Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Thou shalt not raise a false report: put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness.XXIII.
(1-19) The “miscellaneous laws” are here continued. From Exodus 23:1 to Exodus 23:9 no kind of sequence in the laws can be traced; from Exodus 23:10 to the first clause of Exodus 23:19 there is, on the contrary, a certain connection, since the laws enunciated are concerned with ceremonial observance. The closing law, however, is not ceremonial, but the prohibition of a practice considered to be cruel. On the whole, it may be said that The Book of the Covenant maintains its unsystematic character to the close. (See Note on Exodus 20:22-26.)
(1) Thou shalt not raise a false report.—The LXX. and Vulg. Translate, “Thou shalt not receive a false report”—i.e., give it credit, accept it as true, and act upon it. This meaning accords well with the succeeding clause, which forbids our giving support to the false testimony of others. In both clauses the principle of the ninth commandment is extended from principals to accessories.
Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to decline after many to wrest judgment:(2) Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil . . . —It is perhaps true that the offence especially condemned is joining with a majority in an unrighteous judgment; but the words of the precept extend much further than this, and forbid our being carried away by numbers or popularity in any case. Vox populi vox Dei is a favourite maxim with many, but Scripture nowhere sanctions it. Job boasts that he did not fear a great multitude (Job 31:34). David says that the “ten thousands of the people set themselves against him round about” (Psalm 3:6). The prophets had always the multitude against them. “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way,” said our blessed Lord, “which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” But ‘wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat” Matthew 7:13-14). We must be prepared to face unpopularity if we would walk in accordance with the Law of God.
Neither shalt thou countenance a poor man in his cause.(3) Neither shalt thou countenance a poor man in his cause.—We must not “pervert judgment” either in favour of the rich or of the poor. Justice must hold her scales even, and be proof equally against a paltry fear of the rich and a weak compassion for the indigent. The cause alone is to be considered, not the persons. (Comp. Leviticus 19:15.)
If thou meet thine enemy's ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again.(4) Thine enemy’s ox.—The general duty of stopping stray animals and restoring them to friendly owners, expressly taught in Deuteronomy 22:1-3, is here implied as if admitted on all hands. The legislator extends this duty to cases where the owner is our personal enemy. It was not generally recognised in antiquity that men’s enemies had any claims upon them. Cicero, indeed, says—“Sunt autem quædam officia etiam adversus eos servanda, a quibus injuriam aceeperis” (De Off. i. 11); but he stops short of enjoining active benevolence. Here and in Exodus 23:5 we have a sort of anticipation of Christianity—active kindness to an enemy being required, even when it costs us some trouble. The principle of friendliness is involved—the germ which in Christianity blossoms out into the precept, “Love your enemies.”
If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden, and wouldest forbear to help him, thou shalt surely help with him.(5) If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee . . . —The sense is clear, but the words are greatly disputed. If a man sees his enemy’s ass prostrate under its burthen, he is to help to raise it up. In this case he owes a double duty—(1) to his enemy, and (2) to the suffering animal. Geddes’ emendation of ’azar for ’azab, in all the three places where the verb occurs, is the simplest and best of those suggested. The passage would then run: “If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burthen, and wouldest forbear to help it, thou shalt surely help with him”—i.e., the owner.
Thou shalt not wrest the judgment of thy poor in his cause.(6) Thou shalt not wrest the judgment of thy poor.—If we are not to favour the poor man in a court of justice on account of his poverty (Exodus 23:3), much less are we to treat him with disfavour. (Comp. Deuteronomy 24:17; Deuteronomy 27:19; Jeremiah 5:28, &c.)
Keep thee far from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous slay thou not: for I will not justify the wicked.(7) Keep thee far from a false matter.—A false accusation seems to be intended. If we make one it may result in an innocent man’s death, and we shall be murderers; God will then assuredly hold us guilty.
And thou shalt take no gift: for the gift blindeth the wise, and perverteth the words of the righteous.(8) Thou shalt take no gift—i.e., no bribe. Corruption has been always rife in the East, and the pure administration of justice is almost unknown there. Signal punishments by wise rulers have sometimes checked the inveterate evil (Herod. v. 25). But it recurs again and again—“Naturam expellas furca, tarnen usque recurret.” According to Josephus (contr. Ap. ii. 27), the Jewish law punished with death the judge who took a bribe. But Hebrew judges seem practically to have been no better than Oriental judges generally. (See 1Samuel 8:3; Psalm 26:10; Proverbs 17:23; Isaiah 1:23; Isaiah 5:23; Micah 3:9-11, &c.) The corrupt Administration of justice was one of the crying evils which provoked God’s judgments against His people, and led, in the first instance, to the Babylonian captivity, and afterwards to the Roman conquest.
Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.(9) Thou shalt not oppress a stranger.—See Note on Exodus 22:21. The repetition of the law indicates the strong inclination of the Hebrew people to ill-use strangers, and the anxiety of the legislator to check their inclination.
(10, 11) Six years . . . the seventh year.—The Sabbatical year which is here commanded was an institution wholly unknown to any nation but the Hebrews. It is most extraordinary that any legislator should have been able to induce a people to accept such a law. Prima facie, it seemed, by forbidding productive industry during one year in seven, to diminish the wealth of the nation by one-seventh. But it is questionable whether, under a primitive agricultural system, when rotation of crops was unknown, the lying of the land fallow during one year in seven would not have been an economical benefit. There was no prohibition on labour other than in cultivation. The clearing away of weeds and thorns and stones was allowed, and may have been practised. After an early harvest of the self-sown crop, the greater part of the year may have been spent in this kind of industry. Still the enactment was no doubt unpopular: it checked the regular course of agriculture, and seemed to rob landowners of one-seventh of their natural gains. Accordingly, we find that it was very irregularly observed. Between the Exodus and the Captivity it had apparently been neglected seventy times (2Chronicles 36:21), or more often than it had been kept. After the Captivity, however, the observance became regular, and classical writers notice the custom as one existing in their day (Tacit. Hist. v. 4). Julius Cæsar permitted it, and excused the Jews from paying tribute in the seventh year on its account (Joseph., Ant Jud. xiv. 10, § 6). The object of the law was threefold—(1) to test obedience; (2) to give an advantage to the poor and needy, to whom the crop of the seventh year belonged (Exodus 23:11); and (3) to allow an opportunity, once in seven years, for prolonged communion with God and increased religious observances. (See Deuteronomy 31:10-13.)
But the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie still; that the poor of thy people may eat: and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat. In like manner thou shalt deal with thy vineyard, and with thy oliveyard.(11) That the poor of thy people may eat.—For fuller particulars see Leviticus 25:1-7. The owner was to have no larger part of the seventh year’s produce than any one else. He was to take his share with the hireling, the stranger, and even the cattle, which during this year were to browse where they pleased.
Thy vineyard . . . Thy oliveyard.—These would bear a full average produce, and the boon to the poor man would in these respects have been very considerable. Corn, wine, and oil were the staple commodities of Palestine (Deuteronomy 8:8; 2Kings 18:32, &c.).
Six days thou shalt do thy work, and on the seventh day thou shalt rest: that thine ox and thine ass may rest, and the son of thy handmaid, and the stranger, may be refreshed.(12) The law of the weekly Sabbath is here repeated in conjunction with that of the Sabbatical year, to mark the intimate connection between the two, which were parts of one and the same system—a system which culminated in the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:8-13). Nothing is added to the requirements of the fourth commandment; but the merciful intention of the Sabbath day is more fully brought out—it is to be kept in order that the cattle may rest, and the slave and stranger may be refreshed.
And in all things that I have said unto you be circumspect: and make no mention of the name of other gods, neither let it be heard out of thy mouth.(13) Be circumspect.—Rather, take heed. The verb used is a very common one.
Make no mention of the name of other gods.—The Jewish commentators understand swearing by the name of other gods to be the thing here forbidden, and so the Vulg., “per nomen exterorum deorum non jurabitis.” But the words used reach far beyond this. Contempt for the “gods of the nations” was to be shown by ignoring their very names. They were not to be spoken of, unless by preachers in the way of warning, or by historians when the facts of history could not be otherwise set forth. Moses himself mentions Baal (Numbers 22:41), Baal-peor (Numbers 25:3; Numbers 25:5), Chemosh (Numbers 21:29), and Moloch (Leviticus 20:2-5; Leviticus 23:21).
