Exodus 21-23: God's good and deadly law - 26th October 2014 - Dave Walker

Bible reading: Romans 7:7-25

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The Bible is God’s word to us today. As we read the Bible trusting in Jesus we can be confident that we are hearing the voice of God’s Holy Spirit, speaking to us what we need to know today. Sometimes Christians talk about the Bible as being an instruction manual for life. And there’s truth in that – the Bible is the most practical book in the world – but in the Bible God’s word doesn’t come to us as a list of instructions. A list of commands; a to do list for today. No primarily it comes to us a story; a history of God’s actions in the world down through the ages. God’s big story of salvation. It’s a story which is big enough to swallow up the whole of human history; a story in which we have a place. But it’s very important that as we read the Bible we remember where our place in the story is. Followers of Jesus living now, after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, before Jesus’ return. We need to remember where we fit into God’s story.

This is especially important to remember when we come to a section of the Bible like we’re reading today, which is a list of commands. How should we read a list of commands like this? These commands too fit into God’s big story. They have a context in which they fit, they have a place in God’s story. And it’s a different place in the story than where we live now. So we have to remember where they fit in the story and where we fit in the story if we’re going to understand how they apply to us now. They do apply. There are many things we can learn from them. But only when we remember how the story has moved on.

Think of it like this: Going to school has been a significant part of my life. That’s still true now; every single day I am using all sorts of things that I learned at school. Sometimes I forget stuff I learned at school, and I need to go back to those things and re-learn them. Going to school still applies to me now. But it applies in a different way, because I’m at a different point in the story now. If I woke up in the morning, dug out my old school uniform and went the 250 miles or so to my old school on the Wirral, that would be misapplying it, wouldn’t it? They’d turn me away. If I don’t turn up to school on a Monday morning now, I’m no longer breaking the school rules or playing truant. School applies differently now.  The things I learned haven’t changed. But my context has. Do you see?

We need to remember that now as we read this section from the next bit of the book of Exodus, chapter 21-23, the bit that’s called ‘the book of the covenant’. Our God has not changed. Do you remember last week we were saying that God’s law is there to show us things about his character? That’s true, and what we learn about God from his law here is still true. But these laws were given to a specific people at a specific point in time – the people of Israel, just freed from Egypt, about to become the nation of God’s people in the promised land for the first time. The people whose role in God’s plan was to point forward to Jesus. Our situation is different. Jesus has come now. God’s people now are not a particular nation, God’s people now are followers of Jesus everywhere. So the laws we read here are not meant to be written onto the statute book of Britain, or Israel or any other nation. Doubtless we can learn wisdom from them, yes. But the way to apply them is to go first not to our nation, but to the church. What can these laws teach us about how we should be as followers of Jesus together, in a very different setting?

[Why does this matter? Because if we don’t remember this, if we just flatten the Bible out so that we forget how it is God’s big story, we’ll get into some bother. People who are dislike Christianity and the Bible will accuse us of picking and choosing from the Bible the bits we like, and we’ll have no answer. We’ll find our faith being shaken by discovering that the Bible here describes all sorts of practices, such as slavery, which we find abhorrent for good biblical reasons. Not just because we’re modern people but because the Christian gospel itself has caused us to see slavery as wrong. “So what’s this here?” we’ll think. That might cause us to give up obeying what God says in the Bible because we’ve misunderstood how he says it. Perhaps we’ll fall prey to the flexible morality of our time where you basically make up your ethics so that they suit what you want to do and only ever condemn other people. We’ll find ourselves diverted from the mission of the church so that we just become political campaigners. Outside parliament with placards. I’ve done that, it’s ok, it’s important that within a democracy Christians are represented. We have a voice, let’s use it for good. But let’s not get distracted by that from the mission of the church. We’ll become depressed by our failure and fearful of the consequences. We’ll fail to see that Jesus is the main thing. That is to miss the heart of the Bible, the whole point of the story of salvation itself.

Do you see how this matters? So as we read these laws, let’s do so as people who have been saved by the God who loves his people. So we read them to get to know him better. But let’s also do so as people who are aware that we are at a different point in the story now, principally because Jesus has come now.]

