Grasping God’s Purpose: “Responsible by Design” – Exodus 21 (Part One)

In the next few studies, we will be examining the CIVIL CODE of Scripture. It is easy to shy away from these passages. Some dismiss them, because they were given long ago to our “older brother” Israel – believers from before our “Age of Grace”. Still others, seem to poke in and out of the texts of the Torah to justify some modern political ideal – abortion, capital punishment, etc. Yet when pressed they quickly retreat when the Torah says something that offends their sensibilities – like the issue of regulation of slavery. The point of studying the Civil Code, as with all the Law of God, is to recall the areas He cares about, and the principles by which He judges something right or wrong. We are not “under these laws” to keep them, but they are given to us as EXAMPLES as Paul reminds:  (1 Corinthians 10:11) “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. 12 Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.”

The Law, when given, had several purposes – most prominent among them was the gathering into a nation a tribe after ten generations of slavery in Egypt. They knew how to take orders, but lacked the insights to be able to form a nation – so God did it for them.

What do we do with the law? We take timeless principles from it. In fact, what we will be looking at in the Civil Code of Exodus and Numbers are not simply individual codes of conduct, though there certainly are some there. What we will search out are the underlying principles of SOCIETAL STANDARDS – what God said made a civil authority and civil society.

Before we begin, let me admit something… we live in a mess. Right (by Biblical definition) has become wrong (by popular sentiment). We are being fed a whole new set of moral rules to replace our Biblical based societal code. Killing babies is not bad if done for good reasons like a woman’s personal convenience, but killing whales is always bad. Sex before marriage is normal, but smoking indoors is intrinsically immoral. I believe that soon, you will not recognize the foundational moral code of the Bible in the rules. It is for that reason I refuse to skip this section of the Word, but will camp here as long as it takes to reset the boundaries on what God called a civil society. I will challenge assumptions of our modern “freedoms” when the Word outlines a better path. It will be uncomfortable at times, but I will do my best not to allow the attack on truth we have been subject to make these messages negative- for that will not help. Let’s get started…

The Little Prince is a novella first published in 1943, and has become the most read and most translated book from an original French language story. It has been translated into more than 250 languages, and more than 200 million copies have been sold worldwide, ranking it among the best-selling books ever published. It is a creative story. A narrator wove a tale from his childhood, when he attempted to draw a boa constrictor that was eating an elephant – but adults around him didn’t see it. He drew a second picture to clarify the first, but they were even more disturbed by that one. Frustrated, the boy decided to pilot a plane and leave – but he eventually crashed in the Sahara desert. In the aftermath of the crash, the boy met the little prince, who seemed to understand his drawings without any explanation and requested the boy to draw a sheep. Not knowing how to draw a sheep, the boy drew a box, claiming it held a sheep inside. The little prince was gleeful at the result. The little prince’s home was an asteroid called B-612, about the size of a house, with three volcanoes, a rose, and a few other objects. The Prince spent his days caring for his little planet, pulling out baobab trees that were constantly trying to take root there. Before the various episodes of the novella unfold, there is a simple line with a profound meaning:

It’s a question of discipline,” the little prince told me later on.  “When you’ve finished washing and dressing each morning, you must tend your planet.”  ~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, 1943, translated from French by Richard Howard

Discipline… tend… Responsibility… these are terms every decent parent on the planet wants to build into their children. We see responsibility as a benchmark of maturity. In a world awash with victims, we want our children to stand up and take full responsibility for their actions – and move forward in their lives.

Some of you are tugging hard because you feel responsible. The good news to those who HUNGER to be responsible is this: You got it from YOUR CREATOR. God intended His children to be people who took responsibility for their actions. They were not to do so to EARN His love, but to demonstrate the character of His true child. God wanted family likeness. He set guardrails up to show us what He considered important areas to discipline ourselves to tame. That was the basis for the Torah – the Law of God given to the Jewish people at Sinai and during their desert journey.

