Sunday, May 20, 2007

Exodus 21 & 22: Laws, with the Commentary of Michael Thereon, V.I

In previous installments of this blog, I have complained that the Bible, so often touted as a sort of guidebook or handbook to good living, seems to offer remarkably little guidance on how We Mortals are actually supposed to conduct ourselves. But now comes Exodus 21 and 22, and shut me up -- the guidance is now coming thick, fast, and unambiguous.


It turns out that the Ten(ish) Commandments are really just the first ten (or so) laws that God hands down to Moses on Mount Sinai. They will now be extended, clarified, parsed, and given teeth over the next several chapters.

As a whole, the laws in chapters 21 and 22 seem pretty much what you would expect as the basic code of conduct for a society of nomadic herders. Many of the laws seem to be perfectly pragmatic standards of behavior for a harsh physical and hostile social environment, if perhaps draconian by modern standards.

Which is all very fine and good, except that I and you, gentle reader, are not nomadic herders. For us, these laws seem like a mixture of the obvious, the old-fashioned, and the bizarre. If we are to hold to the literal truth of the Bible, as many claim to do, these laws would presumably still be on the books. Yet, can we really imagine our society really adopting, or re-adopting, them?
Rembrandt. Moses Smashing the Tables of the Law. 1659. Oil on canvas.As the laws of human behavior as dictated by God seem especially important, I am going to enumerate them for you. I hope this not disappoint anyone who wants to get back to the narrative action, or who is on tenterhooks wondering what happens next to the Israelites. But for me, this is the real meat of the thing. All of the previous adventures have been more or less interesting, but always with a certain sense of "so what?" about them. But laws -- them's the real deal. So here goes.

Laws regarding Servants
  • If you buy a male Hebrew servant, you can only keep him for six years. If you give him a wife, you can keep the wife and kids once he's free, but if he comes with a wife from the get go, he gets to keep her and their kids.

  • But, a servant can decide to waive his right of freedom. He then gets his ear pierced, and is a servant for life.

  • If you buy a female servant, she's yours for life.

  • But, if she doesn't "please" you, you have to let her "be redeemed," whatever that means. You definitely may not sell her to foreigners.

  • And if you bought her to marry her to your son, you have to treat her like any other daughter or daughter-in-law.

  • AND, if you bought her to marry her to your son, but he ends up marrying somebody else, he's still responsible for feeding her, clothing her, and taking care of her, uh, "marital rights." Otherwise, she gets to go free.

OK, this is a tough set of laws to integrate with contemporary mores, and it is a bit awkward that they are featured so prominently in the code, before such biggies as the prohibition of murder. Modern labor law is hostile to the "buy a laborer for six years, keep his kids" plan, and the idea of buying a bride for your son would seem a little unsavory to many Americans, what with the women's lib and all. I think I can safely go as far to say that fewer than 5% of Americans would support the legality of purchasing women for life. And yet it is the law of God. Tricky.

One wonders, too, how these laws would work in the current economy, in which the traditional functions of the servant have been largely spun out to service companies. Since the modern master shares his landscaping crew, caterer, housecleaner, nanny service, security patrol, drycleaner, and pool boy with the other little aristocrats of his gated community, he can't really have exclusive rights to all of them for six years at a shot, now, can he? Paying his share of their Social Security alone would eat him alive.

Personal Injury LawChagall. Moise Recoit Les Tables de la Loi(Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law.)Original lithograph, 1956.

  • Murder is punishable by death. Manslaughter is punishable by exile.

  • Attacking your parents is punishable by death.

  • Kidnapping and human trafficing, punishable by death.

I have enormous problems with capital punishment, but it is hard not to sympathize with the gist of these laws. They address sociopathic behavior that merits a strong response. Of course, the devil is in the details. One immediately wonders about killing in self-defense, or the child resisting parental abuse, and wants to add exceptions and clauses and clarifications. And before one knows it, one has invented the legal profession!

  • Cursing your parents, punishable by death.

Yikes! Everyone curses their damn parents every once in a while, at least during the teen years. Or, does this mean casting a formal curse on your parents, perhaps using a pentagram or a bucket of ox's blood or similar exotica? Because I never went that far, myself.

  • If you assault someone or get in a fight with them, you are responsible for their medical bills and for compensating them for lost time while they are out of commission.

The very essence of the modern lawsuit.

  • If you beat a slave to death, you should be punished. But if you only beat them to the point where they are out of commission for a few days, well -- hey, your slave, your business.

This is hard to reconcile with modern sensibilities. It is also really rather unfair to the slaveholder who, in trying in good faith to beat a slave within an inch of his life -- a perfectly legal act -- happens by random chance to sever a jugular or send the slave into a fatal shock reaction, and is suddenly through no fault of his own guilty of a major crime.

