33 “When a man opens a pit, or when a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34 the owner of the pit shall make restoration. He shall give money to its owner, and the dead beast shall be his.
35 “When one man’s ox butts another’s, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and share its price, and the dead beast also they shall share. 36 Or if it is known that the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has not kept it in, he shall repay ox for ox, and the dead beast shall be his.
1 “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.” – Exodus 21:33-22:1 ESV
In these verses, the focus of the commandments shifts to the topic of restitution but particularly in cases involving domesticated animals. In an agrarian culture, animals were a daily part of life. They were a source of food and labor but were also prone to unpredictable behavior. Tens of thousands of goats, sheep, and oxen accompanied the Israelite community as they made their way from Egypt to Canaan and, as personal property, the responsibility for these animals fell to their rightful owners. While domesticated, these creatures could still cause property damage or personal injuries.
God has already dealt with the rare case of an ox goring someone to death. At first glance, this seems like such an unlikely scenario, but it provides a principle regarding the need for personal responsibility. The owner of the ox must take ownership of its actions. In this case, the ox is to be stoned to death. This supports the overall legal principle known as lex talionis.
“…if there is further injury, the punishment must match the injury: a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.” – Exodus 21:23-25 NLT
In Latin, lex talionis means “law of retaliation.” Essentially, it was a law designed to regulate retaliation. Its primary goal was to ensure that the punishment fit the crime and to prevent an unbalanced response in the form of revenge. People were not to take matters into their own hands and mete out a disproportionate degree of justice. God’s law demanded that all penalties for crimes committed be equitable rather than excessive.
God even provided details concerning an ox that was a repeat offender. If an ox was prone to violent behavior, it was the responsibility of the owner to protect his neighbors from any harm. If he failed to do so and the ox ended up killing again, both the ox and the owner would be condemned to death. But God provided a way for the owner to escape death by redeeming himself through the payment of a ransom.
“However, the dead person’s relatives may accept payment to compensate for the loss of life. The owner of the ox may redeem his life by paying whatever is demanded.” – Exodus 21:30 NLT
To our modern sensibilities, these cases seem strange and unnecessary. But to the Israelites, these kinds of scenarios were a regular part of daily life. These laws made sense and provided much-needed guidelines for how to deal with the inevitable conflicts that accompanied life in a fallen world.
God wanted His people to take personal responsibility for their actions. Their behavior was important and there was no excuse for negligence. Sins of commission and omission were equally wrong and had to be dealt with properly. If a man dug a pit and someone else’s ox or donkey fell into it, he was responsible for the outcome.
“The owner of the pit must pay full compensation to the owner of the animal, but then he gets to keep the dead animal.” – Exodus 21:34 NLT
He couldn’t just write it off as bad luck. He was not free to excuse his liability by saying, “Accidents will happen.” Justice must be served. Compensation must be made. Legal liability is a biblical principle that is intended to regulate human behavior. In a world where everyone wants to dismiss their culpability and avoid any and all liability for their actions, God inserted a non-negotiable principle of personal responsibility. We are to own our actions. If the tree I planted falls on my neighbor’s house, I am to take responsibility for it and make restitution. If my dog bites a child, I am not free to excuse its actions by saying, “Dogs will be dogs.” God expects me to do the right thing.
All of these laws are intended to help God’s people reflect God’s character. He is a God of justice, mercy, and grace. He always does what is right and good, and He expects His covenant people to mirror His ways. But because sin has infected our world and heavily influenced our hearts, He has given us His law to show us how to do the good and right thing. Left to our own devices, we would naturally deflect blame and deny responsibility, but God will not allow us to do so.
In a sense, God is stating that personal property is an extension of the individual. An ox that kills is the responsibility of its owner. A man who steals a sheep or goat is actually committing a crime against the animal’s owner. He is dishonoring and devaluing that individual by his actions, and God expects him to make restitution.
“…the thief must pay back five oxen for each ox stolen, and four sheep for each sheep stolen.” – Exodus 22:1 NLT
No excuses accepted. No justification allowed. Each individual was expected to make things right; to do the right thing. God was attempting to create a community where justice prevailed and love permeated every interaction. God expected His people to live holy, set-apart lives that were distinctively different than their neighbors. They were to be a light to the world, living together in an atmosphere of unity and mutual accountability. As the psalmist said, “How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony!” (Psalm 133:1 NLT).
And that was God’s desire for His people.
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.