Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. THEFT (vers. 1-5). The illustrations in the law relate to thefts of cattle. But the principles embodied apply to thefts generally (cf. ver. 7). Note -
1. The law which punishes the theft, protects the thief's life. It refuses, indeed, to be responsible for him in the event of his being smitten in the night-time, while engaged in the act of housebreaking (ver. 2) - large rights of self-defence being in this case necessary for the protection of the community. The thief might be killed under a misapprehension of his purpose; or by a blow struck at random in the darkness, and under the influence of panic; or in justifiable self-defence, in a scuffle arising from the attempt to detain him. In other circumstances, the law will not allow the thief's life to be taken (ver. 3). All the ends of justice are served by his being compelled to make restitution. Blood is not to be spilt needlessly. The killing of a thief after sunrise is to be dealt with as murder. We infer from this that theft ought not to be made a capital offence. English law, at the beginning of this century, was, in this respect, far behind the law of Moses.
2. Theft is to be dealt with on the principle of restitution.
(1) It calls for more than simple restitution. At most the restitution of the simple equivalent brings matters back to the position in which they were before the criminal act was committed. That position ought never to have been disturbed; and punishment is still due to the wrongdoer for having disturbed it. Hence the law that if the stolen animal is found in the thief's hand alive, he shall restore double (ver. 4); if he has gone the length of killing or selling it, he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep (ver. 1).
(2) Penalty is proportioned to offence. Both as respects the value of the things stolen, and as respects the lengths to which criminality has proceeded.
3. If direct restitution is impossible, the thief shall be compelled to make restitution by his labour - "He shall be sold for his theft" (ver. 3). It would be an improvement in the administration of justice if this principle were more frequently acted on. The imprisoned thief might be made to work out an equivalent for his theft; and this, in addition to the hardships of his imprisonment, might be accepted as legal restitution.
II. DAMAGE (vers. 5, 6). The damage done, in the one case to a field or vineyard, by allowing a beast to stray into it, and feed upon the produce; in the other, by setting fire to thorn hedges, and injuring the corn-stacks, or standing corn, is supposed to be unintentional. Yet, as arising from preventible causes - from carelessness and neglect - the owner of the beast, or the person who kindled the fire, is held responsible. He must make good the damage from the best of his own possessions. We are held fully responsible for the consequences of neglect (cf. Hebrews 2:3).
III. DISHONEST RETENTION OF PROPERTY (vers. 7-14). Cases of this kind involved judicial investigation.
1. If the charge of dishonest retention was made out, the fraudulent party was to restore double (ver. 9).
2. If an ox, ass, sheep, or any beast, entrusted. to another to keep, died, was hurt, or was driven away, "no man seeing it," the person responsible for its safety could clear himself by an oath from the suspicion of having unlawfully "put his hand" to it (ver. 11). In this case, he was not required to make good the loss.
3. If, however, the animal was stolen from his premises, under circumstances which implied a want of proper care, he was required to make restitution (ver. 12).
4. If the animal was alleged to have been torn to pieces, the trustee was required to prove this by producing the mangled remains (ver. 13).
IV. Loss OF WHAT IS BORROWED (vers. 14, 15).
1. If the owner is not with his property, the borrower is bound to make good loss by injury or death.
2. If the owner is with it, the borrower is not held responsible.
3. If the article or beast be lent on hire, the hire is regarded as covering the risk. - J.O.
1. Seduction. Lewdness in every form is sternly reprobated by the law of Moses (cf. Deuteronomy 22:13-30). The man who seduced an unbetrothed maid was to be compelled to marry her; or, if her parents refused, was to pay her a dowry.
2. Witchcraft. With equal strictness was forbidden all trafficking, whether in pretence or in reality, with unholy powers. The crime - a violation of the first principles of the theocracy - was to be punished with death. There cannot be perfect love to God, and communion with him, and trafficking with the devil at the same time. The witchcraft condemned by the law was evil in itself, and was connected with foolish and wicked rites (cf. Deuteronomy 18:9-15).
