like from straying thoughtlessly onto the actual edge (“foot”) of the mountain.
Shooting to death (by arrows) or stoning to death served as penalties for trespass beyond the boundary markers. The latter was much more common than the former in ancient Israel. Either penalty method kept those administering justice from even so much as touching the persons who had violated the command to stay back from the mountain; they could be put to death without contaminating those who had the responsibility to impose the penalty. An exception allowed for special invitation from God to his people to “go up to the mountain,” meaning at and around its base but not further up the mountain, as a symbol of being allowed closer proximity to his holiness as he accepted his people into covenant with him and made them a more holy people. This was to be announced on the third day (19:16) by a sound like that of a horn (“ram’s horn”), a divine signal not made by human lips on an actual horn/trumpet but made from the top of the mountain by God (19:16-19).6
19:14 So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people; and they washed their garments. 15 And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.”
19:16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. 19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. 20 The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.
19:21 And the LORD said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the LORD to look and many of them perish.
The testy exchange between Moses and Yahweh over restricting access to the mountain is somewhat peculiar. It seems that Yahweh wants to resume his tete-a-tete with Moses atop the mountain, instead of shouting down commands. So he summons Moses up (v 20) – but then gives him a renewed admonition not to transgress the mountain’s sanctity (vv 21-22). Apparently, when the horn calls of v 16 summoned Israel to the mountain’s lower area (v 17), there was a danger that the people would misunderstand their warrant to ascend as unlimited (v 13). Moses must descend once more to make it clear that they may not climb to the top.
His stamina seemingly overtaxed, Moses rejoins that this has already been taken care of. No one is likely to break through. Yahweh then makes an additional demand: Aaron must accompany Moses up the mountain. Apparently Moses must personally escort him across the barrier, making it clear that hoi polloi are still absolutely excluded.
Other explanations are possible. Perhaps Yahweh’s main motive in dispatching Moses back down is so Moses can interpret the Decalog to the people. Also, by returning to the camp, Moses is spared the ear-shattering experience of Yahweh’s descent. That is, God may be protecting Moses.
Finally, the Rabbinic commentators are want to compare God’s interactions with Moses to a king and his courtier. In this vein, one is tempted to see Yahweh testing Moses’ obedience simply by giving him a redundant command. The perfect courtier silently complies. The imperfect courtier demeans his sovereign by crassly pointing out his error. Perhaps this vignette shows Yahweh putting Moses in his place.7
Brevard Childs adds:
The point of the preparation emerges from the repetition of the phrases ‘Warn . . . lest they break through’ (v. 21, 24), and lest he ‘break through upon them’ (vv. 22, 24). The issue at stake is not whether God is a stuffy monarch, who does not think enough honor has been shown him. This picture is a total misunderstanding. Rather, the warning is given for the sake of the people, who have no experience as yet of the dimensions of divine holiness, and lest warned will destroy themselves. Moses argues by citing the earlier command. But God overrules his mediator and insists on a further warning. Not even the priests who normally have access into God’s presence are permitted to approach (cf. 24.1ff.). Only after the command has been executed is the period of preparation over.8
19:22 Also let the priests who come near to the LORD consecrate themselves, lest the LORD break out against them.”
According to Exodus 28 and 29, the priesthood was not established in Israel until after the Sinaitic revelation, which would make the present reference to priests, like that in verse 24, an anachronism. Many modern scholars regard these verses as reflecting a different strand of tradition about the origins of the priestly institution. Jewish commentators understood “priests” here as referring to first-born males, in that the latter functioned as priests until they were replaced by the Aaronides, as recounted in Numbers 3:11-13 and 8:16-18.9
19:23 And Moses said to the LORD, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.’” 24 And the LORD said to him, “Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the LORD, lest he break out against them.”
It is somewhat unclear who is and who is not to ascend the mountain in verse 24, though the ESV provides the most natural reading. The problem is that verse 22 says the priests are to approach God and 24:1 says Aaron and the elders ascend the mountain. Whatever specifics the author had in mind, most of the people are warned once again not to ascend the mountain.10
19:25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.
It is not clear what Moses told the people in this verse. Did he report God’s commands from verses 21-24 or did he speak the Ten Commandments of chapter 20? Exodus 20:22 implies that he spoke the words of verses 21-24 and that God spoke the Ten Commandments directly to the Israelites.
20:1 And God spoke all these words, saying,
20:2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
In exchange for the exodus, God demands allegiance and obedience from the Israelites. The Hebrew behind the phrase “your God” indicates that the Ten Commandments are spoken to each Israelite individually.11
20:3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
This first commandment presents a translation challenge. Does the Hebrew al-panim mean “before me” or “other than me?” The difference is not insignificant because the former translation might suggest that the commandment calls only for Yahweh to be Israel’s supreme God, and thus it is not a prohibition of polytheism but rather a hierarchicalizing of it, whereas the latter demands a monotheistic religion. Hebrew al-panim (the form of the expression without the first-person singular pronoun) means lit., “at/to/before the face” and usually has the connotation of “against” or some derived sense therefrom. But does it have any special idiomatic meaning that can be discerned?
The evidence is not unambiguous. The basic compound preposition as it typically occurs (al-pene with a noun or pronoun functioning as the nomen rectum of the construct formation in which it is included) is found in Moses’ writings. In Gen 49:30 it has the meaning “near [against] Mamre” in the sense of “next to [Mamre].” It occurs once again in Exod 20:20, where it means, construed with the second-person plural pronoun, “against you” or even “in your face,” referring to the fear of God being taken personally and seriously. In Lev 9:24; Num 14:5; 16:22, 45; 20:6 its literal meaning seems to be clearly in view in the wording “[the people] fell facedown.” Deuteronomy 5:7 preserves the wording of the present verse in introducing the Ten Words/Commandments in their Deuteronomy context, whereas Deut 11:4 uses the expression with a third-person plural pronoun, “[He made the water of the Red Sea flow] against them” (NRSV “over them”; NIV “he overwhelmed them with the waters of the Red Sea”).
Outside of the Pentateuch, al-panim with a pronominal suffix usually means “against [me/you/them]” as in Isa 65:3; Jer 6:7; Nah 2:1, although various derived meanings such as “in my presence,” can arguably be substituted. The LXX, Syriac, and the Targums translated the expression in Exod 20:3 with the equivalent of “in addition to me,” in other words, as if the meaning from their point of view were that of exclusivity rather than hierarchy. We suggest that the balance of the linguistic evidence favors the judgment of these ancient translators, so a translation something like “You must have no other gods over against me” or “You must have no other gods in distinction to me” would capture the idiomatic sense in the context. The text clearly prohibits other gods – so much so that some commentators have opined that the original form of the commandment might have been simply, “You must have no other gods,” with the al-panay (“before me”) being added later. There is in fact no evidence at all for this theory; it simply indicates the sense of such scholars that the commandment cannot mean merely that Yahweh is to have some sort of preeminence among many other actual divinities.