Exodus 22:14 - 23:9  "If a man borrows an animal from his neighbour and it is injured or dies while the owner is not present, he must make restitution.  15 But if the owner is with the animal, the borrower will not have to pay. If the animal was hired, the money paid for the hire covers the loss.  16 "If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife.  17 If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins.  18 "Do not allow a sorceress to live.  19 "Anyone who has sexual relations with an animal must be put to death.  20 "Whoever sacrifices to any god other than the LORD must be destroyed.  21 "Do not ill-treat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.  22 "Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan.  23 If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.  24 My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.  25 "If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a money-lender; charge him no interest.  26 If you take your neighbour's cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset,  27 because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.  28 "Do not blaspheme God or curse the ruler of your people.  29 "Do not hold back offerings from your granaries or your vats. "You must give me the firstborn of your sons.  30 Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day.  31 "You are to be my holy people. So do not eat the meat of an animal torn by wild beasts; throw it to the dogs.  "Do not spread false reports. Do not help a wicked man by being a malicious witness.  2 "Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd,  3 and do not show favouritism to a poor man in his lawsuit.  4 "If you come across your enemy's ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him.  5 If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help him with it.  6 "Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits.  7 Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.  8 "Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous.  9 "Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.

Now I’ve just read there a section of this – there’s lots more to it, but this is to give a flavour. What we have here are case laws. The Ten Commandments that we were looking at last week, those are the headlines; they spell out the key things; God had those written on stone, they were unchangeable for the people of Israel. These laws are case laws, and case laws are situation-specific. They apply in some situations and not in others. They often begin with the word “if” or “when” – “if this happens, do that…” that sort of thing. They explain what the Ten Commandments look like in a range of specific situations. You can see that here – there’s stuff here about not having other gods before the Lord in 22:20, there’s stuff about telling the truth in court, not bearing false witness, in chapter 23. In the Ten Commandments in practice. And here’s a big thing we can learn from it. It’s this:

The case laws show us that God wants his people to stand out from the background.

The set of situations in which these laws apply very much depends on the background in which the people live; you know, the practices of the people around them. They had just come out of Egypt and they were about to move into Canaan. And so it’s no surprise that these laws here are telling them not to be like the Egyptians and the Canaanites. God wants his people to stand out from the background. That’s part of what it means to be holy. Holy people do not just blend in. You can see that with some specifics which seem pretty odd to us. So have a flick back over to page 78, chapter 20 verse 25: “If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it.  26 And do not go up to my altar on steps, lest your nakedness be exposed on it.'  Make your altars simple and make sure that the priests don’t expose themselves during the sacrifices. Uh? Well the Canaanites used to build very fancy altars, and on the altars they had special shrine prostitutes. So a big show and indecent exposure were commonplace in Canaanite worship. Don’t be like that; keep the focus on the LORD and the sacrifice, instead of on that other stuff. Be holy. Do you see? Or at the other end of the section, chapter 23 verse 19: “Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk.” Eh? Why would you? Well again this seems to be a Canaanite fertility ritual. The prohibitions on bestiality and sorceresses are similar – they seemed to be a part of those same religious practices. Don’t join in with that. You’re my people, says the LORD. Stand out from the background. And the way that you stand out depends to some extent on what the background looks like.

Now another example of that is the case of slavery. Now I haven’t got time here to explain why slavery is still allowed in the Bible here when it was Bible believing Christians like Wilberforce who for Bible reasons finally put an end to slavery in this country. Save to say that the fact that God regulates something doesn’t mean that he necessarily approves of it – lots of these laws are to do with how to manage and restrict sin. The laws never command people to have slaves; they just regulate what happens when there are slaves. But again, think yourself into the context of these Israelite people. Slavery was all they had ever known. It was their recent history – living as slaves in Egypt – and it was the way of all the nations around them. Against that background, the thing that is striking is how distinct and different the Israelites are to be in the way they treat slaves. In Egypt and in Hittite law, slaves could be captured against their will, they were slaves for life, and if you were their master you would not be punished if your killed your slave. Contrast that with what the LORD tells his people. Look at 21:2 – “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything.” These slaves sold themselves to pay for debts. It was forbidden to take people captive and put them into slavery – look at 21:16 – punishable by death. And killing a slave was also punishable by death, verse 20. This is not the horrors of African slavery in the plantations. The fact that these people are God’s people, the God who values the life of any person, slave or free, the God who has just saved his people from slavery – that has to have a huge affect on the way they act towards slaves. They must not just blend in with the background. Ultimately, they are to be the sort of people who free their slaves without payment. Their story has to shape their behaviour. Similarly the way they act towards aliens, immigrants, look at chapter 22 verse 21: “Do not ill-treat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.” Do you see?