3. Bestiality. This, as an inversion of the order of nature, and in itself an act of the grossest abominableness, was "surely" to be punished with death.
4. Sacrificing to other gods. Possibly this crime is mentioned here as, in a sense, the spiritual counterpart of the vices above noted, i.e., as involving
(1) Spiritual adultery,
(3) Filthy and impure rites (cf. Deuteronomy 23:17, 18). - J.O.
I. JEHOVAH'S PROTEGES (vers. 21-28). These are the stranger, the fatherless, the widow, and the poor generally - all of whom the Israelites are forbidden to "afflict." The ground of Jehovah's interest in them is his own character - "for I am gracious" (ver. 27). In him, however little they may sometimes think of it or feel it, they have a constant Friend, a great invisible Protector. They are (in the sense of Roman law) Jehovah's "clients." He is their great Patron; he identifies himself with their interests; he will uphold their cause. Injuries done to them he will resent as if done to himself, and will call the wrong-doer to strict account. If earthly law fails, let them cry to him, and he will put the jus talionis in operation with his own hands (vers. 23, 24, 27). Vers. 25-28 specially forbid exacting treatment of the poor. Liberal help is to be afforded them. A neighbour is not to be harshly dealt with when driven to a strait. His garment, if given as a pledge, is not to be kept beyond nightfall, which is practically equivalent to saying that it is not to be taken from him at all (ver. 27). What kindness breathes in these precepts! How justly does the law which embodies them claim to be a law of love! And how far, even yet, is our Christian society from having risen to the height of the standard they set up! Let us seek ourselves to translate them more uniformly into practice. Learn also, from these precepts, inculcating love to the stronger, how little ground there is for accusing the religion of Moses of fanatical hatred of foreign peoples.
II. JEHOVAH'S REPRESENTATIVES (ver. 28). Magistrates and rulers are to be treated with respect. They are invested with a portion of God's authority (Romans 14:1). - J.O.
I. NOTE THE FACT THAT STRANGERS WOULD COME INTO SUCH CONTACT WITH ISRAEL AS TO PROVIDE OPPORTUNITY FOR THIS TREATMENT. Jehovah had done a great deal in Israel to make them a separated people - separated in many ways as by the land of their dwelling, their national institutions, their worship, their personal rite of circumcision; but separation, with all its rigours and all the penalties for neglecting it, could never become isolation. Solemnly indeed were the people enjoined to drive out the Canaanites, and trample down all idolatry; but there still remained the fact, that by a certain Divine and glorious necessity, strangers were to come into considerable intercourse with them. That strangers should have been drawn to them when they settled in their fertile home was only likely; but this must nave happened to some extent even before. We may be perfectly certain, considering the analogies of after generations and what we read of proselytism in the New Testament, that from the very first there must have been some with the proselyte disposition in them. Few perhaps of this sort were to be found in the mixed multitude coming out of Egypt - but still there were some. The Lord knoweth them that are his. If there are those of whom John might say, "They went out from us because they were not of us," so there are those of whom the Church may ever say, "They come to us because they are of us." For such God lovingly and amply provided from the first, even when they came with all the disadvantages and difficulties of strangers to contend against. There is in this very injunction, a foreshadowing of the power and attractiveness to which Israel in due time would rise, though as yet it was but a fugitive people without discipline and without coherence. Strangers in their need were even now drawn to Israel and would be drawn still more, just as years ago their needy ancestor and his children were drawn to Egypt because of the corn that was there.
II. THE STRONG TEMPTATION TO TREAT THESE FOREIGNERS BADLY. There is a very melancholy picture of human inconsistency here presented. Liberated slaves, forgetting the horrors of their own servitude, treat with like cruelty those exposed to the opportunity of that cruelty. Men soon forget their past condition. Israel, we see, forgot the horror of their own Egyptian experiences in two ways.
