12 “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall 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 for you a place to which he may flee. 14 But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.
15 “Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death.
16 “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.
17 “Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.
18 “When men quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist and the man does not die but takes to his bed, 19 then if the man rises again and walks outdoors with his staff, he who struck him shall be clear; only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall have him thoroughly healed.
20 “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.
22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
26 “When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. 27 If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.
28 “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. 29 But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. 30 If a ransom is imposed on him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is imposed on him. 31 If it gores a man’s son or daughter, he shall be dealt with according to this same rule. 32 If the ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned. – Exodus 21:12-32 ESV
Love God. Love one another. Jesus said that these were the two greatest commandments, and He declared that they encapsulate all that is contained in the law and the writings of the prophets (Matthew 22:40). When God told the Israelites, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3 ESV), He was expecting more from them than just blind allegiance. He desired their willful devotion and unadulterated love. If they truly loved Him they would never consider worshiping another god in place of Him. Their fealty to God was to be an outward expression of their love for Him.
God describes His people as “those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:6 ESV). In other words, their obedience to His law was to be a manifestation of their love for Him. It was to be a delight rather than a duty. Honoring His name through their actions demonstrated their love for Him. Keeping His Sabbath holy was an outward sign of their inward devotion to Him. Refusing to bow down to false gods was evidence of their unwavering fidelity to Him alone.
And their love for God was to be accompanied by a love for one another. Six of the ten commandments had to do with tangible examples of how that love for others was to show up in everyday life. And in the Book of the Covenant, the expanded addendum to the Decalogue, God gave further commands regarding the interpersonal relationships between His chosen people. These laws were intended to deal with the everyday issues of life in a community. But, ultimately, they were intended to provide practical guidance for how to love others well, even while living in a sin-darkened world.
In his first epistle, the apostle John describes in great detail the kind of love God expects of His people. He begins by describing God as light.
God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. – 1 John 1:5-6 ESV
According to John, fellowship with God should produce fellowship with others.
…if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another. – 1 John 1:7 ESV
It is our love for God that makes possible our love for others. To truly love others is countercultural and runs contrary to our basic sin nature. And John warns, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 8 ESV).
The law was given so that the Israelites might understand their sinfulness. The commandments found in the Book of the Covenant deal with sin-fueled behavior in a community context: people abusing, misusing, dishonoring, defrauding, and even murdering one another. They contain unflattering examples of unloving actions perpetrated by those who claim to have a relationship with God. But John writes:
Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. – 1 John 2:4-5 ESV
Obeying God’s commands was a means of proving one’s love for Him. And His love is perfected or fully accomplished through the one who loves others well. Ultimately, it is not our obedience that proves our love for God; it is our love for others. John amplifies this idea in the fourth chapter of his letter.
We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. – 1 John 4:19-21 ESV
The laws found in the Book of Covenant are essentially God’s non-negotiable requirements for expressing love in a cultural context. They were meant to show the Israelites how God’s love was to guide the lives of His people. Moses would later remind the people that their status as God’s treasured possession had been unearned and undeserved.
“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 7:6-8 ESV
God had chosen them based on His love for them – even when they were unloveable. And it was that gracious, merciful love that should motivate their love for one another, as expressed in their obedience to His commandments.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. – 1 John 4:7-8 ESV
Each of these laws is undergirded by a love for God. That is why Moses told the Israelites, “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations…” (Deuteronomy 7:9 ESV). Again, the keeping of the commands was not the real point. But in keeping the commands, they would be expressing their love and devotion for God as they funneled that love to one another through tangible actions. And Jesus would later express the same idea to His disciples:
“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” – John 14:23-24 ESV
This section of the Book of the Covenant contains laws that deal with different kinds of crimes, including capital crimes, personal injuries, and criminal negligence. They range from cases of homicide to physical and verbal abuse. These verses go into a great deal of detail but also provide general principles concerning human interaction in a fallen world. These things were inevitable, even among the chosen people of God. They were not immune from the temptation to sin against one another. So, when they did sin, God wanted them to know how to deal with the aftermath of their unloving and selfish decisions. Nothing was left to the imagination.
To take another person’s life was an expression of hate rather than love. To strike another person, causing them bodily injury, was an act of violence and evidence of a lack of love. Throughout these verses, God uses words like striking, quarreling, cursing, stealing, and striving. They describe behavior that is antithetical to love and in contradiction to the very nature of God. God is love (1 John 4:8). It is not a byproduct of His nature, but it is the very essence of who He is. And that love is to be manifested in the lives of His people. But when they fail to do so, there must be consequences. When hate shows up, justice must be meted out. When a lack of love results in harm, restitution must be made.
God knew His people were going to struggle with keeping His law. He also knew that they could find it difficult to love well. That’s why He provided laws designed to regulate loveless behavior among His people. Their failure to love was inevitable. But more hatred and vengeance would not be the answer. Even in dealing with the lack of love among themselves, the people were to respond with love, not hate. Justice must be served, but not at the expense of love. Sin must be properly dealt with, but always in a loving and God-honoring manner.
…this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. – 1 John 4:21 ESV
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.