Even that most famous one: “an eye for an eye”. Have you seen the context? Look at chapter 21 verse 22: “If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows.  23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take 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.” We can see from this the amazingly high price that God puts on human life. Nothing but a life can pay for it. That’s the case for anyone – men and women, rich and poor, slaves, even here the unborn. But again there is restraint; it’s not escalation. Not a life for an eye. Not life for life for life. Not ten lives for a life. It’s not “if someone kills one of your citizens, send in the tanks.”

The laws are there to help the people stand out from the background, a background which was in many ways pretty dark. Before we modern people get too smug, we need to see that here is the same challenge to us as Christians now. Our society may not have slavery like the Egyptians or the Canaanites, but it is built on the backs of slavery around the world which is far enough out of sight for us not to notice it. We Christians ought to be distinct from the world around in the way we engage with that. In the way we spend our money, in the economies we support. We Christians should be distinct in the value we put on human life, in a society where the value of the life of elderly or unborn people seems to be diminishing all the time. 200,000 aborted every year. 9 out of 10 of all Downs syndrome children. And what about aliens, immigrants? The people of Israel were to welcome aliens, because they had been aliens. That ought to affect us too, shouldn’t it, in our attitude to outsiders, both newcomers to our congregation and newcomers to our nation because, as Peter makes clear, we too are aliens and strangers in this world?

Do you see the challenge here? God’s law says to us “there is no such thing as a Sunday only Christian.” Living with the LORD is seven days a week. We cannot blend in as Christians. We must be distinct. Our context may have changed in many ways, but the challenge is the same. What might it mean to stand out from the background in a culture that says that the way to live well is to acquire as much stuff as you can? What might it mean to stand out in a culture that says that sex is cheap, and that the most important things is making sure that you feel fulfilled? What might it mean to stand out in a culture that says that your identity is built upon what you look like or how well you dress?

Belonging to the LORD is about how you are in the workplace, when you’re with friends and family, when you’re on your own, when you’re paying your staff or making decisions about what to spend money on, when you’re surfing the internet, when you’re voting in elections or borrowing someone else’s property or thinking about your giving. Don’t be like the world around you. Stand out.

So we’ve seen haven’t we that God’s law has these big functions for us as Christians as we read it. It may not apply to us now as Christians in quite the same way as it did to the people back then, but it still has lots to say to us. It shows us God’s character, as we saw last week. It challenges us to stand out from the background. But there’s one more very important lesson we need to learn from God’s law. In many ways the most important of all:

Let God’s law drive you to Jesus.

This is where that other reading we had from Romans 7 comes in. Remember that these laws we’ve been reading fit into God’s big story: they come before Jesus. They show how much we need Jesus. Now that was true in history – in many ways the rest of the Old Testament is the story of how the people of Israel failed to keep these laws. They broke faith with the God who had saved them. With devastating consequences. These laws have penalties, and the penalties added up. They were unable to save themselves.

And if you’ve been reading these laws rigorously, last week and this week, perhaps you’ll be aware that they do the same thing to us. The laws show us our failure. When we read the law rigorously, when we think hard about how we’re getting on with loving the lord with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and loving our neighbour as ourselves which, don’t forget, Jesus said was the whole thing summed up, we have to be aware that we don’t manage it. Don’t we? A right and honest response to God’s law is to think “I can’t.” I can’t do it. Even if I want to, I know that I will fail. As the apostle Paul puts it in Romans 7. “The good I want to do I do not to. The evil I do not want to do, that I do.”

The law can describe for us what righteous living looks like, but it’s powerless to actually produce it in us. Just being told to be good doesn’t make you good.

But God didn’t stop the story there, did he? Jesus came as the fulfiller of the law. He kept it to the letter, just as God meant it. He loves the Lord with all his heart. He didn’t go after the God-substitutes that the rest of us go after. He honoured his father and his mother. He was faithful in mind as well as in deed. He told the truth in everything. And yet, crucially, he paid the penalty of the law. He died the death of a lawbreaker. He carried its punishments.

Are you feeling condemned by God’s word? Are you aware of your failure? If so, don’t stay there. Let God’s law point you to what comes next – Jesus. He paid the penalty for you. You need his forgiveness. You need his Spirit to change you. Of course you can’t do it. But he did it.

And, if you’re a follower of Jesus, he will work in you and one day he’ll finish his work so that you do keep God’s law. Think about the wording of the Ten Commandments for a minute. It’s weird really. How do they begin? Not “Don’t do this” or “You must not”, like you’d expect. They say “you shall not”. That’s not just a command, it’s a promise. If we’re followers of Jesus, there will come a day when the goodness we see in the words of the law will be written all over our hearts. You shall have no other gods before me. It’s a promise. As Jesus is, so shall we be.