In a recent study, we examined what we called “The Core Value System” set forth in what is popularly known as the “Ten Commandments”. These set the tone for the whole of the Civil Code of Law – found in ten chapters of Exodus and Numbers. As we begin that code of civility – let’s recall the basic standards. Remember, as we have seen in our past studies, to love and serve God effectively, we need to know what God values, too. For the sake of jogging the memory, let’s recall that the commands fall into three sets:

Vertical Commands

The first 4 commandments we studied dealt with our relationship with God, because we are to love God first. . . These are the VERTICAL commands.

  • Standard 1: No other gods before Me. Exclusivity: God said: “I have the absolute right to your undivided loyalty.” (20:2,3).
  • Standard 2: Do not make an idol or likeness to worship. Identity: Do not try to shape Me in to your understanding or box Me in to your molds (4-6).
  • Standard 3: Do not use my name in vain. Value: Regard My name as high and respect even reference to My Person as important! (7).
  • Standard 4: Keep the Sabbath holy. Perspective: My boundaries are the ones that matter – since everything was created by Me for My purpose. (8-11).

Horizontal Commands

The first 3 commandments we studied dealt with our relationship with one another, because our love for God should prompt us to observe boundaries of respect.

  • Standard 5: Honor your father and mother. Position: I placed you in the position of life under the authorities of your life. To reject them is to reject My rule. Respect the POSITIONS even when the PEOPLE don’t earn the respect!
  • Standard 6: Do not kill. Sanctity of Life: My image in man, and my “spirit breath” makes a man significant. It may not be breached without specific direction from Me. Do not plan and deliberately kill another human being (13). Life is sacred, and is diminished in importance by murder.
  • Standard 7: Do not commit adultery. Intimacy: Violation of the sacred circle of your sexual intimacy may not be breached. Remain loyal to your marriage covenant (14). Promises and vows are important and must not be easily passed off. The sexual gift was especially purposed and has specific parameters.


The final three are called “contentment laws” and deal with my inner self – because they are caused by attitudes of discontent:

  • Standard 8: Do not steal. Contentment in possessions: Don’t use your HANDS to gain advantages I didn’t give you. I give you the time, talent and treasure I want you to have. (15).
  • Standard 9: Do not bear false witness. Contentment in words: Don’t use your TONGUE to gain advantage. (16).
  • Standard 10: Do not covet. Contentment in heart: settle yourself thankfully on what I allow you to earn and have. (17).

With these basic standards in mind, God then rolled out to Moses the standard of judgment that was to be given to a whole society – and particularly to the leaders who sat as judges over the people, in the earshot of all the people. What does it mean to be a RESPONSIBLE SOCIETY?

Key Principle: God’s intention was to build a society based on personal responsibility and communal protection, where individual freedoms were protected by societal boundaries.

21:1 “Now these are the ordinances (mishpatim) which you are to set before them:

In this study, let’s look at TWO of the basic responsibilities as ask “What does God expect from a Civil Society?”

Death Penalty Cases: Taking responsibility for life relationships in our JUDICIAL SYSTEM (21:12-17).    

Any society must have limits on behavior. In the most extreme cases, communities are forced to permanently remove bad influences in order to protect the rest. That seems logical, but these laws are based on something much deeper – they are God’s Word to men. In this passage of Civil Code of Law, God offered three specific death penalty statutes:

  1. Premeditated murder

21:12 “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely 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 you a place to which he may flee. 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.

The issue of premeditation is the basis of the death penalty in this case of murder. If the person PLOTTED a killing, there was no respite. In the case of clear “crimes of passion”, where no premeditation was involved – the Civil Code allowed a place of refuge and did not force death as the penalty. If premeditation was later discovered, his refuge was removed. This penalty was to specify punishment in violation to standard six, or the “sanctity of human life”.

  1. Strike or curse parent

21:15 “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.

In light of standard five – honoring parents – this penalty protected them from both physical and verbal attack. God held the family unit as absolutely essential to the success of civil society.

  1. Kidnap someone

21:16 “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.

Both standards eight and nine – theft and false witness – are in view here. In order for one to capture another they steal the other’s freedom, and then ostensibly lie about the connection to sell them to neighboring tribes.