Why, then, did God not just say, “I am the only God. Don’t believe in any others”? The answer is, as previously noted, to be found in the range of meaning of the term elohim (here “gods”). The word elohim carries the connotation of “supernatural beings,” including angels. Accordingly, this first word/commandment implicitly acknowledges that there are many “gods” (nonhuman, nonearthly beings) in the same sense that Ps 82 does (or that Jesus does in John 10:34-36) but at the same time demands that only Yahweh be worshiped as the sole divinity, or God. All other “gods” (supernatural beings such as angels) are to be understood and appreciated for their roles in the universe, but only Yahweh is divine.12
20:4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
William H. C. Propp suggests that idols of any kind were completely banned in order to prevent an idol, even an idol of Yahweh, from being given independent divine status by any Israelite. The extant religious writings from the ancient Near East all assert that idols were only pictures of the gods or receptacles for their divine presence, not gods in and of themselves. But Propp believes the common people frequently equated the idol with a god. Thus, he sees this commandment as a way to make even the common Israelite aware of the fact that Yahweh is in no way to be linked to an idol.13
Thomas B. Dozeman notes that the Hebrew word translated “jealous” (qanna) is a word rooted in love and marriage and that it also carries the meaning of “zealous” and “impassioned.” Yahweh is jealous when Israel serves another god and is zealous and impassioned in his vengeance. Dozeman goes on to note that the root meaning of the Hebrew word translated “hate” (sane) is forced separation. It alludes to the language of divorce and the breaking of a treaty. An Israelite who worships another god is separating himself from Yahweh and declaring his hatred for Yahweh. The Hebrew word translated “love” (ahab) continues the imagery of marriage. When the Israelites express their love for Yahweh by keeping the commandments they prompt still further love from Yahweh.14
This explanatory section of the second commandment, with its assertion that God is “jealous . . . punishing the children for the sins of the fathers,” has been widely misunderstood. It does not represent an assertion that God actually punishes an innocent generation for sins of a predecessor generation, contrary to Deut 24:16 (“Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin”; cf. 2 Kgs 14:6). Rather, this oft-repeated theme speaks of God’s determination to punish successive generations for committing the same sins they learned from their parents. In other words, God will not say, “I won’t punish this generation for what they are doing to break my covenant because, after all, they merely learned it from their parents who did it too.” Instead, God will indeed punish generation after generation (“to the third and fourth generation”) if they keep doing the same sorts of sins that prior generations did. If the children continue to do the sins their parents did, they will receive the same punishments as their parents.
But to this is contrasted his real wish: to show “covenant loyalty” [NIV “love”] to “a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” By the greatest numerical contrast in the Bible (three//four to thousands), God identified eloquently his real desire: to have his people remain loyal forever so that he might in turn show them the rich blessings of his resulting loyalty to them. In vv. 5b-6 the terminology “love” and “hate” refers idiomatically to loyalty, not to emotional attitudes, feelings, and sentiments.15
20:7 “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
The command states: “You shall not lift up (nasa) the name in vain (lassawe).” The verb “to lift up” likely indicates the making of oaths. In the ancient world such oaths were a self-curse invoking the deity: “May God judge me, if what I say is not true.” Similar language of self-cursing continues in our legal tradition: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.” The response, “I do,” puts one before the divine judge for better or worse. The third command likely carries the meaning of swearing falsely in a legal setting.16
Others take the command more broadly, banning anything from execrating God directly to conjuring with his name, praying for the impossible or even idly mentioning him. Childs translates, “You shall not abuse the name of Yahweh your God.” One must not impugn Yahweh’s reputation by invoking him in matters in which he is unlikely to respond.17
20:8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
The Sabbath is wholly an Israelite innovation. There is nothing analogous to it in the entire ancient Near Eastern world. This is surprising since seven-day units of time are well known throughout the region. Yet the Sabbath is the sole exception to the otherwise universal practice of basing all the major units of time – months and seasons, as well as years – on the phases of the moon and solar cycle. The Sabbath, in other words, is completely dissociated from the movement of celestial bodies. This singularity, together with Creation as the basis for the instruction, expresses the quintessential idea of Israel’s monotheism: God is entirely outside of and sovereign over nature.18
The definition of prohibited labor (mela’khah) is not given here. Elsewhere in the Bible certain types of work are specified: “leaving one’s place,” that is, walking beyond certain limits, agricultural activities, kindling fire, gathering wood, conducting business, carrying burdens, treading the winepress, and loading asses.19
20:12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
The present positive formulation to ‘honor thy father and mother’ clearly reflects an intention to expand the area covered by the commandments as widely as possible. The choice of the term ‘honor’ carries with it a range of connotations far broader than some such term as ‘obey’. To honor is to ‘prize highly’ (Prov. 4.8), ‘to show respect’, to ‘glorify and exalt’. Moreover, it has nuances of caring for and showing affection (Ps. 91.15). It is a term frequently used to describe the proper response to God and is akin to worship (Ps. 86.9). Moreover, the parallel command in Lev. 19.3 actually uses the term ‘fear, give reverence to’ (tirau) which is otherwise reserved for God.20
The reward for honoring one’s elders is, naturally enough, surviving to elderhood oneself (see also Prov 4:10). Bekhor Shor proffers a brief homily, “If you hold fast to the commands, your sons will honor you and support you through old age; you will not die in want before your time.” Length of days is a common biblical reward (Deut 4:40; 5:30; 6:2; 11:9, 22; 22:7; 1 Kgs 3:14). In Deut 22:6-7, it is connected to respect for familial relations, even among the animals: one must not take eggs or chicks with the mother bird present, but must chase away the dam “so that it will be well for you, and you may lengthen days.” In Eph 6:1-2, Paul appears to understand Exod 20:12 as promising both prosperity and longevity.
Ibn Ezra, however, also sees in v 12 an admonition to the people en masse. As long as they practice filial piety, the Israelites will not be exiled from Canaan. This is not just supernaturalism, for, as Ehrlich observes, it is precisely the honoring of ancestral customs that constitutes, unifies and stabilizes society. Most likely, both interpretations of 20:12, the personal and the national, are correct.21
20:13 “You shall not murder.
The Hebrew verb rasah means to illegally kill a human being. Translating the command as “you shall not kill” is too broad a rendering.22
20:14 “You shall not commit adultery.
20:15 “You shall not steal.