Three times thou shalt keep a feast unto me in the year.(14-17) The first great festival—the Passover festival—had been already instituted (Exodus 12:3-20; Exodus 13:3-10). It pleased the Divine Legislator at this time to add to that festival two others, and to make all three equally obligatory. There is some reason to suppose that, in germ, the “feast of harvest” and the “feast of ingathering” already existed. All nations, from the earliest time to which history reaches back, had festival seasons of a religious character; and no seasons are more suitable for such festivities than the conclusion of the grain-harvest, and the final completion of the entire harvest of the year. At any rate, whatever the previous practice, these three festival-seasons were now laid down as essential parts of the Law, and continued—supplemented by two others—the national festivals so long as Israel was a nation. In other countries such seasons were more common. Herodotus says that the Egyptians had six great yearly festival-times (ii. 59); and in Greece and Rome there was never a month without some notable religious festivity. Such institutions exerted a political as well as a religious influence, and helped towards national unity. This was more especially the case when, as in the present instance, they were expressly made gatherings of the whole nation to a single centre. What the great Greek panegyries, Olympic, Pythian, &c., were to Hellas, that the three great annual gatherings to the place where God had fixed His name were to Israel—a means of drawing closer the national bond, and counteracting those separatist tendencies which a nation split into tribes almost necessarily developed.
Thou shalt keep the feast of unleavened bread: (thou shalt eat unleavened bread seven days, as I commanded thee, in the time appointed of the month Abib; for in it thou camest out from Egypt: and none shall appear before me empty:)(15) The feast of unleavened bread.—See the Notes on Exodus 12:15-20.
In the time appointed of the month Abib.—From the 14th day of the month Abib (or Nisan) to the 21st day. (See Exo. Xii. 18, 13:4-7.)
None shall appear before me empty.—Viewed religiously, the festivals were annual national thanks-givings for mercies received, both natural and miraculous—the first for the commencement of harvest and the deliverance out of Egypt; the second for the completion of the grain-harvest and the passage of the Red Sea; the third for the final gathering in of the fruits and the many mercies of the wilderness. At such seasons we must not “appear before God empty,” we must give Him not only “the salves of our lips,” but some substantial acknowledgment of His goodness towards us. The law here laid down with respect to the first feast is afterwards extended to the other two (Deuteronomy 16:16).
And the feast of harvest, the firstfruits of thy labours, which thou hast sown in the field: and the feast of ingathering, which is in the end of the year, when thou hast gathered in thy labours out of the field.(16) The feast of harvest.—It was calculated that the grain-harvest would be completed fifty days after it had begun. On this fiftieth day (Pentecost) the second festival was to commence by the offering of two loaves made of the new wheat just gathered in. On the other offerings commanded, see Leviticus 23:18-20. The Law limited the feast to a single day—the “day of Pentecost”—but in practice it was early extended to two days, in order to cover a possible miscalculation as to the exact time.
The feast of ingathering.—Elsewhere commonly called “the feast of tabernacles” (Leviticus 23:34; Deuteronomy 16:13; Deuteronomy 16:16; Deuteronomy 31:10; 2Chronicles 8:13; Ezra 3:4; Zechariah 14:16-19, &c.). Like the feast of unleavened bread, this lasted for a week. It corresponded to a certain extent with modern “harvest-homes,” but was more prolonged and of a more distinctly religious character. The time fixed for it was the week commencing with the fifteenth and terminating with the twenty-first of the month Tisri, corresponding to our October. The vintage and the olive-harvest had by that time been completed, and thanks were given for God’s bounties through the whole year. At the same time the sojourn in the wilderness was commemorated; and as a memorial of that time those who attended the feast dwelt during its continuance in booths made of branches of trees. (See Leviticus 23:40; Nehemiah 8:14-17.)
Three times in the year all thy males shall appear before the Lord GOD.(17) Three times in the year.—The terms of this verse, as compared with Exodus 23:14, limit the observance of the three festivals to the males, but add the important requirement of personal attendance at a given place. By “all thy males” we must understand all of full age and not incapacitated by infirmity or illness.
Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavened bread; neither shall the fat of my sacrifice remain until the morning.(18) Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavened bread.—Some regard this prohibition as extending to all sacrifices; but the majority of commentators limit it to the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb, which was the only sacrifice as yet expressly instituted by Jehovah. According to modern Jewish notions, leavened bread is permissible at the other feasts; at Pentecost it was commanded (Leviticus 23:17).
