יתרו (Exodus 21:1–24:18)
Our parasha for this week is called Mishpatim, meaning “ordinances,” or “regulations.” If you remember, last week we saw how God had prepared Israel as a nation (Exod 18) and individually (Exod 19) to receive the Torah on Mt. Sinai (Exod 20). In Exodus 20, God gave the 10 commandments to the entire nation, and we spoke about how the 10 commandments were really like a summary of the law, with the first four pointing to loving God, and the following six tell us to love our neighbour. Yeshua gives an even greater summary when he says that the greatest command is to love God and love your neighbour. These two themes are so closely tied together that if you claim to love God but hate your neighbour (speak badly to me, treat them poorly, etc), 1 John says that we do not actually love God.
This morning, we will move on to parashat Mishpatim, which is between Exodus 21–24. Here, we read about the commands God gave to the nation of Israel, which touched on a variety of topics, including treatments of slaves, what to do in the case of theft, property rights, personal injuries, etc. Finally, parashat Mishpatim closes with the “signing of the covenant,” where the nation of Israel collectively agree to follow God’s regulations.
Now, it is likely that most of us did not do our devotions in Exodus 21–24 this morning, and its possible that we have not read the laws in Exodus 21–24 (often called “The Covenant Code”) for quite some time (if at all). This portion of Scripture is generally not spoken explored in any in-depth manner, and there may be several reasons for this.
First, many of these regulations here may seem impractical to us. For example, there is a lot of discussion about selling animals, such as donkeys, oxen, or sheep. In Exodus 22:10–13, laws are provided about what will happen if you give one of these animals to your neighbour as payment, but then the animal later dies or runs away —Who is responsible? While this may be interesting, it is difficult to see how this could be applicable for us this morning.
However, one great model to follow is Paul in the New Testament, and how he derived applications from these laws by identifying the heart behind the law. For example, when Paul wrote to the community in Corinth, he quoted laws about treating animals well (“do not muzzle an ox”), and he applied the principle of caring for others to those doing missionary work: treat the workers of God well and care for them so they could continue to do their work well.
And in the same way, I would encourage us not to stay away from reading this portions of text, but to seek the heart behind the laws. One great example is God’s command: “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey, you shall surely return it to him” (Exod 23:4). We may say “Well, I don’t own any ox” and move on. But notice what God is saying: Never rejoice when your enemy suffers. And even if there is a case where your enemy is losing something valuable and it is not your fault, still go out of your way, stop what you’re doing, and help them!
As Yeshua says: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’” (Matt 5:44). This is the very principle we find. So, I would challenge you: always seek the heart of the mandates.
A second reason we may avoid this section of text is because we may find some laws objectionable, or immoral, and we don’t know what to do with them. For example, the first laws listed are about slaves: when should they be set free? what to do if they have children? In light of the past 300 years of North America history, and the horrendous treatment of slaves we have witnessed, we would rightfully shy away from this section.
However, when we see something we find disturbing, this should be understood as an invitation to press in and study more, rather than the push away. You see, unlike North American slavery, which involved kidnapping, mistreatment, and was race-driven, the servitude mentioned in Exodus was not about race at all, but it was simply financial. If you were in debt and could not pay, you would go under servitude to the person you owed money until you could pay it off.
Not only that, but when we examine the laws, we see a move towards propre treatment. The men, for example, were permitted to go free after a certain number of years, whether the debt was fully paid or not. Contrast this with Egyptian slavery, where Israel were held for hundreds of years. Women were commanded to be protected and cared for: they could not be sold to foreigners; and if they were not given proper food, clothing, or attention, they could leave without issue. When you see this, we notice an important shift towards recognizing the importance of each and every person, and treating them well.
And this goes to the heart of what God calls Israel, and us, today in terms of our social responsibility: We are to care for those who are vulnerable in society. God tells Israel “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod 22:21), and all of these laws reflect God’s supremacy, and the need to care for one’s neighbour.
A third reason people stay away from the Torah is because there are simply some laws that are hard to understand. For example, one regulation in Jewish tradition is not to eat meat and milk together. Some communities have different sets of dishes to meat and milk to ensure that the two do not mix. This law, however, comes from the following command: “You are not to boil a young goat in the milk of its mother” (Exod 23:19b). Now, we’re not really sure what this means: some argue that this was a Canaanite practice. Others argue that it was a figure of speech that means something else. Did it refer to kosher laws? While there is no definitive answer, these types of questions should once again draw us into the text to study rather than push us away.
At the end of our parasha, Exodus 24 records Israel’s acceptance of God’s laws, and their commitment to follow them: “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exod 24:3). And notice what happens immediately after. It says that Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and 70 others went up the mountain and “they saw the God of Israel” (Exod 24:9). Many interprets say “this was a vision,” but the plain reading of the text is that they dwelled with God on the mountain. And the combination of obedience to God’s revelation and living in harmony and dwelling in God’s presence reminds me of David’s psalm: “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psa 24:3).
While many of the laws in parashat mishpatim seem impractical, they reveal the heart of God for His society. And we find these same concerns presented in the New Testament. For example, God says: “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan…[or] my anger will be kindled and I will kill you” (Exod 22:22–24). This shows God’s heart for the vulnerable. James in his epistle to the messianic community also says: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27).
Therefore, under the guidance of the Spirit, let us make a commitment to walk in obedience to God’s revelation, to bear the fruit of a follower of the Messiah, pursuing clean hands and a pure heart so we can see God more clearly in our daily lives.