  • If you are fighting, you hit a pregnant woman, and she gives birth prematurely, the woman's husband can demand any fine he wants, subject to judicial review. If you physically harm the woman, you are to be harmed in return, according to the famous eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth formula. (It continues: "hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.")
This is a VERY specific application of the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth concept. Unless we see it again later, I'd have to conclude that it is over-quoted.
  • If you put out your servant's eye or knock out their tooth, you have to let them go free.

Don't you wonder how many servants helped a tooth along in order to qualify for this one?

Animals Rights Law

  • If a bull gores someone to death, it must be stoned to death and eaten. The owner is off the hook.

  • Except, if everybody know that this bull was dangerous and the owner didn't take precautions, then the owner must be put to death.

  • UNLESS payment is demanded of him (by whom?), in which case if he can scare up the cash he's cool. Either way, the bull still gets stoned to death.

  • Oh, and if it's just a slave that got gored, it's only a fine of 30 shekels of silver (about 12 ounces, roughly $154 at Friday's close on the silver market). But, we still get to throw rocks at the bull.

  • If you dig a hole and an ox or donkey falls in, you've bought the ox or donkey. You have to compensate the owner, but you get to keep the dead animal.

  • If your animal kills my animal, we sell your animal and split both the cash and the carcass of my animal. Except, if you knew your animal was dangerous, and didn't take adequate steps, I get to keep your live animal and you are stuck with my dead animal.

This all sounds reasonable enough to me, although the $154 figure is kind of a cold-blooded "value of human life" assessment. And stoning a bull to death seems like it would present practical, not to say aestetic, challenges.


Property Law
  • If you steal an ox and kill it or sell it, you have to pay back five cattle. If you steal a sheep, you have to pay back four sheep.

This seems like a law that will needlessly provoke a lot of argument. Wouldn't a simple penalty of four (or five) times the value of the thing stolen create less confusion?

  • If you kill a thief while he is breaking into your place, that doesn't count as murder; but, if you kill a thief "after sunrise" -- which presumably means after he is subdued or has ceased to be a physical threat -- that's murder.

Sounds fair.

  • If you can't make restitution for what you have stolen, you yourself are to be sold to raise the necessary funds.

Is it just my mood, or does this actually sound kind of reasonable?

  • If somebody steals an animal and doesn't sell it or kill it, they only have to pay back double.
  • Rosselli. Tables of the Law with the Golden Calf. 1481-82. Fresco, 350 x 572 cm. Cappella Sistina, Vatican
  • If your animal grazes on my land, you have to let me graze my animal on your land.

  • If a fire damages crops, the person responsible for the fire must make restitution.

  • When property is stolen, the thief must pay back double. When property is disputed, judges will determine a rightful owner, and the other party must pay double the item's value.

  • If an animal dies or is eaten by wild beast while being taken care of by a neighbor, it's owner is just going to have to deal.

  • But if the neighbor has borrowed the animal, then he should compensate the owner.

  • But if the neighbor rented use of the animal, and the owner was present, then the owner will, again, just have to deal.

This emphasis on theft being punished by paying back double or more is quite attractive. It certainly is fairer to victims than the modern system, and does not lead to overcrowded prisons and the social and financial costs thereof. Nice! And, it seems like it would work really, really well in a society where everyone knows each other, the average family owns about 10 items, and missing goods will inevitably resurface eventually. It might be hard to make it work in the hypermaterial modern millieaux, though. Plus, the system relies on being able to squeeze slave equity out of your poorer class of thief, and that just doesn't work with contemporary sensibilities.

Miscellaneous Laws

  • If a man seduces a virgin, he has to pay the bride-price and marry her. If her father wants to keep her, the seducer still has to fork over the bride-price.

  • Sorceresses must not be allowed to live.

Both of these are tricky, in that our society does not recognize the bride-price, and there is no such thing as a sorceress.

  • Anyone having sex with an animal must be put to death.

Bummer for an estimated five percent of the population, which is as far as I can tell about the proportion of Americans who have had such an adventure. To be sure, it is a potentially alarming topic to research on the internet.

  • Anyone sacrificing to a god other than God must be put to death.

  • Mistreating or oppressing foreigners is forbidden.

  • Widows and orphans are not to be mistreated. (In fact, God says he will punish this one himself, in person.)

  • Charging interests on loans is not allowed. Keeping a person's clothing as collateral on a loan is forbidden, since he needs it to keep him warm.