Step back a second and look at what we just said. Society should protect life, protect the honor of the family and insure swift penalty to those who would take away basic freedoms of others. People who live in violation to these principles should be warned: God has spoken concerning your perversion of civility.

God took special exception to any that would kill another, capture another against their will, or curse the parents that God gave them.

  • Respect for human life.

  • Respect for positions placed by God.

  • Respect for another’s freedom were at the core of civility.

A responsible follower of Jesus respects people. They are characterized by respect in their speech, attitude and behavior. They do more than hold up placards at pro-life rallies – they speak respectfully of their President, Congressman or Senator (agree or not). They honor those God has placed in positions of authority in their life, and serve HIM by serving them faithfully. At the same time, the government must also be responsible:

  • When we give more rights to the State than to the parent – we destroy civil society.
  • When parents can pay the bill at school but get no information on the class work of the student – we chip away at the high regard for the parental position.
  • When a child cannot get an aspirin without permission of a parent, but can have the school nurse give a condom with no requirement to address the parent – we undermine civil society.
  • When legislation has the net effect of making it easy to get out of the commitment of a marriage – we erode the civil society.

We cannot convince people to care for one another in a society when we cannot help them hold the family together. There is little civility when families are destroyed, for one is linked to the other. We must be warned.

The Capital Punishment vs. Christian Pacifist argument

Before we move on, let me address something that many of you may have been exposed to in teaching from various places today. As we seek to understand the standards of God in relation to the Israelites and then apply principles and timeless truths – I am not arguing for the modern political positions and posturing that often accompanies these verses. At the same time, I am concerned about SLOPPY HERMENEUTICS – using the Bible in inappropriate ways. I often hear people say things in public settings in support of the idea that the Bible was not singular in regard to Capital punishment, or that the New Testament reversed the Torah and spoke against capital punishment. Let’s take a moment while we are here to lay these “off the mark” ideas aside:

  • First, some argue that the Bible truly supports a “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13) standard. Though that is true, it is not applicable to judicial execution – as is clear in the passage we read together, and many relating to war.
  • Second, some argue that Jesus stood up against the execution of the adulterous woman in the Temple court, as recorded in John 8:3-11. As we explained when we studied that passage – Jesus did not stand against the execution, but against the illegal one sided penalty. The woman was not to be executed if the man also committed the offense and was let go.
  • Third, some have been trained to see the standard of Matthew  5:38-39 as a national standard as well as an individual standard. The statement against the personal revenge interpretation of the “Law of the balances” in the “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth”  passage is also a correction of carrying judicial standards meant to lessen inequity in government and turn them into personal opportunities for revenge. Jesus was speaking out about the very misuse of Scripture that allows people to make Him into an absolute pacifist with that statement. Jesus was saying this” You have taken a standard of judicial government that restrains it and turned it into a standard of revenge –and that is just wrong. His argument bore little on the idea of capital punishment, if at all. Individual followers of Jesus are obliged to learn to forgive – even in cases where others committed criminal acts against them – but that text does not oblige the state to “forgive” apart from their justice system. Nor does the passage anticipate a nation forgiving another national army’s violation of its soil or citizens. If states were held to this idea, parking tickets would violate the idea if the person sought forgiveness.

We live in times when many other issues also must be considered in our court systems. The penalties levied by the state must find a way back to basic justice, for they are often unfairly enacted against the poor and minorities. That is true, and should be rectified for justice to be real – but the death penalty standard was clearly offered by God to His people as a basic civil code, and never rescinded in the later Scripture. Its unfair use aside, the principle remains.

We have time for only ONE MORE basic standard for Civil Society. One of the places civility breaks down quickly when unregulated is that of the Work Place.

I want to take a few minutes to address another area our society is suffering badly from – the definition of both EMPLOYER and WORKER PROTECTION. This blade cuts both ways, since neither companies nor employees seem to find much loyalty to each other. Did God offer any principles for our WORK LIFE that we should be careful to consider?

Bond Servant Laws: Taking responsibility for contract  relationships in our WORK LIFE (21:2-11).