20:16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
The command is narrow in scope. It forbids false testimony in court, a central prohibition throughout the Hebrew Bible (Exod 23:1; Lev 19:15; Deut 16:19; 19:16). The judicial setting creates some overlap with the third command, forbidding the improper use of the divine name Yahweh in making oaths. The version of the law in Deuteronomy is somewhat broader, forbidding evasive speech in court as well as lying. The law does not specifically address other forms of lying or dishonesty that are evident in later tradition (Matt 19:18; Rom 2:21; 1 Thess 4:4).23
20:17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
A study of the biblical contexts in which the Hebrew stem h-m-d occurs discloses that it does not signify the general human proclivity for acquisitiveness and cupidity; rather it always focuses upon a specific object of desire, the sight of which stimulates the craving to possess it. However, because of an inherent ambiguity in the biblical usages of that Hebrew stem, the meaning of the present command has been a matter of dispute. Action, not just a hidden mental state, is certainly implied in Exodus 34:24: “No one will covet your land when you go up to appear before the LORD.” Yet a decidedly inward feeling is understood in Proverbs 6:25, literally, “Do not desire her beauty in your heart.” Further, passages like Deuteronomy 7:25, Joshua 7:21, and Micah 2:2 indicate that h-m-d, itself having a passive nuance, is of sufficient intensity to stimulate active measures to gratify the desire. The issue if further complicated by such questions as whether desire or its avoidance can be commanded or legislated, and whether there can be liability for mere intention or feeling. But this poses no greater difficulty than does the oft repeated command to love God, one’s neighbor, and the stranger, and not to abhor an Edomite or an Egyptian, or not to hate one’s brother in one’s heart. The Mekhilta, citing Deuteronomy 7:25, decides that one is culpable only when actions accompany the covetous feelings. Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, understands the thrust of the commandment to be an obligation to discipline and condition the mind so that its automatic response to covetousness is a sense of repulsion.24
20:18 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” 21 The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
This section establishes the narrative context for the private revelation of the law to Moses. Moses is separated from the people in v. 21 when he approaches the “dark cloud” (arapel) where God dwells, while the people stand “at a distance.” The arapel cloud signals the appearance of God (see Deut 4:11; 5:22; Ps 97:1-2) associating the Book of the Covenant with the preceding theophany. The separation of Moses from the people underscores his authority. God had predicted that the public experience of theophany would authenticate Moses to the people of Israel (Exod 19:9). The fear of theophany as a result of the public revelation of the Decalogue (20:1-17) prompted the Israelite people to elect Moses to mediate the revelation of all future law (20:18-20). The introduction to the Book of the Covenant fulfills the divine prediction, when Moses receives the revelation of law privately in the divine cloud.25
20:22 And the LORD said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the people of Israel: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.
The syntax of the demand for loyalty is ambiguous, giving rise to different interpretations of v. 23. The MT divides the command in two parts: “Do not make with me. Do not make for yourselves gods of silver and gods of gold.” The first line is difficult. It does not express a complete thought, since the verb lacks an object. The NIV represents one solution in which the phrase “any gods” is inserted as the object, “do not make [any gods] to be alongside me.” The NRSV represents another solution in which the entire verse is redivided, separating gods of silver from gods of gold: “You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.” Both solutions present problems. The motifs of gold and silver tend not to be separated in biblical literature, and the insertion of “any gods” lacks textual evidence. In either case it is evident that the instruction is intended to echo the first two commandments of the Decalogue tying the private revelation to Moses in the introduction to the Book of the Covenant with the previous public revelation of the law.26
20:24 An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25 If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it. 26 And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.’
Worship is the first and most basic response of any believer to his or her Savior and Lord. Altars were necessary for sacrifices, which were in turn necessary for worship. At this early point in the covenant, God gave the Israelites a brief overview of altar construction in anticipation of their need to worship him properly. Now that he was becoming their covenant God, it was important that they be able to respond fully to him in worship, not merely repeating the practices of the past or simply borrowing from pagans the concepts and procedures of worship and sacrifice.
The Israelites had already experienced constructing and worshiping at an altar (Exod 17:15). The use of altars had shown itself very early, indeed was assumed from the start, in patriarchal tradition (Gen 8:20; 12:7; 13:4, 18; 22:9; 26:25; 33:20; 35:1-7), and Israel would eventually receive instructions for a far more elaborate altar to become a permanent, portable part of the tabernacle accoutrements (Exod 27:1-8). Meanwhile, however, there was need for an altar that could be built quickly and simply so that the Israelites could commence worship as a united covenant community. Moses built such an altar, as described here, and as soon as the Israelites had given their assent to the “Covenant Code,” they began offerings on the altar, as narrated in 24:3-8.
The initial altar God wanted was very simple: made of dirt (“an altar of earth,” v. 24) or optionally of stone that was not cut, shaped stone but simply found stone crudely fitted together (“do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it”). The insistence on a simple – even primitive – altar relates to two factors: holiness and idolatry. Holiness is belonging to God; the altar must be his and his alone, a part of the means by which he accepts unholy people and makes them holy, through the transference of guilt from them to an animal. Therefore the altar could not be something of which humans could take ownership because they shaped it and finished it with the same sorts of tools they might use for any mundane masonry project. Likewise, it must not be fancy enough to become like or function as an idol, a thing that human hands had made yet was revered as possessing divine qualities. This altar must be so simple, made of natural elements that were simply assembled, that no one would make the mistake of identifying it as having in itself, intrinsically, numinous or theophoric character. The altar must be of the minimal sort of construction that would make it functional without becoming an object of appreciation or veneration in itself, something that in the mind of a worshiper might somehow rival or substitute for God. Additionally, it must not become in itself a threat to or pollution of Yahweh’s own holiness, as things that are partial or dismembered or incomplete can sometimes do. In the same way that an animal that was sacrificed was to be full and complete (not maimed, sick, or already dismembered before being brought for sacrifice), so the stones of a stone altar must be whole and complete.
Moreover, it could not even have steps (v. 26). In ancient times most people did not wear what we could call underwear; so even though priests eventually wore undergarments (28:42), there would always be the risk, at this early stage particularly, that a worshiper’s or a priest’s genital-deficatory area would be “exposed” to the altar, insulting God. Instead, the altar would be built of dirt just tamped together or crude stones fitted together into a waist-high rectangle upon which wood could be laid and fires built to cook the meat offered thereon – the simplest of outdoor grills or barbecues, as it were, for the simple purpose of cooking the meat of an animal to whom the guilt of the worshipers had been transferred.27
21:1 “Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. 2 When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing.
The reduction of an Israelite to slave status could result from poverty or insolvency. By self-sale, the desperately poor could gain a measure of security. The labors of a debtor or a thief could discharge the debt or compensate for the stolen property. . . .
Emancipation is by his right, and no compensation is due to the master. The parallel law in Deuteronomy 15:12-15 requires the master to make generous provision for the slave leaving his service.28
21:3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him.
The master would have been responsible for the maintenance of the slave’s wife and children throughout the period of his service.29
21:4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone.
