Exodus 21: Lessons Regarding Divine Justice for Believers to Follow

Introduction: After giving the Ten Commandments, God gave the laws that interpret them. These ordinances are spread throughout the Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. A guiding principle in God’s laws for mankind is justice. Although God is the source of love (1 Jo. 4:8), He is also the source of justice (2 Thess. 1:6). Through the Law, He reveals His character and the meaning of divine justice. His guiding principles still hold wisdom today.

General overview on God’s civil justice laws. There are three general principles behind God’s system of justice for mankind. First, He mandates that His people protect the rights of the poor and misfortunate. This type of social justice is expected from every believer. “[L]earn to do good, seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, [and] plead for the widow.” (Is. 1:17). “[D]o justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah. 6:8). The commandment to take care of the poor, the weak, and the less fortunate is repeated throughout the Bible (e.g., Prov. 28:5; Jer, 22:3; Eze. 18:21; Micah 6:8; Zeck. 7:9; Jam. 1:27; Matt. 23:23). This rule is so important that Jesus will ask each person on the Day of Judgment what that person did for the poor and the needy (Matt. 25:40). Second, divine justice also requires the fair and impartial judgment of sin. Because God is just, He must also judge sin (Dt. 7:10-11). For the unsaved, He will judge their sins in heaven. On Earth, He uses His appointed civic leaders and institutions, like the courts, police officers, and soldiers, as His “avengers” to administer His justice (Rom. 13:4). Through His Law, He sets forth principles for leaders to follow to ensure that the punishment is proportionate to the crime. His Law also sets forth clear and fixed standards of right and wrong for others to follow. Third, through His Law, He also sets forth standards for civil restitution. This is the principle in the Law that requires that tortfeasors set right or correct the wrongs that they have done. This principle is separate and unrelated to the concept of forgiveness. Believers are expected to forgive each other. But they are also expected to correct any wrongs that they have done towards others.

The seven examples of divine justice in Exodus Chapter 21. Using these three general principles of divine justice, God provides several examples of its application in civil society. First, through the laws of protections imposed upon those who had servants, He mandated that believers show mercy toward the poor and the less fortunate. Second, through the laws regarding freed servants who choose to stay with their masters out of love, He provided an example of the kind of relationship He wants with you after He frees you from bondage. He wants you to become a slave to righteousness. Part of being a slave to righteousness involves caring for those who were once in bondage like you. Third, from the law of the kinsman redeemer for a daughter sold into servitude or marriage, He symbolically shows believers of their need for a kinsman redeemer of their own. Through the New Testament, He reveals that Jesus is our kinsman redeemer. Fourth, as part of the administration of divine justice, He explains that the eternal penalty for breaking the Ten Commandments is death. For certain crimes like murder, He also mandates capital punishment. Fifth, to protect those falsely accused of murder from capital punishment, He promised to create places where His people could receive a trial by an impartial jury. He later explained that He required the testimony of two witnesses before someone could be put to death. Sixth, as a general principle for punishing crimes, He also required that the punishment fit the crime. Finally, as part of the general principle of restitution, He sets forth several types of property crimes that require the tortfeasor to reimburse his or her victim for any harm caused by his or her actions. The New Testament later reveals that believers must forgive others even when they fail to pay restitution. But the believer should never use God’s forgiveness as a license to ignore their debts to others when the believer can pay them.