1. They lusted after the flesh-pots of Egypt.
2. They failed in sympathy for the foreigners among themselves.
When we have possessions and power and thus get the chance of domination, we are only too ready to treat foreigners either as interlopers wishing to spoil us, or tools fitted ? to increase our possessions. The world, alas! is always abounding in a great number of the feeble and unfortunate, of whom it is only too easy to take advantage. More than one class of these are mentioned in this chapter, and among them we see that the foreigner occupies a conspicuous place. The stranger is the man without friends; he comes into a place where the very things that profit the knowing are traps and snares for the ignorant. Consider the difficulties of a foreigner planted down in the midst of a huge city like London, a place of dangers and difficulties even for an Englishman who is thrown into it for the first time, and how much more for one whom ignorance of the language makes doubly strange! Blanco White, who it will be remembered was an exile from his native land of Spain, gives as an instance of Shakespeare's surprising knowledge of the human mind and heart "the passage in which he describes the magnitude of the loss which a man banished from his country has to endure by living among those who do not understand his native language." The words are those put into the mouth of Mowbray Duke of Norfolk, on his banishment by Richard II.
"The language I have learn' d these forty years, III. THE GREAT CONSIDERATION WHICH IS TO LEAD TO PROPER TREATMENT OF THE STRANGER. "Ye were strangers in the land of Egypt." Great as the temptation was to treat strangers badly, such treatment if only looked at in a certain light would be scarcely excusable at all This possible treatment of the stranger is to be looked at in the clear light of our Lord's parable concerning the forgiven yet unforgiving debtor. Israel had been strangers in Egypt, not only foreigners among the Egyptians, but to some extent exiles from God, who had put on the appearance of having forgotten them. But now he had brought them to himself, they were to be his people, a holy nation; and it was want of loyalty to God, it was behaviour unworthy of a holy nation for them to treat strangers as the Egyptians had treated Israel. God hates the oppressor everywhere and pities the oppressed. The people of God never dishonour their name more than when they trample on the alien from the commonwealth of Israel and the stranger from the covenant of promise. The alien may become as the home-born. The stranger may become familiar with Divine covenants and promises as if he were an Israelite from the womb. Even already the Israelites were being warned against counting too much on outward signs and natural descent. We should ever be looking for the minimum of living faith rather than the maximum of formal orthodoxy. A tiny seed is more to be cherished than a huge log of timber; for the one has whole living forests in it, and the other is dead and dead it must remain. We must labour to get the insight whereby we may penetrate through strange outward aspects and discern the spiritual life and sympathies underneath. God will give us the eye to discover, the honest and good eye, whether the stranger who comes is a wandering sheep seeking the true flock or a wolf in sheep's clothing. To mistake the sheep for the wolf is equally lamentable with mistaking the wolf for the sheep. The Pharisaic spirit so easily finds entrance, welcome and dominion in our breasts. It is so natural to play the censor towards those who sin the tins which we have no temptation to fall into. He without mercy for him that seems a stranger to God, may suspect that he is still a stranger himself. Many even of the Israelites at Mount Sinai had not been brought to God in the full sense of the term. Theirs was but a local contiguity to the awful demonstrations, not an attachment of the whole heart to the pure and glorious God who was behind the demonstrations. - Y.