Does this mean that the wife and children stayed as slaves/servants for the rest of their lives? Not at all. If a servant wanted his wife and children to go free also, he seems to have had three main options: (a) He could simply wait for them all to finish their terms of service, while he himself worked somewhere else. The disadvantage of this arrangement is that he either could not live with his family or would have to pay for his own room and board at his former boss’s farm. (b) He could find a good job somewhere and earn enough money to pay his former boss to get his wife and children out of their contractual obligation. The disadvantage of this arrangement is that it would have been difficult to find any job that would allow him to earn enough money to support himself and at the same time accumulate the sort of wealth that would cover the cost of compensating a boss for several years’ worth of the labor of several full-time workers, which is what the wife and children represented to the boss. (c) He could agree to continue to work permanently for his boss. The disadvantage of this latter arrangement is that it would keep him a contract employee for the rest of his life. The advantage is that it would allow him to stay with his family, all of whom would have their basic needs met as well as having the spendable income they earned through the terms of their contracts and all of whom would have reasonably stable financial circumstances during their lifetimes. The attractiveness of such an arrangement on balance is presumably one factor that underlies the following law about the option of voluntary permanent service.30
21:5 But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 6 then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.
The location of this ceremony is debated. The Hebrew literally states “his master will bring him to the God/gods.” Thomas B. Dozeman believes it most likely refers to the sanctuary.31 It is also unclear whether the slave’s ear is pierced at the sanctuary or at another location. When it comes to social relations the Hebrew term translated “forever” (leolam) connotes one’s lifetime and not a literal eternity.32 This law appears to contradict the law in Leviticus 25:10 which teaches universal manumission in the fiftieth year. In order to solve this dilemma, the Rabbinic view was that Exodus 21:6 means that the man will be a slave “for a long time.”33
21:7 “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.
The Hebrew term amah, used here, does not mean a slave girl in the usual sense, since her status is quite different from that of the male slave. The following laws safeguard her rights and protect her from sexual exploitation.
In the ancient world, a father, driven by poverty, might sell his daughter into a well-to-do family in order to ensure her future security. The sale presupposes marriage to the master or his son. Documents recording legal arrangements of this kind have survived from Nuzi. The Torah stipulates that the girl must be treated as a free woman; should the designated husband take an additional wife, he is still obligated to support her. A breach of faith gains her her freedom, and the master receives no compensation for the purchase price.
Rabbinic interpretation restricted the power of the father to dispose of his daughter in this way. He could do so only so long as she was a minor, that is, below the age of twelve years and a day, and then only if he was utterly destitute. She could not sell herself into slavery nor could she be sold by a court as an insolvent thief, as could a male, in order to make restitution for the stolen articles. Further, she could not be designated to be the wife of the master or his son without her knowledge.
The status of the amah in biblical times is demonstrated in practice through the discovery of a preexilic epitaph of a royal steward from the village of Siloam outside Jerusalem. The inscription mentions his amah, and it is clear that he arranged to be buried next to her. Another discovery is the seal of “Alyah the amah of Hananel,” who obviously enjoyed superior social rank. In like vein, an extant Babylonian document mentions a slave girl of a married couple who is described as both the assat, “wife,” of the husband and the amat of the wife.34
21:8 If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her.
The master’s displeasure is not a matter of sexual dissatisfaction, for the woman is not yet a wife or concubine. It is a matter of general displeasure (e.g., Genesis 28:8). William H. C. Propp argues that in this context am nokri refers to someone unrelated to the maidservant and not to a non-Israelite. In other words, the maidservant must be redeemed by a relative.35
21:9 If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights.
The meaning of the Hebrew word translated “marital rights” (ona) is unclear. It may refer to sexual relations, shelter, cosmetic ointments, or to the husband taking responsibility for the woman.36
21:11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.
21:12 “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. 13 But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee.
The phrases “he did not lie in wait” and “God let him fall into his hand” imply an accidental death. Verse 14 implies that the killer should flee to an altar or sanctuary.
21:14 But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.
The Israelites at Sinai were well aware of the ancient practice of seeking sanctuary at a sacrifice altar. The practice is not endorsed in the Bible, though it is twice described as taking place. Its logic ran as follows: The altar represented God’s acceptance of the transfer of sin from people to animals and was therefore a place of forgiveness as well as a specially sanctified, most holy object (cf. Exod 29:36-37; 30:10). Those seeking a fugitive criminal would not want to risk angering God by approaching it improperly, because of the prohibitions about approaching an altar casually. A criminal who ran to it and seized hold of its horns and was not immediately struck down by God might conclude that he was at least temporarily safe from someone who might not be willing to take the same risk. In theory the ability to hold on to the horns of the altar without dying might even have represented a sort of proof of innocence in common thinking.
God rejects all this elaborately conceptualized nonsense and simply states in v. 14 that a murderer must be taken from the tabernacle altar (“my altar”) and put to death. In other words, the Sinai covenant allowed no such thing as altar sanctuary. When Adonijah tried to make altar sanctuary work for him in 1 Kgs 1:50-51 and when Joab tried it again in 1 Kgs 2:29, they were doing so without warrant from the covenant.37
21:15 “Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death.
This description does not envisage minor physical abuse (slapping, a single punch thrown in anger, or the like). The hiphil of nkh rather connotes at least the kind of physical attack designed to disable someone and leave him motionless on the floor or ground (i.e., the verb means at least to “beat down”). It is not uncommonly translated by “kill” (e.g., Gen 4:15) and can have the sense of “assault and leave for dead.”38
The rabbis applied the death penalty to adult children only.39
21:16 “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.
Exodus 21:16 states: “Whoever steals a human and sells him or he is found in his hand shall be put to death.” The syntax of the law has puzzled interpreters because of the apparent contradiction between selling, yet possessing, a kidnapped victim. . . . Levinson states that the syntax indicates contrast, “whether the person is sold, or is still held in possession” (see also NRSV). Westbrook moves in a different direction on the basis of a comparison to ancient Near Eastern law, which he argues follows a “three-cornered” pattern, meaning that legislation is addressed to three different parties: the owner of the property (in this case the victim), the thief, and a third party who receives stolen property, either unwittingly or wittingly through purchase. Westbrook concludes that 21:16 undergoes a change in reference so that all three parties are included in the law. The thief receives the death penalty, as does the buyer in the case of the slave trade.40
21:17 “Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.
Just what is forbidden here is unclear. The verb qillel, literally ‘to treat as insignificant’ or ‘to make insignificant,’ combines “to call down misfortune,” to insult” and “to maltreat,” thus corresponding to the various nuances of English “curse” and “abuse.” Its principal antonyms are berak ‘bless,’ i.e., confer or wish for well-being, and kibbed ‘honor,’ i.e., make or treat as important. Houtman notes the absence of a law requiring parents not to abuse children (contrast Eph 6:4; Col 3:21).
Usually, context permits us easily to differentiate among the usages of qillel. E.g., when Yahweh (Gen 8:21) or a prophet (2 Kgs 2:24; Neh 13:2) is the grammatical subject, he is removing blessing and sending misfortune, and likewise the curser calls upon a deity (1 Sam 17:43). But when God is the direct object (Lev 24:15, 23; cf. 1 Kgs 21:10, 13; Job 1:5; 2:9), he must be the recipient of mere verbal abuse, since imprecations cannot harm him or diminish his well-being. And when one is forbidden to “curse” the deaf, most likely one is not to mock or insult him or her (Lev 19:14).