1. Show Mercy to the Less Fortunate. Ex. 21:1-11, 20-21, 26-27.

  • God’s rule requiring that a Jewish indentured servant be set free in the seventh year. In Moses’ day, persons sometimes had to sell their labor on a long-term basis because they were financially desperate. At the time, no government existed to provide welfare benefits for society’s poorest members. If a person could not sell his or her labor, the stark alternative for some was starvation. To keep a person from going hungry, God tolerated but did not endorse temporary arrangements where a person sold their labor for money. But God sought to protect the person who was forced to sell his or her labor. To set the Jews apart from the other nations around them, God required that such servants be offered their freedom after six years. This included any family members that he brought with him: “1 Now these are the ordinances which you are to set before them: If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment. If he comes alone, he shall go out alone; if he is the husband of a wife, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out alone.” (Ex. 21:1-4). Unfortunately, most English translations of these verses create confusion with the imprecise translation of “Hebrew slaves.” These individuals were in fact indentured servants. We know that they were not actual slaves because God expressly forbade one Jew from owning another Jew as an actual slave: “If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves.” (Lev. 25:39). The Pulpit Commentary on this chapter observes that the Jewish bondservants were treated no worse than any other hired servant: “Hebrew bondmen it placed nearly upon a par with hired servants.”1 To emphasis to His protections for these servants, God repeated His requirement that the servant be released after six years in the book of Deuteronomy: “If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, then he shall serve you six years, but in the seventh year you shall set him free.” (Dt. 15:12). But the Jews did not listen to these commandments. God later condemned them through the prophet Jeremiah because they failed to keep His commandments by keeping their countrymen as indentured servants for more than six years at a time: “At the end of seven years each of you shall set free his Hebrew brother who has been sold to you and has served you six years, you shall send him out free from you; but your forefathers did not obey Me or incline their ear to Me.” (Jer. 34:14). Solomon showed his wisdom by refusing to make slaves out of any of God’s people. He instead recruited the poor who might have otherwise sold themselves to work in the government: “But Solomon did not make slaves of the sons of Israel; for they were men of war, his servants, his princes, his captains, his chariot commanders, and his horsemen.” (1 Kings 9:22). Through his God-given wisdom, Solomon showed the way for civil government to provide for the needs of the poor to keep them from selling themselves. In the New Testament, the early Church members also prevented others from falling into poverty by selling their things when needed to give to those who were in need (Acts 2:32-45).

After giving the Ten Commandments, Moses gave the interpretive laws2

  • God’s requirement that the Jews help prevent freed servants from returning to bondage. God did not want His people to be in bondage. Thus, He required that any freed servant be given the means to support himself or herself after being freed: “When you set him free, you shall not send him away empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your wine vat; you shall give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today.” (Dt. 15:13-15). Thus, like divorce, indentured servitude was an institution that God tolerated without endorsing. Through the examples of Solomon and the early Church, God showed His plan for government and the Church to help prevent the most extreme forms of poverty that lead to both spiritual and economic bondage.

  • Protections given to a Jewish servant or foreign slave of war. The only true slaves were men and women from the pagan nations who were captured in battle after waging warfare against God’s people. There were also foreigners living in Israel who sold their labors. But those individuals were treated like Jewish indentured servants. The Jews never engaged in the commerce of buying and selling slaves as did the nations around them (Lev. 25:44; Kaiser, et al. Hard Sayings of the Bible (Inter Varsity Press 1996) p. 149-50). For both prisoners of war and indentured servants, God required that these people be given protection. Among other things, prisoners of war and indentured servants were to be given time off from work to observe the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10; Dt. 5:14). No similar protection existed in the nations around Israel. God also required that an owner causing the death of a servant or slave be punished for murder, just like any other type of murder: “20 If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished.” (Ex. 21:20). The Law, however, allowed for corporal punishment of a prisoner of war or an indentured servant. Other laws would have specified when corporal punishment would have been allowed. Among other things, the servant could not refuse to engage in labor on non-Sabbath days. On non-Sabbath days and until the expiration of the labor contract, the servant was deemed the owner’s “property” for purposes of labor only: “21 If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.” (Ex. 21:21). Yet, if a master injured a servant through abuse, God mandated that the servant be set free. The servant would be absolved of his or her debts: “26 If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. 27 And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.” (Ex. 21:26-27). No similar protections existed in any other society. God even required that believers help any person seeking to escape bondage: “15 You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. 16 He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him.” (Dt. 23:15). Again, no similar protection for escaped slaves to avoid returning to their masters existed in the societies that surrounded Israel. Jesus later came to fulfill the Law by freeing all who are in bondage (Lk. 4:14-21). Thus, neither slavery nor indentured servitude was an institution that God wanted for mankind.