III. THE GREAT CONSIDERATION WHICH IS TO LEAD TO PROPER TREATMENT OF THE STRANGER. "Ye were strangers in the land of Egypt." Great as the temptation was to treat strangers badly, such treatment if only looked at in a certain light would be scarcely excusable at all This possible treatment of the stranger is to be looked at in the clear light of our Lord's parable concerning the forgiven yet unforgiving debtor. Israel had been strangers in Egypt, not only foreigners among the Egyptians, but to some extent exiles from God, who had put on the appearance of having forgotten them. But now he had brought them to himself, they were to be his people, a holy nation; and it was want of loyalty to God, it was behaviour unworthy of a holy nation for them to treat strangers as the Egyptians had treated Israel. God hates the oppressor everywhere and pities the oppressed. The people of God never dishonour their name more than when they trample on the alien from the commonwealth of Israel and the stranger from the covenant of promise. The alien may become as the home-born. The stranger may become familiar with Divine covenants and promises as if he were an Israelite from the womb. Even already the Israelites were being warned against counting too much on outward signs and natural descent. We should ever be looking for the minimum of living faith rather than the maximum of formal orthodoxy. A tiny seed is more to be cherished than a huge log of timber; for the one has whole living forests in it, and the other is dead and dead it must remain. We must labour to get the insight whereby we may penetrate through strange outward aspects and discern the spiritual life and sympathies underneath. God will give us the eye to discover, the honest and good eye, whether the stranger who comes is a wandering sheep seeking the true flock or a wolf in sheep's clothing. To mistake the sheep for the wolf is equally lamentable with mistaking the wolf for the sheep. The Pharisaic spirit so easily finds entrance, welcome and dominion in our breasts. It is so natural to play the censor towards those who sin the tins which we have no temptation to fall into. He without mercy for him that seems a stranger to God, may suspect that he is still a stranger himself. Many even of the Israelites at Mount Sinai had not been brought to God in the full sense of the term. Theirs was but a local contiguity to the awful demonstrations, not an attachment of the whole heart to the pure and glorious God who was behind the demonstrations. - Y.
. It is a very beautiful element of God's revelation of himself in the Scriptures, that he is so often set before us as caring for the fatherless and the widow, and denouncing those who do not care for them. Widows in their needs, and his supply for their needs, appear in some of the most prominent scenes of the sacred page. Observe the provision that was made for the fatherless and the widow, along with the Levite and the stranger, to eat of the tithe of the yearly produce (Deuteronomy 14:29), and also to get their share in the rejoicings at the feast of weeks and the feast of tabernacles (Deuteronomy 16:11-14). The neighbour's raiment might be taken to pledge under certain conditions, but a widow's raiment was not to be taken in pledge at all (Deuteronomy 24:17). The forgotten sheaf in the field, and the gleanings of the olive boughs and of the vineyards, were to be left for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow (Deuteronomy 24:19-21); and cursed was he to be who perverted the judgment of the same (Deuteronomy 27:19). When God sustained Elijah, at the time of judicial drought and famine in the land, he sustained the widow and the fatherless at the same time; and who knows how many widows and fatherless besides? It is part of the praise which is due to God in song, that he relieves the fatherless and the widow. A Father of the fatherless, and a Judge of the widows is God, in his holy habitation (Psalm 68:5; Psalm 146:9). There can thus be no mistake about God's interest in those who are left without their natural provider and protector. But then on the other hand, these very same Scriptures which assure us of God's concern, remind us of man's cruelty, unrighteousness, and oppression. Job tells us of those who drive away the ass of the fatherless, and take the widow's ox for a pledge (Exodus 24:3); and it was part of memory's brightening, as he thought upon his happier past, that he had delivered the fatherless and caused the widow's heart to sing for joy. God sent Isaiah to the hypocrites, the formal religionists who satiated God with ceremonial observances, to bid them turn to the realities of righteousness; and one of the foremost things among these was to judge the fatherless and plead for the widow. The faithful city had fallen, until those whose duty it was to judge the fatherless, and have the cause of the widow come to them, had sunk into companions of thieves and seekers of bribes. In the parable of the judge who feared not God, neither regarded man, we may be sure there is great significance beyond the purpose for which it was spoken. While first of all it teaches the need of importunity in prayer, it reminds us also how hard it is for the feeble woman, whose sphere has been the seclusion of home, to come out in the world and make her way against the oppressor and against the judge, who would be quick enough to listen to her if she was only rich, and could bribe him. By sheer carelessness and thoughtlessness, by the sin of omission even more than the sin of commission, we may fall into the wickedness of afflicting the widow and the fatherless; and to be on the alert to succour them is the only way in which we can effectually guard against this wickedness. We see that even in the Church of Christ, and in those first days when all that believed were together, and had all filings in common - when all seemed so beautiful and promising, heaven fairly begun on earth - even then, and only too soon, the widows began to complain that they were neglected in the daily ministrations. Some of this perhaps was mere mendicant grumbling, but much of it would have a real cause. The only way we can keep the oppressor's heart out of us is to have the heart living and acting under the power of a Divinely-inspired love. It is a first principle of Christian ethics that if we are not doing good, we are doing ill; and we may be parties to the worst oppression, even when we are not thinking of oppression at all. In what a light does this Mosaic injunction bring out the teaching of James as to that practical element in pure religion of visiting the fatherless and the widow. If the Christian - his opportunities, his motives, his consolations, his resources to help and advise being what they are - does not visit the fatherless and the widow, depend upon it others will with very different designs. The greatest promptitude and decision are needed to anticipate the action of the rapacious and selfish. - Y.