What if, as here, the object is a parent (also Lev 20:9; Deut 27:16; Prov 20:20; 30:11)? Is one forbidden to speak slightingly to or about a father or mother? Or is one commanded not to recite a spell or prayer aimed to bring about a parent’s death, e.g., in order to speed one’s inheritance? Mek. Neziqin 5; b. Sebu. 35b-36a; Sanh. 66A leniently reserve capital punishment for him who specifically dishonors a parent in the name of God. But, given the ambiguity, more likely the Bible intends the broadest possible meaning: one may not do anything that diminishes parent honor (qillel).41
21:18 “When men quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist and the man does not die but takes to his bed, 19 then if the man rises again and walks outdoors with his staff, he who struck him shall be clear; only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall have him thoroughly healed.
The references to “stone” and “fist” likely indicate that intentional violence is the subject of this law. This law probably does not refer to premeditated violence since that is covered in verse 14, rather it refers to violence resulting from a quarrel (exchange of words). A victim who is able to rise and walk outdoors displays a degree of recovery so that a subsequent death cannot be blamed on the assailant. Presumably, if the victim dies the assailant faces the death penalty. If the victim does not die the perpetrator must pay for his inactivity and health care costs.
21:20 “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.
The right of the master to discipline the slave is recognized. However, the rabbis restricted the “rod” to an implement that does not normally have lethal potentiality and restricted the strikes to parts of the body that were not particularly vulnerable.42 The Hebrew verb behind “survives” (md) refers to standing up. As in verse 19, an erect posture and the ability to walk constitutes evidence of good health. Unlike in verse 19, the master does not have to pay for the slave’s lost time and health care because he is losing his financial investment (“the slave is his money”).
21:22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine.
The pregnant woman is an innocent bystander and not necessarily the wife of one of the two men in the fight. The phrase “her children come out” may refer to either a successful premature birth or a miscarriage. If there is no harm (it is unclear whether the law is interested in harm to the woman, to the fetus, or to either) then the man who hit the woman is subject to a fine agreed upon by the husband and the judges. If there is harm then the man who hit the woman is subject to the law of retribution (vv 23-25).
21:23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
The goal of laws that use the wording “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” is that the penalty imposed for causing physical injury must be appropriate to the nature of the injury. In other words, a mere monetary penalty (a fine) cannot be considered adequate justice when someone has been permanently maimed by a person in a manner that clearly demands a punishment. This kind of law represents an advance on the non-Israelite biblical-era laws, which routinely provided for fines as satisfying the legal requirement of justice in the case of a superior person’s permanently injuring an inferior person. By contrast to the laws of pagan nations, the law governing God’s chosen people Israel required real equity at law and forbade people with money being able to buy their way out of criminal penalties.
Talion laws are easily misunderstood if taken literalistically. They usually do not mean what they sound like they are saying to the modern ear. No evidence exists that any judges in the ancient world ever actually required a literal application of talion law beyond the first of its terms, “life for life.” In cases of murder, the murderer was put to death as a “life for life” satisfaction of the law. But beyond that, there was no actual taking of someone’s eye in exchange for his having ruined the eye of another person, nor was a tooth knocked out of a person in exchange for a tooth knocked out of someone else by that person and so on through the “bruise for bruise” penalty. Instead, expressions like “eye for eye” were understood idiomatically to mean “a penalty that hurts the person who ruined someone else’s eye as much as he would be hurt if his own eye were actually ruined also.” The precise penalty was left up to the judges by talion law; it might involve anything from banishment to loss of property (and/or property rights) to punitive confinement to special financial penalties to corporal punishment to public humiliation, or to any combination of these. In support of this understanding of how talion laws were actually applied, an example of the nonliteralistic application of talion law follows immediately in vv. 26-27, in which the case of a servant’s master damaging the eye or tooth of a servant required the loss of the servant’s labor, not the gouging out of the master’s eye or tooth.
The goal of talion law was always a simple one: to see that full justice was done. Its unique wording (“x for x, y for y”) conveyed to ancient Israelites an important principle, namely, that someone who permanently injured another person ought to be fully punished in a way that really “hurt.” Israel was not to accept a system of law that could allow one person to continue crippled for life and let the person who caused the crippling to continue merrily on, simply a bit less wealthy than he had originally been.43
21:26 “When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. 27 If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.
21:28 “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable.
The goring ox is a preoccupation of both biblical and Mesopotamian law. And yet, such incidents were extremely rare. Finkelstein notes that, in thousands of cuneiform documents, there is not a single case of an ox killing a human, and only one allegation that a bull killed another bull. As with the case of the pregnant woman, however, ancient legal scholars may simply have been fascinated by the situation’s ambiguity. Given that livestock are chattels possessed of volition but not full intelligence, who is responsible for their actions?44
21:29 But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death.
According to verse 28, an ox can kill only once before it is destroyed. Therefore, this verse deals with an ox that has gored but has not killed before. The Hebrew lacks the infinitive absolute. William H. C. Propp takes this to mean that the owner may be put to death.45 Verse 30 leaves open the possibility that the owner can ransom his life.
21:30 If a ransom is imposed on him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is imposed on him.
At first glance, this verse appears to contradict Numbers 35:31, which bans monetary compensation for murder. However, this is a case of negligence not homicide.
21:31 If it gores a man’s son or daughter, he shall be dealt with according to this same rule.
Adult men and women were covered in verse 28 so this verse must deal with minors. Its inclusion may be for two reasons: (1) to show that the life of a minor was worth the life of an adult; or (2) to reject Mesopotamian laws that would call for the death of the owner’s son or daughter as retribution.
21:32 If the ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.
A servant who was gored by a bull was presumably doing what his master told him to do by command. Typically, a servant told to work with or around a bull did not have the same freedom of independent decision making that someone else might have, and thus the servant’s master had to share some of the responsibility for the servant’s death with the owner of the bull that did the goring. This means that the owner of the bull was not as guilty in such a case as if the bull simply gored someone who happened to be walking along near its owner’s property. The law in this case then provided a severe penalty (thirty shekels of silver and the loss of the bull) to its owner but did not assume that he alone was fully responsible for the death of the servant. Naturally, the judges would have been free to impose the death penalty if it were decided that, for example, the bull’s owner had intentionally let a goring bull loose against someone’s servant who was, say, simply delivering a message to the bull’s owner from his employer. That would be a case of murder, and that would make the status of the servant irrelevant.46
21:33 “When a man opens a pit, or when a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34 the owner of the pit shall make restoration. He shall give money to its owner, and the dead beast shall be his.
Pits were commonly dug to store water or grain. The owner of the pit must pay market value for the dead beast.
21:35 “When one man’s ox butts another’s, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and share its price, and the dead beast also they shall share. 36 Or if it is known that the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has not kept it in, he shall repay ox for ox, and the dead beast shall be his.
22:1 “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. 2 If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, 3 but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. 4 If the stolen beast is found alive in his possession, whether it is an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double.