  • Showing justice and compassion is more important than other aspects of the law. Jesus later condemned those who claimed to follow the Law but failed to show justice and compassion: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.” (Matt. 23:23). “For you pay tithe of mint and rue and every kind of garden herb, and yet disregard justice and the love of God; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.” (Lk. 11:42). Because compassion towards a servant was a “weightier” matter of the Law, the rules regarding indentured servants precede God’s discussion regarding the rules for capital punishment.

2. Be a Slave to Righteousness and a Bond-Servant for God. Ex. 21:5-6.

  • God’s rule permitting bond-servants to stay with their employers. If a freed servant desired to stay with his master out of love, God permitted the servant to stay: “But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,’ then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently.” (Ex. 21:5-6). Moses repeated this rule in Deuteronomy: “It shall come about if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he fares well with you; then you shall take an awl and pierce it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your servant forever. Also you shall do likewise to your maidservant.” (Dt. 15:16-17).

  • Paul became a bond-servant for God. In the New Testament, Paul drew upon these verses in Exodus 21:5-6 to refer to himself as someone freed from the bondage of sin who voluntarily decided to make himself a “doulos” for God (Phil. 1:1; Rom. 1:1; Col. 1:7; Tit. 1:1; cf. Jam. 1:1). What is a “doulos”? In the NKJV and the NIV, the Greek word “doulos” is loosely translated as a “servant”. In the NASB, it is more precisely translated as a “bond-servant.” By calling himself a “bond-servant,” Paul said that he was a freed servant or slave who voluntarily chose to stay with Christ out of love. Are you a slave to the person who set you free from bondage? Or, are you still hanging out with your old jailor? (Eph. 6:5-8).

  • Become a slave to righteousness. The Bible tells us that everyone is a slave to something. You are either a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness: “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” (Ro. 6:16). “Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.”’ (Jo. 8:34). “Therefore, do not let sin rule your mortal bodies so that you obey their desires.” (Rom. 6:12). “And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen. 4:7). If we freely embrace sin, God will eventually hand us over to the lusts of the flesh and our addictions (Rom. 1:24-28; Eph. 4:19; Ps. 81:12). As a slave to righteousness, you cannot follow the morals of the world (Lev. 18:1; Ezek. 20:18-19). Thus, God commands that “each of you know how to possess his own vessel [body] in sanctification and honor.” (1 Thess. 4:4). Have you become a slave to righteousness? Are you offering your body as a “living sacrifice” for God? (Ro. 12:1).

3. The Law of the Kinsman Redeemer for Daughters Sold by Their Fathers. Ex. 21:7-11.

  • The law regarding daughters sold as wives to support their families. Among the saddest types of economic arrangements when persons became financially desperate, the worst was when a family sold a daughter into a marriage for money. In addition to being unfair to the daughter, she could not simply go home after six years of marriage. God’s institution of marriage was meant to be permanent. Yet, because God cares about the oppressed, He created protections for the woman if her husband turned on her. Among other things, He prevented the husband from selling the wife. He also created a means for her family to “redeem” her if her husband no longer wanted her: “If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do. If she is displeasing in the eyes of her master who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He does not have authority to sell her to a foreign people because of his unfairness to her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. 10 If he takes to himself another woman, he may not reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. 11 If he will not do these three things for her, then she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.” (Ex. 21:7-11). In circumstances where the daughter was rejected, God allowed for a “kinsman” redeemer to free her with a monetary payment (Lev. 25:26, 48). If no kinsman redeemer came, God still required the husband to free her during the Jubilee year if she could not repay the monies that he had given to her family. This rule of release also most likely included prisoners of war (Lev. 25:54). Jesus was born as a human to be a kinsman redeemer for us all. On the first day of Jesus’ public ministry, he entered the synagogue and read from Isaiah 61:1-2. After reading the passage, “He has come to proclaim release to the captives . . . to set free those who are oppressed,” Jesus proclaimed: “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk. 4:14-21). Although Christ freed us from the spiritual consequences of sin, the time for the physical captives to be set free will not happen until His Millennial Reign. Until that time, it is the ruler of this world who places people into bondage. It is the duty of believers to free those who are in bondage. Until the Millennial Reign, poverty will always exist (Matt. 26:11; Lk. 14:7; Jo. 12:8; Dt. 15:11). But, like Solomon or the early Church believers, believers can use the government and the Church to prevent the most extreme forms of poverty.