These are provisions which unambiguously render capitalism -- and all other forms of economy since very early in the dark ages, as far as I'm aware -- flagrently opposed to God's law. It would be interesting if the folks who pay for monuments commemorating Exodus 20:3 - 17, the Ten Commandments, also included Exodus 22: 25-27 on there: 25 If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest. 26 If you take your neighbor'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?

  • Don't blaspheme God or curse your ruler.

Not even that damn Bush?

  • Another puzzling one: 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.

I think I get what's going to happen to the calves and lambs, but what's going to happen to the little boys? Surely the idea isn't that we're supposed to go all Abraham-and-Isaac on them?

  • Don't eat the meat of an animal that has been killed by wild animals.

No problem.

Questions for the Biblical Bar Exam

1. Brad seduces a sorceress, Judy. After Judy's execution, her father, John, sues Brad for her bride-price. Is Brad liable? Discuss.

2. The village discovers that Wayne has cursed his parents. Unfortunately, there is not enough money in the public treasury to fund an execution. Janet offers to loan the village money for the execution at a 5% rate of interest. If you are the village's legal councel, what do you advise?

3. You are a man are fighting with a buddy, and you accidentally strike a pregnant woman, causing her to give birth prematurely. She is wounded in the incident, losing a breast. Are you off the hook?

4. You are taking care of your neighbor's ox. Your neighbor knows that the ox is prone to gore, but has not told you about this. While it is in your care, the ox attacks your father's donkey, driving it into a hole that you recently dug, where it dies. Also, you covet the ox. Who owes whom what?

In Conclusion....

Nope, no conclusions yet -- we're not quite done with the laws yet. We'll round out the list next week, and see if there are any good generalizations to be made.

I was at Powell's, the landmark bookstore here in beautiful Portland, Oregon, City of Roses, today, and ran across a copy of "The Bible for Dummies." Don't think I wasn't tempted.

Like your faithful blogster, "The Bible for Dummies" works its way through the text sequentially, summarizing and commenting as it goes. Now, having completed Exodus 22, we are now nearly finished with page 58 out of the 923 in my particular Bible, or roughly 6.3% of the way through the text. In "The Bible for Dummies," however, the Ten Commandments were about 30% of the way into the coverage. Whether this means that we are heading into a whole lot of filler, or what, I dare not speculate. I haven't read that far yet.

4 comments:

barry w. said...

the law as you state were in fact created to govern the jews of isreal before Jesus was sent to redeem man because the laws couldnt be fulfilled by man alone.you must be born again and accept Jesus as your personal savior. Jesus came and died and rose from the grave to fulfill the laws you are writing about.

Karin Leak said...

When I consider one of your original key questions, "Is God a Republican?" in light of this passage I have the following thoughts. I can't say God is a Republican or a Democrat, mainly because it seems clear that God is not an American at all, as this passage seems to imply quite clearly that capitalism is bad. And if you're not a capitalist, then you're not an American, right? So, I'm not sure I can believe in God anymore.

michael5000 said...

@B.W.: Thanks for checking in; I appreciate your input. My stock answer to my friends who make the general point that the OT gets superceded by the NT is a mock-irritated "Dude! Don't give away the ending!" Point being, this is an inherently sequential enterprise, and I'm probably a couple of years from getting to the point where I get to figure out first hand if the Bible really supports that claim.

Also, I think that many Christians have a bit of a schitzophrenic relationship with the OT. In a way, they subscribe to the fundamental claim of the faith, as you express it very nicely here. But, on issues of practical morality, they will happily cherry-pick from OT law to support their own ideas and positions, especially when the NT doesn't give them any help on a specific issue. And I suppose that's why I'm so interested in listing the laws, one by one -- to see what's hiding in there quietly along with the ones that see frequent use as cultural ammo.

@Karin Leak: Oh dear, cynicism. But then, what do I expect after describing the laws of Moses as, uh, "a mixture of the obvious, the old-fashioned, and the bizarre?" In retrospect -- after writing "next week's" post -- I'm actually feeling quite a bit more reverent towards this body of law. I LIKE that there are admonitions against class warfare, against the rich pressing their advantage against the poor, and by implication against the many bulldozing the few. I LIKE the practicality of the proscribed solutions to common disputes. I LIKE the weekend concept! (Slavery and animal sacrifice, I don't like so much.)

But yeah, God seems much Red State in this section than many Red Staters would have us believe.

Anonymous said...

I think the 5% estimate of Americans who would support being able to buy a woman for life is an underestimate.
But,if correct, is this the same 5% who have had sex with animals? I guess they'd stop doing that if they could buy female servants for life?
Or, do you see these as two distinct population groups?

Brian