that most effectually is the thing to be done. Whether mere money be lost or gained is a matter of no consequence whatever.
I. THESE PROVISIONS WITH RESPECT TO LENDING OBVIOUSLY DO NOT EXCLUDE GIVING. "If thou lend money," etc. But God, in many instances, would be better pleased with giving than with lending. If only men were seeking with all their hearts to do his will, all these minute regulations would be unnecessary. The advantage of the poor, as we have just seen, was the main thing to be considered here. And it might be for the advantage of the receiver, and still more for the advantage of the giver in the highest sense of the word advantage, to give, hoping to receive nothing again. Just as money does untold harm when foolishly and wickedly spent, so when wisely spent it may do untold good. Lending may serve well, but giving may serve much better; and that is the wisest course which is judged to do the most good. Some would find it easier to give than to lend, being naturally generous, disposed to lavishness, shrinking from the risk of being thought stingy. And yet sometimes in giving they would be doing a very hurtful thing, for lending would be better.
II. Nor is there anything like A FORBIDDING OF THE LOAN OF MONEY FOR COMMERCIAL PURPOSES. If one man lends to another a certain sum of money with which to trade, it is plain that he acts lawfully in getting interest for the use of it. For if he were not lending money to another, he would be using it himself, and the interest represents his profit, which is the same whoever uses the money. The trade of the world, and therefore the good of the world would be greatly limited and hampered but for the use of borrowed capital. It may be that the man who has the capital has neither the disposition nor ability to use it. Let him then, upon a fair consideration, lend the capital to the man who can use it.
III. Chiefly we must strive to avoid THE TAKING SELFISH ADVANTAGE OF OUR NEIGHBOUR'S NECESSITIES. Rather we should rejoice to take advantage of these necessities to show beyond all dispute, that the love of God is indeed the ruling principle of our hearts. Man's extremity, it has often been said, is God's opportunity, and so it should be the Christian's opportunity. By timely aid, if we have it to bestow, let us strive to deliver the poor from the clutches of the usurer, and especially let us give our aid to what may be devised for the curing of poverty's disease altogether. Every alteration either in laws or customs which will tend to diminish Poverty - let it have our strenuous support. Bear in mind that whatever each man has beyond a certain moderate share of this world's goods can only come to him because others have less than reasonable comfort demands. We should ever be aiming by all methods that are reasonable, just, and practicable, to secure to each one neither poverty nor riches, but just that food which is convenient for him. God wishes every man to have his daily bread; and it is an awful thing that we by our selfishness do so much to make the question of daily bread the only one that many of our fellow-creatures have time or inclination to ask. It seems to take every hour and every energy to keep the wolf from the door. - Y.
Exodus 13:2, 12). God's highest due is that we be "holy." The precept in ver. 31 is connected with the prohibition to eat flesh with the blood in it. - J.O.