4. God’s Capital Punishment For Breaking the Ten Commandments. Ex. 21:12-16.

  • The Sixth Commandment: Intentional homicide. As one of the oldest rules in the Bible, God required capital punishment when a person is properly convicted of intentional or first degree murder. This was another part of God’s definition of divine justice: “12 He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. . . . 14 If, however, a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbor, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from My altar, that he may die.” (Ex. 21:12, 14). “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” (Gen. 9:6). “If a man takes the life of any human being, he shall surely be put to death.” (Lev. 24:17). “Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death.” (Nu. 35:31). The is one exception to this rule. Soldiers and law enforcement officers who kill in the line of duty do not commit murder because their killings are sanctioned under the Law. When they kill in the line of duty, they serve as God’s “avengers” (Ro. 13:3-4; 1 Pet. 2:14). Excluding this one exception, Jesus later revealed that all have at times broken the Sixth Commandment. If you have ever been angry with your brother or called someone a fool, Jesus says that you have also committed an act of murder in God’s eyes (Matt. 5:21-26; 1 Jo. 3:15-16). Likewise, if you have broken one of the laws, you are guilty of having broken them all (Jam. 2:10-11). By studying the Law, your sins become known to you (Ro. 3:20). Conversely, if you do not study the Law, you may not fully appreciate the mercy and grace that you have received.

Cain murdered Abel3

  • The Fifth Commandment: Crimes against parents. Honoring a person’s father and mother is part of the Fifth Commandment (Ex. 20:12). A person’s parents were God’s intended institution for passing down His laws and the teachings of the Bible (Dt. 4:9-10; 6:7; 11:19; Prov. 22:6; Ps. 78:4-6). For this reason, it was a capital crime in God’s eyes to strike or dishonor a person’s father or mother: “15 He who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. . . . “17 He who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” (Ex. 21:15, 17; Dt. 21:18-21). “If there is anyone who curses his father or his mother, he shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his bloodguiltiness is upon him.” (Lev. 20:9). “Cursed is he who dishonors his father or mother. And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.”’ (Dt. 27:16). “He who curses his father or his mother, his lamp will go out in time of darkness.” (Prov. 20:20). Jesus later repeated the capital punishment for this crime in the New Testament: “For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother' and, ‘he who speaks evil of father or mother is to be put to death.”’ (Matt. 15:4; Mk. 7:10). Yet, according to Jewish interpretative law, these penalties existed only as a deterrent. They were never actually enforced. According to the Talmud, “There never has been a case of a ‘stubborn and rebellious son’ brought to trial and never will be.” (b. Sanhedrin 71a). Only by mercy and grace were these laws not enforced. But this remains God’s law when non-believers are judged before the Great White Throne Hall in heaven (Rev. 20:11-15).

  • Part of the Eighth Commandment: Kidnapping. Theft of any kind is banned under the Eighth Commandment (Ex. 20:15; Dt. 5:19). Stealing a person through kidnapping was therefore even more abhorrent in God’s eyes. When properly proven with two or more witnesses, this type of crime also required capital punishment: “16 He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” (Ex. 21:16). But Moses later clarified that the kidnapping had to also involve either injury to the victim or an attempt to sell the victim into slavery: “If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from among you.” (Dt. 24:7). While the penalties for disobeying parents served only as a deterrent, the penalty of death for kidnapping was enforced along with first degree murder. This law also showed that God was against those who captured and sold slaves. Thus, God never would have condoned the slave trade. Indeed, it was the conviction of the sin behind the slave trade that caused a former Royal Navy slave trader named John Newton to publish in 1779 the song “Amazing Grace”.