Move back to the beginning of the passage, back to the verse we skipped earlier. Exodus 21:2 “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. 3 “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. 4 “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. 5 “But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,’ 6 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.

The second set of responsibility laws regard contract relationships – but the words carry with them several misshapen ideas that have been affected by later history. Using the loaded term SLAVE brings images of southern antebellum plantation life – with all its abuses. Before we look at the economic system of the ancients, we must lay to rest that this is NOT a picture of what the Bible is talking about.

  • First, antebellum slavery in the United States was based on kidnapped Africans. The Biblical contract of indentured servitude forbade one kidnapped into service (Exodus 21:16).
  • Second, the southern slaves were permanent, whereas a man who indentured himself stayed for a specified work period (Exodus 21:2).

The case of an indentured servant in the Biblical Civil Code was more like a modern worker on an Alaskan pipeline or Gulf oil platform – where one is taken from home and lives in full support of the business owner for a specified period. (To be clear, I am not arguing the conditions were good, just that the business model is similar).The point of the section is to place parameters both of responsibility  and behavior for those they had taken under their employ and financial watch care.

Let me say this plainly: The Bible never supported the kind of slavery that characterized the pre-war south of the United States. That grossly violated various standards of the Word, and at the same time belittled all men – by allowing some to declare others “property” in the sense of less than personhood. The Bible used the term “property” – but for a whole different purpose, as we shall see.

Hebrew Male indentured worker laws:  

The stated conditions for the male indentured servant were:

  • Length of Term: The limitation of six years of service (to the day of the seventh year’s beginning) was the total length of service, unless additional remuneration was provided. Civil Society was not to allow people to borrow more than they could pay back in the six years of work. Limits are a societal value, because when people are left FREE to borrow unrealistic amounts of money – others will have to bail out the mess.
  • Severance Conditions: If he was obtained single, he leaves single. If he came with his wife – she is to leave with him. If he was given a concubine – the wife and any offspring belong to the household of the home owner. The worker needs to go into every part of the deal with full disclosure and eyes wide open. Before you go into a venture – get GOOD ADVICE, and listen to the advisers.
  • Retention Conditions: If the servant decides to stay on, it must be a free will decision publicly declared – consummated by presentation to the Lord and a marker – an earring.

Later in this same another issue arose that God regulated – the need to regulate the discipline of workers.

  • Parameters of discipline: 21:20 “If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. 21 “If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property… 21:26 “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.

On first reading, this throws most people back to the very images of slavery we tried to purge earlier. A good student of the Word must acknowledge that his or her life experience and historical knowledge can taint the text as it was intended to be understood. Take a breath, and look again. The purpose of the law was to limit and warn business owners in caring for their indentured servants. Look carefully:

  • First, If a business owner struck his indentured servant, killing him, he was subject to the punishment that belonged to a “crime of passion” in Exodus 2:12-14. He was not executed, for it was presumably not in premeditation to kill the worker – but likely fled to a refuge place, disrupting his entire life. In other words, think before you strike the servant – it could ruin your life  – and theirs.
  • Second, if the indentured man survived the striking and caused no injury that was permanent, the business owner was not charged with a crime. He LOST the value of the worker during his illness, and may have damaged his worker’s ability to fulfill the rest of his service well – and that was a loss in the contractual relationship sufficient to penalize the owner. For some that may sound harsh, but think of it this way – when we began as a society to take a public stand against child abuse in the US, it did not take too long before some children turned that into a license to do wrong and hold their parents hostage. In the end, owners needed to guard against anything that would hurt productivity – so it was counterproductive to wound their workers.
  • Third, if an injury that was permanent in nature occurred, the contract may have been eligible for complete release – in cases where an eye or tooth was damaged – and any other obvious part. The worker could not simply CLAIM injury –there had to be a way to discern that it was true. Both the worker and the employer needed protection from unfair treatment by the other.

God’s intention was to build a society based on personal responsibility and communal protection, where individual freedoms were protected by societal boundaries. The very least a believer can do in our time and our country is know what God had in mind – so that we aren’t swept into ungodly thinking regarding our society.