The punishment for killing or selling a stolen animal may be more harsh than the punishment in verse 4 because killing or selling the animal implies that the crime involved premeditation as opposed to a crime of opportunity. It may also deter a thief from killing or selling an animal and thereby making it more likely that the owner could recover his animal. The enclosure referenced in verses 2-3 is ambiguous but the context implies it is an enclosure housing animals. Since the ancient Israelites kept some animals inside their houses this ambiguity is probably intentional. The law applies to the theft of animals from any enclosure. There is disagreement on whether the Hebrew of verse 2 means that the thief has no protection or whether the owner is not guilty if he kills the thief. “There is no sense disputing the exact nuance, however, because it all amounts to the same thing. The homeowner does not incur bloodguilt for killing the nocturnal burglar because the thief was fair game.”47 There are a couple reasons why killing the burglar in the night was permissible while killing the burglar in the day was not. “By day, a thief might assume that a house is empty; at night, his assumption would be that it is occupied. Moreover, by night there can be no testimony as to the thief’s identity, nor can he be easily tracked. Extreme measures to detain him are justified. Doubtless the ideal would be to knock him out and bind him, but restraint may not be practicable in the dark.”48
22:5 “If a man causes a field or vineyard to be grazed over, or lets his beast loose and it feeds in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best in his own field and in his own vineyard.
Hebrew meitav, literally “the best.” In tannaitic sources there is a difference of opinion as to the intent of this law. It is unclear whether the compensation imposed on the owner of the beast is calculated according to the best property of the defendant or of the plaintiff. Both the Septuagint and the Samaritan texts interpolate a clause making the normal crop the criterion of compensation when the crop was only partly destroyed, and the top of the crop the standard when the entire field was grazed over.49
22:6 “If fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or the standing grain or the field is consumed, he who started the fire shall make full restitution.
22:7 “If a man gives to his neighbor money or goods to keep safe, and it is stolen from the man’s house, then, if the thief is found, he shall pay double. 8 If the thief is not found, the owner of the house shall come near to God to show whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor’s property. 9 For every breach of trust, whether it is for an ox, for a donkey, for a sheep, for a cloak, or for any kind of lost thing, of which one says, ‘This is it,’ the case of both parties shall come before God. The one whom God condemns shall pay double to his neighbor.
The phrase “This is it” in verse 9 probably refers to cases where an easily recognizable object has allegedly been stolen. The verse does not state how God condemns the guilty. Either of the two parties could face punishment.
22:10 “If a man gives to his neighbor a donkey or an ox or a sheep or any beast to keep safe, and it dies or is injured or is driven away, without anyone seeing it, 11 an oath by the LORD shall be between them both to see whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor’s property. The owner shall accept the oath, and he shall not make restitution. 12 But if it is stolen from him, he shall make restitution to its owner. 13 If it is torn by beasts, let him bring it as evidence. He shall not make restitution for what has been torn.
While an organized cattle raid is not held against the keeper, he should be able to prevent smaller-scale theft and therefore is still liable. The bailee is supposed to be in a better position to protect the item than its owner. That is why he was entrusted with the goods in the first place.50
22:14 “If a man borrows anything of his neighbor, and it is injured or dies, the owner not being with it, he shall make full restitution. 15 If the owner was with it, he shall not make restitution; if it was hired, it came for its hiring fee.
Verse 15 clarifies the responsibility further into two facets: (1) If one borrowed or rented an animal along with the owner, it was the owner’s job to look out for the welfare of his animal, not the borrower’s. (2) If one rented an animal, the rental fee was expected to include “insurance” on the animal rented out. The owner must absorb the cost of an animal rented out that was then injured or killed while under the rental contract. As long as both parties knew that this was the arrangement (and the law was given to make sure that both would), then each knew where the risk lay.51
22:16 “If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. 17 If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins.
The Hebrew root pty (“seduces”) refers to taking advantage of another’s simplicity and need not refer to violence.52 If the woman is betrothed to another man the couple is guilty of adultery (Deuteronomy 22:23-24). Although not mentioned in verse 17, the woman’s wishes were probably consulted (Genesis 24:57-58).
22:18 “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.
Exodus 22:18 states the prohibition against sorcery. The Hebrew word describing the forbidden activity is mekassepa, a Piel feminine singular participle, usually translated as “sorceress” (see also Deut 18:10). The precise meaning is difficult to discern. Definitions based on etymology relate to some form of divination, including the activity of cutting oneself to influence a deity, as in the case of the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. The term also indicates a pharmaceutical activity involving drugs or herbs, or some form of magical rite to compel a deity to act. Exodus 7:11 described “sorcerers” as one of the three Egyptian groups called to resist Moses and Aaron along with the wise men and the magicians suggesting a positive role in Egyptian society. Magic was a normal part of life in both Egypt and in Mesopotamia. A similar group of sorcerers is noted in Dan 2:2, along with magicians, conjurers, and Chaldeans (= astrologers?). But most references to sorcerers in the Hebrew Bible are negative. Micah 5:12; Mal 3:5; 2 Chr 33:6; and 2 Kgs 9:22 all reflect the negative perspective of Exod 22:18, condemning sorcery and associating it with fornication (2 Kgs 9:22) and false worship (Mic 5:12). The most extensive condemnation is Deut 18:10, which lists a variety of forms of divination, including Hebrew mekassep, where NIV translates it “witchcraft” and NRSV “sorcerer.” The identification of “sorcery” as a foreign practice is reinforced in Isa 47:9, 12, and Nah 3:4.
The limitation of the law to women creates further difficulty in identifying the activity of sorcery, since the other condemnations of sorcery in the Hebrew Bible are directed toward both men and women. Does the author of the law have a particular magical practice in view that is employed only by women? Or does the law reflect a changing social environment in ancient Israel where women are singled out as particularly dangerous practitioners of black magic? The text does not supply enough information to answer the questions.53
22:19 “Whoever lies with an animal shall be put to death.
22:20 “Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the LORD alone, shall be devoted to destruction.
22:21 “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
The category of resident alien [sojourner] presupposes the Israelites’ life in the land, since the resident alien was defined as a foreign-born person who resided permanently in the land of Israel but did not own property. The resident alien assumed an intermediate position in society between a foreigner (nokri) and a native-born Israelite (ezrah). Such persons lacked the support of clan or the inalienable right to property, making them vulnerable in the social structure of ancient Israel.54
22:22 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. 23 If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, 24 and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.
22:25 “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. 26 If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, 27 for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.