  • The penalty for breaking the other Commandments. Although not discussed in this chapter, breaking the other Ten Commandments also brought the penalty of death. For example, the crimes of worshiping other gods and idolatry (First and Second Commandments) were punishable by death (Ex. 22:20; Dt. 13:6, 10; 17:2, 6; 8:19; Jdg. 10:6-1; 1 Kgs. 9:6-7). The penalty for breaking for taking the Lord’s name in vain (the Third Commandment) was also death (Lev. 24:16). Likewise, the penalty for breaking the Sabbath before Christ came (the Fourth Commandment) was also death (Nu. 15:33-36). As another example, the penalty for adultery (the Seventh Commandment) was also death (Lev. 20:10; 18:20).

  • First degree murder is the only crime that requires capital punishment today. Christ freed believers from the eternal consequences of breaking the Ten Commandments (Gal. 3:13). Yet, for non-believers, those who break the Ten Commandments will still face judgment in heaven (Rev. 20:11-15). Today, the only crime that God requires that people punish through death is first degree murder. When an intentional homicide is not punished according to God’s Law, the victim’s blood cries out to God for judgment against the nation: “So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. And you shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord am dwelling in the midst of the sons of Israel.” (Nu. 35:33-34). Today, many Christians think that capital punishment is immoral. But if someone is convicted in a fair trial with at least two witnesses, that view is not consistent with God’s law. If our nation allows the innocents’ “blood to pollute the land”, we should not expect God’s blessings on our nation to continue.

5. God Requires Due Process For Criminal Defendants. Ex. 21:13.

  • Manslaughter. After giving the Sixth Commandment against murder, God required that mankind distinguish between premeditated murder and deaths that result from either accidental or negligent conduct. For those who had been falsely accused of first degree murder, God promised to appoint a place where the accused “could flee” to in order to receive a fair trial: “13 But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee.” (Ex. 21:13). “[Y]ou shall select for yourselves cities to be your cities of refuge, that the manslayer who has killed any person unintentionally may flee there.” (Nu. 35:11). “These six cities shall be for refuge for the sons of Israel, and for the alien and for the sojourner among them; that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there.” (Nu. 35:15). Before Moses died, God revealed the first three of six “cities of refuge” where the priests could give the accused protection and a fair trial (Nu. 35:1-34; Dt. 4:41-43; 19:1-13). After the Jews invaded the Promised Land, God revealed to Joshua the names of three additional cities (Josh. 20:1-9). If the Jews acted in faith to seize all of the lands promised to them, God promised to reveal three additional cities (Dt. 19:8-10).

  • Christ is our refuge. These six cities of refuge all foreshadow Christ. It is to Christ that we “have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us.” (Heb. 6:18). “The Lord also will be a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble;” (Ps. 9:9). “Each will be like a refuge from the wind and a shelter from the storm, like streams of water in a dry country, like the shade of a huge rock in a parched land.” (Is. 32:2). God does not want any to perish (2 Pet. 3:9). Are you seeking refuge in Christ in your times of trial and tribulation? If you already know Christ, are you looking to help people find their refuge in Him? (Ps. 46:1; 91:2).

  • God required a jury trial with two or more confirming witnesses. To protect the innocent, God prohibited a conviction for first degree murder without a jury trial: “The cities shall be to you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the manslayer will not die until he stands before the congregation for trial.” (Nu. 35:12). He also required the testimony of two or more witnesses. “If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death at the evidence of witnesses, but no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness.” (Nu. 35:30). “On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.” (Dt. 17:6; 19:15). The requirement for two or witnesses was to ensure that the innocent were not falsely convicted. Capital punishment is criticized by some because innocent people die based upon the faulty testimony of one witness. But this problem would not exist if governments used God’s standards of due process for capital crimes. If properly followed, punishment would also likely be reserved for the most egregious crimes like mass murders where two or more witnesses would be easy to find.