The fat of my sacrifice.—Rather (as in the Margin), the fat of my feast. The fat of the Paschal lambs was burnt on the altar with incense the same evening. Thus the whole lamb was consumed before the morning. As the Paschal lamb is καὶ ἐξοχήν, “my sacrifice,” so the Passover is “my feast.”
The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring into the house of the LORD thy God. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk.(19) The first of the firstfruits—i.e., the very first that ripen. There was a natural tendency to “delay” the offering (Exodus 22:29) until a considerable part of the harvest had been got in. True gratitude makes a return for benefits received as soon as it, can. “Bis dat qui cito dat.”
Thou shalt not seethe a kid.—A fanciful exegesis connects the four precepts of Exodus 23:18-19 with the three feasts—the two of Exodus 23:18 with the Paschal festival, that concerning firstfruits in Exodus 23:19 with the feast of ingathering, and this concerning kids with the feast of tabernacles. To support this theory it is suggested that the command has reference to a superstitious practice customary at the close of the harvest—a kid being then boiled in its mother’s milk with magic rites, and the milk used to sprinkle plantations, fields, and gardens, in order to render them more productive the next year. But Deuteronomy 14:21, which attaches the precept to a list of unclean meats, is sufficient to show that the kid spoken of was boiled to be eaten. The best explanation of the passage is that of Bochart (Hierozoic. pt. 1, bk. 2, Exo. 52), that there was a sort of cruelty in making the milk of the mother, intended for the kid’s sustenance, the means of its destruction.
(20-33) The Book of the Covenant terminates, very appropriately, with a series of promises. God is “the rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” He chooses to “reward men after their works,” and to set before them “the recompense of the reward.” He “knows whereof we are made,” and by what motives we are influenced. Self-interest, the desire of our own good, is one of the strongest of them. If Israel will keep His covenant, they will enjoy the following blessings :—(1) The guidance and protection of His angel till Canaan is reached; (2) God’s help against their adversaries, who will, little by little, be driven out; (3) the ultimate possession of the entire country between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea on the one hand, the Desert and the Euphrates on the other; (4) a blessing upon their flocks and herds, which shall neither be barren nor cast their young; and (5) a blessing upon themselves, whereby they will escape sickness and enjoy a long term of life. All these advantages, however, are conditional upon obedience, and may be forfeited.
(20) I send an Angel before thee.—Kalisch considers Moses to have been the “angel” or “messenger;” others understand one of the created angelic host. But most commentators see in the promise the first mention of the “Angel of the Covenant,” who is reasonably identified with the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Eternal Son and Word of God. When the promise is retracted on account of the sin of the golden calf, it is in the words, “I will not go up with thee” (Exodus 33:3).
Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him.(21) My name is in him.—God and His Name are in Scripture almost convertible terms. He is never said to set His Name in a man.
But if thou shalt indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries.(22) An adversary unto thine adversaries.—Rather, an afflictor of thy afflictors.
For mine Angel shall go before thee, and bring thee in unto the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Canaanites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites: and I will cut them off.(23) I will cut them off.—Or, cut them down—i.e., make them cease to be nations, not exterminate them utterly. Jebusites, Hittites, and others continued to inhabit Canaan, and were probably absorbed ultimately into the Hebrew population, having become full proselytes.
Thou shalt not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do after their works: but thou shalt utterly overthrow them, and quite break down their images.(24) Nor do after their works.—The Canaanitish nations were not merely idolaters, they were corrupt, profligate, and depraved. All the abominations mentioned in Leviticus 18:6-23 were practised widely among them before they were dispossessed of their territory (Leviticus 18:24-30). No doubt the idolatry and the profligacy were closely connected, as among idolatrous nations generally; but it was for their profligacy rather than their idolatry that they were driven out. Thus it was necessary to warn Israel against both.
Thou shalt . . . quite break down their images.—Conquerors generally preserved the idols of the conquered nations as trophies of victory; to do so was forbidden to the Israelites. Idolatry had such a powerful and subtle attraction for them, that there was danger of their being seduced into it unless the entire apparatus of the idol-worship were destroyed and made away with. Hence the present injunctions, and others similar to them. (Comp. Exodus 34:13; Deuteronomy 7:5; &c.)
And ye shall serve the LORD your God, and he shall bless thy bread, and thy water; and I will take sickness away from the midst of thee.(25) He shall bless thy bread, and thy water—i.e., all the food, whether meat or drink, on which they subsisted. It is God’s blessing which makes food healthful to us.