It is important not to impose our capitalist assumptions on ancient Israel. McNeile contrasts the modern loan, often a business investment, with the biblical loan to alleviate poverty. Houtman gives the example of someone who has exhausted his/her food supplies and needs charity to tide them over until the next harvest. The needy one would be entitled to borrow from a more fortunate neighbor without paying interest, for “such aid is thought of as a charitable deed; the giving is done gratis et amore“. A creditor must treat his debtor gently, lest debt should lead to slavery, as in 2 Kgs 4:1, or exile, as in 1 Sam 22:2.55
Deuteronomy 23:20-21 expressly permits the exaction of interest on loans made to a foreigner (Heb. Nokhri), that is, to one who resides in an Israelite locality only temporarily. Likewise, debts incurred by a foreigner are not canceled in the Sabbatical year (Deut. 15:3). These distinctions are drawn because the foreigner referred to would most likely be a traveling trader who takes a loan for commercial and business reasons. Because of his mobility, such an individual would constitute a high risk. This situation is well documented in the ramified and far-flung trading operations carried on in the Assyrian Empire, which were financed through private enterprise. A further consideration is reciprocity; an Israelite abroad would certainly be subject to local business practices and be required to pay the exorbitant interest rates.56
22:28 “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people.
Cassuto interprets the first part of the command to be a prohibition against cursing God, reading the two statements about God and the leader as synonymous declarations. But the first command about God may have a broader meaning, demanding that God not be taken for granted or “treated lightly.” Jeremiah provides an example of this broader meaning when he criticizes the Israelite people for not evaluating their present circumstances carefully enough: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14; 8:11). The reference to a leader in the second statement is not the word for “king” (melek), but a more general designation for a leader, ruler, or perhaps even a tribal chief.57
22:29 “You shall not delay to offer from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me.
Chapter 13 discusses the divine claim on the firstborn.
22:30 You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall be with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.
22:31 “You shall be consecrated to me. Therefore you shall not eat any flesh that is torn by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs.
Such meat is ritually impure because the animal was not sacrificed properly.
23:1 “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness.
The Hebrew word translated “wicked man” (rasa) may refer to a guilty litigant or to a false witness.58 Either way, the point is that one should not give false testimony in court.
23:2 You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, 3 nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.
23:4 “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. 5 If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.
The meaning of verse 5 is unclear. It might mean that the passerby should leave the scene without intervening or it might mean that the passerby should loosen the load on the animal and then leave the scene. In both cases the passerby must make it clear that he does not intend to steal the “burden” from the donkey’s owner. Deuteronomy 22:4 states that the passerby should help his brother (as opposed to a hater) in such circumstances.
23:6 “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit. 7 Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked.
Harag is not the term for judicial execution (hemit). The law probably addresses extrajudicial lynching, or perhaps indirect murder through false testimony and baseless prosecution.59
23:8 And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.
23:9 “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
23:10 “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, 11 but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.
William H. C. Propp believes the reference to “land” (eres) instead of “field” (sade(h)) in verse 10 indicates that all Israel must enjoy the Sabbatical year at the same time.60 Each farmer did not have his own seven-year cycle. This is made explicit elsewhere in the Bible61 and later Jewish texts62.
23:12 “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.
23:13 “Pay attention to all that I have said to you, and make no mention of the names of other gods, nor let it be heard on your lips.
The prohibition on mentioning the names of pagan gods, although seemingly intrusive, is actually quite relevant since the rest of the section deals with the celebrations of the seasonal cycle, which in the pagan world were invariably accompanied by magical rites aimed at propitiating divine powers and enlisting their aid in the regeneration of the soil, the ripening of the crops, and the fecundity of the herds and flocks. Such cults must have been very attractive to the Israelites. Hence the need to commence the section by outlawing the invocation of pagan gods. Note the emphatic “festival for Me” in the next verse, meaning “for Me exclusively.” This is further explicated in verse 17, “the Sovereign, the LORD [YHWH].”63
23:14 “Three times in the year you shall keep a feast to me.
Verses 14-17 omit Passover, Rosh Hashanah (New Year), and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) because they are not associated with the life of the soil.
23:15 You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. As I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. None shall appear before me empty-handed.
The Feast of Unleavened Bread is recounted in chapters 11-13.
23:16 You shall keep the Feast of Harvest, of the firstfruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall keep the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. 17 Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the LORD God.
23:18 “You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the fat of my feast remain until the morning.
23:19a “The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the LORD your God.
23:19b “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.
This law also appears in Exodus 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21. A young goat boiled in milk was a delicacy. One might boil a young goat in its mother’s milk for convenience; the young goat and its mother would be next to each other. The reason for the ban on this practice is not clear. Brevard Childs opines that it is forbidden because it bore a resemblance to a Canaanite fertility cult ceremony.64
23:20 “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.
23:22 “But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.
23:23 “When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, 24 you shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them, nor do as they do, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces.
Why would Israel be tempted to worship the Canaanite deities? The answer is that once settled in Canaan, they would surely desire agricultural success, which in the ancient world was generally attributed to proper involvement of the deities in the agricultural process through worship. In general, ancient peoples believed that the gods could do anything but feed themselves. Humans therefore had the job of raising food for the gods, which was then “sent” to them through the offerings humans gave in the presence of the gods’ idols. What part did the gods have in this process? They caused the crops to grow and the flocks and herds to multiply. The ancient farmer thought that the gods were absolutely essential to the agricultural process and that the way to involve the goodwill of the gods on behalf of one’s farming was to worship them. The essence of worship was providing food for them in the form of sacrifices. When Israel would arrive in the promised land, the temptation to plant as the Canaanites planted, to cultivate as they cultivated, to harvest as they harvested, and to worship as they worshiped would be almost irresistible since all these were thought to go together as part and parcel of farming in any given locality.
To free his people from bondage to such attractive nonsense, dangerous because it could not save as only he could, Yahweh firmly forbade any involvement in pagan worship practices, just as he forbade any involvement in pagan planting and agricultural fertility rituals. Likewise the Israelites were required to destroy any vestige of pagan worship, including not merely idols but also “sacred stones.” In this verse comes the first occurrence of the term “sacred stones” (NIV) in Exodus, often also translated as “pillars,” and sometimes even partially transliterated (as massebot or the like) because the word is something of a terminus technicus. These were large stones erected as special reminders rather than small stones that could be carried. Jacob erected one at Bethel (Gen 28:18, 22; 35:14-15), which he had anointed (Gen 31:13; 35:14) as witness (along with a special stone heap that the whole family assembled) to the covenant he and Laban made. He also set one up to mark Rachel’s tomb (Gen 35:20). Moses himself, at God’s behest, would soon set up a sacred stone grouping, twelve such stones representing the number of tribes of Israel [24:4], suggesting that memorial stones or pillars are not per se illegal or heterodox when Israelites erected them as witnesses to some aspect of the one true God’s relationship to them.
What could not be tolerated was the Canaanite pagan usage of sacred stones/pillars. These were routinely condemned in the Old Testament because they marked pagan shrines and/or false religious locations of one sort or another. The Canaanite sacred stones probably were carved in most instances with idolatrous depictions and inscriptions (Lev 26:1, “Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves, and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before it”), and in many cases probably depicted in large sculpture of or at least a relief of the god they were intended to call attention to (e.g., 2 Kgs 10:27, “They demolished the sacred stone of Baal, and tore down the temple of Baal”). But carved or inscribed or not, such stones were forbidden to the Israelites if they were in any way associated with pagan idolatry. Merely moving them out of public view would not do; they might easily be found and reerected. Destruction was the only action appropriate for such symbols of paganism. Demolition of idols, which were mainly made of wood overlaid with gold or silver, could be accomplished by burning, demolition of sacred stones was accomplished by smashing.65
23:25 You shall serve the LORD your God, and he will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you. 26 None shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days. 27 I will send my terror before you and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. 28 And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you.