6. The Law of Proportionality for Punishment. Ex. 21:18-9, 22-24.

  • The punishment must fit the crime. As part of divine justice, God also required that the punishment fit the crime. Although assault with a deadly weapon can lead to murder, God prohibited murder if the assault did not lead to the person’s death: “18 If men have a quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but remains in bed, 19 if he gets up and walks around outside on his staff, then he who struck him shall go unpunished; he shall only pay for his loss of time, and shall take care of him until he is completely healed.” (Ex. 21:18-19). The aggressor would still be punished. But the punishment would fit the crime. Thus, even if the aggressor intended to kill his victim with an arrow, a rock, his fist or other object, an unsuccessful murder attempt could not be punished through death. That is part of God’s law of proportional judgment.

  • Battery causing death to an unborn baby. Among the defenseless that God seeks to protect are the unborn. He left no doubt that the unborn baby is subject to His protection. An intentional act leading to the death of a baby in vitro required the death of the aggressor. This was part of the law of proportionality, frequently called “an eye for an eye”: “22 If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. 23 But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Ex. 21:22-24). “If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him facture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him.” (Lev. 24:19-20). “Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (Dt. 19:21). According to the famous Jewish rabbi Rashi (1040 -1105 A.D.), the meaning behind this rule is that the punishment must fit the crime. In cases involving only injury, the punishment required financial reimbursement equal to the value of the damages inflicted on the innocent person. In the context of the unborn child, the person’s punishment depended upon whether he or she killed the unborn life. Death was only appropriate where the tortfeasor’s actions killed the unborn baby. These rules also have relevance to the hotly debated subject of abortion. For those who feel that abortion is acceptable under God’s law, they should meditate closely upon these verses. If God did not consider an unborn baby to be a human like any other, why would He use that specific example to give His “eye for an eye” law of proportional judgment? Clearly, He sees a fetus as a person.

God creates every fetus, and He protects with His Law4

  • The prohibition against killing children. God makes each child within the womb (Ps. 139:13). Thus, child sacrifices to the gods of that time (i.e., Molech) were expressly prohibited: “You shall not give any of your offspring to offer them to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God; I am the LORD.” (Lev. 18:21). “I will also set My face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given some of his offspring to Molech, so as to defile My sanctuary and to profane My holy name.” (Lev. 20:3-4). Today, the god of our world is ourselves (Is. 47:8-10). Would sacrificing an unborn child to meet our own selfish desires be any less of an abomination in God’s eyes?

  • A society that fails to stop child sacrifices will also be cursed. In the context of killing children, God warned: “If the people of the land, however, should ever disregard that man when he gives any of his offspring to Molech, so as not to put him to death, then I Myself will set My face against that man and against his family, and I will cut off from among their people both him and all those who play the harlot after him, by playing the harlot after Molech.” (Lev. 20:1-5). God further warned that He would punish the people of Canaan for their immoral practices (Lev. 18:24-29). Their curse dated back to the curse against Noah’s son Ham (Gen. 9:24-25). He also warned the Jews that He would curse the land if they sacrificed their children: “And shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and their daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with the blood.” (Ps. 106:38). God does not desire that any nation or any person perish (2 Pet. 3:9). He spared the people of Nineveh after they repented (Jonah 3:10). Yet, not wanting to punish an unrepentant nation doesn’t mean that God won’t eventually do so. He repeatedly judged Israel when it rebelled. Self-destructive behaviors between parents and their children is one sign of a curse on a nation: “Further, you will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters you will eat.” (Lev. 26:29; Dt. 28:53). From 1973 through 2016, more than 58 million legal abortions have occurred in the U.S. If God felt comfortable disciplining His chosen people when they rebelled, the western world should not express surprise if God also disciplines the western world for rebelling against His laws.