Take sickness away.—Half the sicknesses from which men suffer are directly caused by sin, and would disappear if men led godly, righteous, and sober lives. Others, as plague and pestilence, are scourges sent by God to punish those who have offended Him. If Israel had walked in God’s ways, He would have preserved them from sicknesses of all kinds by a miraculous interposition. (Comp. Deuteronomy 7:15.)
There shall nothing cast their young, nor be barren, in thy land: the number of thy days I will fulfil.(26) There shall nothing cast their young, nor be barren.—Abortions, untimely births, and barrenness, when they exceeded a certain average amount, were always reckoned in the ancient world among the signs of God’s disfavour, and special expiatory rites were devised for checking them. Conversely, when such misfortunes fell short of the ordinary average, God’s favour was presumed. The promises here made confirm man’s instinctive feeling.
The number of thy days I will fulfil.—Comp. Exodus 20:12. Long life is always regarded in Scripture as a blessing. (Comp. Psalm 55:23; Psalm 90:10; Job 5:26; Job 42:16-17; 1Kings 3:11; Isaiah 65:20; Ephesians 6:3, &c.)
And I will send hornets before thee, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite, from before thee.(28) I will send hornets.—Heb., the hornet. Comp. Joshua 24:12, where “the hornet” is said to have been sent. No doubt hornets might be so numerous as to become an intolerable plague, and induce a nation to quit its country and seek another (see Bochart, Hierozoic. iv. 13). But as we have no historical account of the kind in connection with the Canaanite races, the expression here used is scarcely to be taken literally. Probably the Egyptians are the hornets intended. It was they who, under Rameses III., broke the power of the Hittites and other nations of Palestine, while the Israelites were sojourners in the wilderness. Possibly the term was chosen in reference to the hieroglyphic sign for “king” in Egypt, which was the figure of a bee or wasp. The author of the Book of Wisdom seems, however, to have understood the expression literally (Wisdom Of Solomon 12:8-9).
I will not drive them out from before thee in one year; lest the land become desolate, and the beast of the field multiply against thee.(29) The beast of the field.—Comp. 2Kings 17:25-26, where we find that this result followed the deportation of the Samaritans by the Assyrians.
And I will set thy bounds from the Red sea even unto the sea of the Philistines, and from the desert unto the river: for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand; and thou shalt drive them out before thee.(31) Thy bounds.—Those whose highest notion of prophecy identifies it with advanced human foresight naturally object to Moses having foretold the vast extent of empire which did not take place till the days of David and Solomon. It is impossible, however, to understand this passage in any other way than as an assignment to Israel of the entire tract between the Desert, or “Wilderness of the Wanderings,” and the Euphrates on the one hand, the Mediterranean and the Red Sea on the other. “The River” (han-nahar) has no other meaning in the Pentateuch than “the Euphrates.” And this was exactly the extent to which the dominions of Israel reached under Solomon, as we see from the description in Kings and Chronicles (1Kings 4:21; 1Kings 4:24; 2Chronicles 9:26). It had, according to Moses (Genesis 15:18), been already indicated with tolerable precision in the original promise made to Abraham.
Thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor with their gods.(32) Thou shalt make no covenant with them—i.e., no treaty of peace; no arrangement by which one part of the land shall be thine and another theirs. (Comp. Exodus 34:12.)
Nor with their gods.—It was customary at the time for treaties between nations to contain an acknowledgment by each of the other’s gods. (See the treaty between Rameses II. And the Hittites in the Records of the Past, vol. iv., pp. 27-32.) Thus a treaty with a nation was a sort of treaty with its gods.
They shall not dwell in thy land, lest they make thee sin against me: for if thou serve their gods, it will surely be a snare unto thee.(33) They shall not dwell in thy land.—Individuals might remain if they became proselytes, as Urijah the Hittite, Araunah the Jebusite, &c.; and the Gibeonites remained en masse, but in a servile condition. What was forbidden was the co-existence of friendly but independent heathen communities with Israel within the limits of Canaan. This would have been a perpetual “snare” to the Israelites, and would have continually led them into idolatry; as we find that it did during the period of the early Judges. (See Judges 1:27-36; Judges 2:11-13; Judges 3:5-7.)