Hebrew tsirah occurs again in the Bible only in Deuteronomy 7:20 and in Joshua 24:12, also in reference to the conquest of Canaan. One rendering is “hornet,” which, if taken literally, must reflect some tradition of a plague of hornets sent against the Canaanites on the pattern of the Egyptian plagues. If taken figuratively, the divinely sent agency may have been none other than the pharaohs whose successive and devastating campaigns in Canaan drained the country of its resources, ruined its economy, and destroyed its fortifications, thereby facilitating its collapse under the Israelite onslaught. If such be the case, it is not just that tsirah may evoke word play with mitsrayim, “Egypt,” but that the tsirah may be the word for the insect that was the symbol of kingship of Lower Egypt. Another understanding of the term is some epidemic or perhaps leprosy, tsaraat.66
23:29 I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. 30 Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. 31 And I will set your border from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates, for I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. 32 You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. 33 They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.”
24:1 Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship from afar. 2 Moses alone shall come near to the LORD, but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him.”
24:3 Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.” 4 And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD. 6 And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. 7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.”
The Book of the Covenant is contained in chapters 20-23.
24:8 And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
24:9 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.
The additional description of the vision, “like the very heaven for purity,” requires interpretation. Hebrew ukeesem literally means “and like bone,” but can also express absolute identity, “bone of my bone” (Gen 2:23). The translation “like the very heaven for purity” indicates that the veil between heaven and earth is momentarily lifted.
The word tohar has two meanings, “clear” and “pure.” Both meanings may be functioning in Exod 24:10-11, where the imagery suggests that the vision of God on the heavenly throne is “clear,” meaning unobstructed. It also indicates that the “pure” environment of heaven has also momentarily engulfed the participants. Ugaritic texts describe Baal’s heavenly temple with the same language (CTA 4.v.81-82, 95-97). The experience is so surprising and dangerous that it requires a footnote. The writer clarifies that no one was killed: “But against the leaders of the Israelites he did not send his hand.” Instead of death, the participants acquire clairvoyant vision: “They beheld (haza) the God.” Hebrew haza often signifies prophetic insight.67
24:11 And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.
Those who saw God were expected to die (33:12-23).
24:12 The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”
Perhaps the best way to translate this verse would be: “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone – as well as the law and the commandment – which I have written for their instruction.” In other words, the verse intends to convey that it was the “tablets of stone” that God himself wrote, not all the laws of the covenant. Consistently in Exodus, it was only the tablets of the Ten Words/Commandments that God actually wrote. All other commandments were written by Moses according to God’s dictation (e.g., Exod 17:14, 24:4; 34:27; cf. Deut 27:3, 8; 31:9). Indeed, Deuteronomy is even more specific as to God’s personal writing being limited to the Ten Words/Commandments (Deut 4:13; 5:22; 10:2-4).68
From the ancient world outside of Israel, all surviving written evidence indicates that laws were understood to be given by a king to his people, not a god to his people. To be sure, the king could claim that a god or gods instructed him to promulgate the laws, but no claim close to the present one existed outside the biblical covenant – that God himself provided his laws directly to his covenant people and that he actually wrote the basic ones (the Ten Words/Commandments) personally on stone as a sign that all his laws came directly from him and are not the product of human invention. Israel’s teacher was thus God himself, who gave them his covenant “for their instruction.”69
24:13 So Moses rose with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14 And he said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we return to you. And behold, Aaron and Hur are with you. Whoever has a dispute, let him go to them.”
24:15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the LORD dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud.
This is an example of a well-known literary phenomenon – the climactic use of numbers. It appears in Akkadian and Ugaritic literature and often in the Bible. An action continues for six consecutive days, and then a new event occurs on the seventh. Here the six days are probably intended for spiritual preparation.70
24:17 Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
Childs, Brevard S. The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary. Westminster Press, 1974.
Dozeman, Thomas B. Exodus. 1st ed. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.
Propp, William H.C. Exodus 19-40. Yale University Press, 2006.
Sarna, Nahum M. Exodus. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1991.
Stuart, Douglas K. Exodus. Holman Reference, 2006.
1Dozeman, Exodus, 442-443.
2Stuart, Exodus, 423.
3Childs, The Book of Exodus, 367.
4Dozeman, Exodus, 452-453.
5Stuart, Exodus, 426.
7Propp, Exodus 19-40, 165.
8Childs, The Book of Exodus, 370.
9Sarna, Exodus, 107.
10Propp, Exodus 19-40, 166.
12Stuart, Exodus, 448-449.
13Propp, Exodus 19-40, 167-170.
14Dozeman, Exodus, 485-486.
15Stuart, Exodus, 454.
16Dozeman, Exodus, 487.
17Propp, Exodus 19-40, 174.
18Sarna, Exodus, 111.
20Childs, The Book of Exodus, 418-419.
21Propp, Exodus 19-40, 178.
23Dozeman, Exodus, 495.
24Sarna, Exodus, 114-115.
25Dozeman, Exodus, 508-509.
27Stuart, Exodus, 471-473.
28Sarna, Exodus, 119.
30Stuart, Exodus, 479-480.
31Dozeman, Exodus, 528-529.
32Propp, Exodus 19-40, 195.
34Sarna, Exodus, 120.
35Propp, Exodus 19-40, 198-199.
37Stuart, Exodus, 486-487.
39Sarna, Exodus, 122.
40Dozeman, Exodus, 532-533.
41Propp, Exodus 19-40, 214.
42Sarna, Exodus, 124.
43Stuart, Exodus, 492-494.
44Propp, Exodus 19-40, 232.
46Stuart, Exodus, 497-498.
47Propp, Exodus 19-40, 240.
49Sarna, Exodus, 131.
50Propp, Exodus 19-40, 251.
51Stuart, Exodus, 508.
52Propp, Exodus 19-40, 253.
53Dozeman, Exodus, 542-543.
55Propp, Exodus 19-40, 261.
56Sarna, Exodus, 139.
57Dozeman, Exodus, 547.
58Propp, Exodus 19-40, 273.
61Leviticus 25:2-7, 18-22; Nehemiah 10:31
621 Maccabees 6:49, 53; Josephus, Antiquities 13.8.1; 14.10.5; m. Seb.
63Sarna, Exodus, 144.
64Childs, The Book of Exodus, 486.
65Stuart, Exodus, 545-546.
66Sarna, Exodus, 149.
67Dozeman, Exodus, 567-568.
68Stuart, Exodus, 558.
70Sarna, Exodus, 154.