  • Punishments for wrongdoing must not be executed outside the criminal justice system. Mohandas Gandhi once famously criticized this passage in the Old Testament by stating: “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” Yet, as set forth above the point of God’s Law is to set forth a standard of proportional judgment. Some believe that Jesus repudiated this law when taught that a person who is attacked should not fight back (Matt. 5:38-43). Jesus, however, was not dismissing the Old Testament law as an inferior standard of morality. He was merely clarifying a misunderstanding about who was to carry out justice. Even in Old Testament times, personal vengeance was against God’s Law (See, Lev. 19:18; Rom. 12:19). Jesus’ point is that punishment should be carried out through the proper authority, not by the aggrieved individual. God uses His appointed leaders on Earth as His “avengers” against evil in the world (Rom. 13:4).

  • The law of gross negligence involving dangerous animals. Another example of the law of proportional punishment involved negligence in keeping dangerous animals. God required the owner’s death where the owner was on notice of the animal’s violent nature and the animal then kills another innocent person: “28 If an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall surely be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall go unpunished. 29 If, however, an ox was previously in the habit of goring and its owner has been warned, yet he does not confine it and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death.” (Ex. 21:28-29; Gen. 9:5). The modern day equivalent of this might be an owner of a pitbull who fails to put the animal down after an attack. If the animal attacks and kills again, the victim’s blood is on the owner’s head.

7. Believers Must Also Pay Restitution to Restore Their Victims. Ex. 21:26-36.

  • The law of restitution. Another part of divine justice is the payment of restitution. A tortfeasor had to compensate a victim for his or her crimes: “30 If a ransom is demanded of him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is demanded of him. 31 Whether it gores a son or a daughter, it shall be done to him according to the same rule.” (Ex. 21:30-31). A special exception to this rule existed in the case of indentured servants who had received money for an injury. If the servant received money from an injury, the money would go toward paying off part or all of the loan leading to the indentured servitude: “32 If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall give his or her master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.” (Ex. 21:30-32). This law effectively put a lien on the injured servant’s recovery. The master would not be able to profit from the servant’s injury. Presumably, the payment would either shorten or cancel out the indentured servitude depending upon the size of the payment. It is also interesting to note that the sum of 30 silver shekels was also the exact amount handed to Judas when he betrayed Jesus and handed Him over to the authorities (Matt. 26:15; 27:3, 9).

Biblical justice includes restitution5

  • Restitution for damaged property or livestock. Any act of negligence leading to the destruction of another person’s property or livestock required that the innocent party be made whole: “33 If a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it over, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34 the owner of the pit shall make restitution; he shall give money to its owner, and the dead animal shall become his.” (Ex. 21:33-34). This also included damage caused by one owner’s animal damaging or hurting another animal: “35 If one man’s ox hurts another’s so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide its price equally; and also they shall divide the dead ox. 36 Or if it is known that the ox was previously in the habit of goring, yet its owner has not confined it, he shall surely pay ox for ox, and the dead animal shall become his.” (Ex. 21:35-36). Saying that you are sorry does not by itself fulfill God’s law. Are there victims of your sins that you need to make whole? If you have stolen from God, can you repay Him by making your life a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1).

  • Christ did not relieve us of the need to pay restitution. Although seldom preached in churches today, Christ did not relieve us of our obligation to restore our victims. After Zaccheus accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, he promised to pay restitution four times above the amount that he had defrauded from others in the past: “Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.’” (Lk. 19:8). This suggests that Zaccheus had defrauded others in the past without any remorse (2 Sam. 12:6). Jesus did not correct him or say that this was unnecessary. Christians correctly teach the need for forgiveness. But churches still need to preach the need to pay restitution. If you fail to restore your victims, what kind of witness are you?

  • God will not accept our offerings unless we first restore our victims. God further commands that a person pay restitution “on the day he presents his guilt offering.” (Lev. 6:6). Jesus later clarified that you must restore your victims before you seek God’s forgiveness: “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” (Matt. 5:23-24). Although failing to do this will not affect your salvation, failing to do this will affect your fellowship with God. Are there any people that you have wronged who need to be made whole?

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