Exodus 21:1
These are the ordinances that you are to set before them:
Sermons
The Hebrew Commonwealth Founded on ReligionH. M. Field, D. D.Exodus 21:1
The JudgmentsJ. M. Gibson, D. D.Exodus 21:1
The JudgmentsJ. Orr Exodus 21:1
Regulations for the Treatment of SlavesD. Young Exodus 21:1-11


The "rights" or "judgments" contained in this and the two following chapters show the manner in which the spirit and principles of the preceding moral legislation were intended to be applied to the regulation of the outward life of the Jewish state.

(1) As respects their origin, not a few of these laws have obviously their root in old customs, while others may have been derived from the decisions of Moses in the wilderness (Exodus 18:16). The code, therefore, in its present shape, cannot be supposed to have been verbally dictated by Jehovah to Moses; yet God may have instructed Moses as to the particular laws which were to be embraced in it, and may have revealed his will on special points which were as yet undetermined. The "judgments" were, in any case, given to Israel under express Divine sanction (ver. 1).

(2) As respects their nature, the laws relate to the determination of legal rights, and to the ordering of the course of justice; in part, also, to the behaviour of the members of the community to each other in various out ward relations, and to fundamental religious ordinances. The spirit of the code is throughout that of the moral law; the principles embodied in it are those of the commandments. The point of view from which its statutes are to be regarded is, however, a different one from that which was occupied in considering the moral law as such. Moral law speaks with the voice of "the categorical imperative." It sets up the perfect ethical standard. What falls short of this is wrong, involves sin, and is condemned. It knows nothing of a morality which is merely relative. The practical legislator, on the other hand - much as he might wish to do so - cannot so mould external institutions as to make them all at once, and at every point, correspond with the requirements of ideal morality. He must, to a large extent, take things as they are - must start with existing conditions and usages, and try to make the best of them. Absolute morality, e.g., would refuse to recgonise such a state as that of war; yet, so long as wars exist - and to this hour they are of frequent occurrence - some code must be devised, representing such application of ethical maxims as is possible to military life, and to that extent stamping a moral character on the profession of the soldier. The cases of deviation from ideal morality in the laws of Moses are, however, remarkably few, relating chiefly to war, slavery, and marriage. In regard to these subjects, the legislation necessarily partakes of the backward character of the times. The statutes given are not the absolutely best, but the best which the people, at that stage of their moral and social development, could receive; that is, the relatively best - the best for them. This leads to a third point -

(3) The incompleteness of the law. The statutes here given, so far as they partook of the imperfection of the time, were not intended to be final. Within the law itself, as will be readily perceived, there was large room for development; but even the letter of the law was not so fixed, but that, in course of time, large parts of it might, and did, become obsolete; new institutions, adapted to new needs, and introduced, by proper authority, taking the place of the old ones. Mr. Robertson Smith is therefore not fair in his representation of what he calls the "traditional view," when he affirms - "The Divine laws given beyond Jordan were to remain unmodified through all the long centuries of development in Canaan, an absolute and immutable code" ("Old Testament," p. 333). On such a theory, if anyone held it, his criticism would be quite just - "I say, with all reverence, that this is impossible. God, no doubt, could have given by Moses' mouth a law fit for the age of Solomon or Hezekiah, but such a law could not be fit for immediate application in the days of Moses and Joshua God can do all things, but he cannot contradict himself; and he who shaped the eventful development of Israel''s history must have framed this law to correspond with it." The reply to this is, that the most conservative defenders of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch do not deny the necessity for, and admissibility of, great developments of the principles of the law. It may suffice to quote Hengstenberg:" First, it is a gross error, though often repeated, that the Pentateuch embraces the whole civil law of the Israelites. In that portion of the Scriptures there is shown the greatest aversion from all untimely interference with the course of historical development. Only those points are determined which must be so, add in no other way, according to the fundamental maxims of the theocracy," etc. ("Authenticity," vol. it. p. 498, Eng. trans.). - J.O.







These are the Judgments.
These judgments stood related to the second table of the Law, just as the regulations concerning the worship of the altar stood related to the first. It is to be remembered also that these "judgments," and those of the same kind which afterward were added as occasion arose, are to be distinguished from the moral law, not only as applying to the state rather than the individual, but also as local and temporary in their nature, representing not what was ideally best, but only what was then practically possible in the direction of that which was best. Some very superficial people criticise them as if they were intended for the nineteenth century! The Decalogue was, and is, intrinsically perfect; the "judgments" were adapted to the circumstances and wants of Israel at the time. And it would be a good thing if reformers of modern times would always remember the same wise and necessary distinctions, between that which is ideally perfect and that which alone may be practically possible. Still further it is to be remembered, that these judgments were suitable to "the Theocracy" of Israel; and hence those are entirely wrong who attempt to use them as precedents for general legislation in the limited monarchies and republican governments, and otherwise entirely altered circumstances, of modern times. Yet if we could only compare these "judgments" with the laws and customs of the nations around, we should see by force of contrast how exceedingly pure, wise, just, and humane they are; and especially where private relations are dealt with, we have touches which would not shame the New Testament itself, however much they may in another sense shame us, as for instance Exodus 23:4, 5. The third division of the book of the covenant has to do with matters which relate neither to worship exclusively, nor to civil relations exclusively, but to both. These are the Sabbath year, the Sabbath day, and the yearly festivals (Exodus 23:10-19). As for the Sabbath year and the festivals, they will come up again in the fuller details given from the tabernacle and recorded in Leviticus. And as for the Sabbath day, we may simply remark the significance of its presence here in the book of the covenant, as well as in the Decalogue, indicating that while in its principle it belongs to universal and unchangeable law, in its letter it formed part of that national covenant which was merged in the new and better covenant of the later age.

(J. M. Gibson, D. D.)

There is a very common reflection upon the Hebrew lawgiver, which, though it does not call in question any particular law, is yet designed to vitiate and weaken the impression of the whole — that he was a stern and relentless ruler, who may indeed have understood the principles of justice, but whose justice was seldom tempered with mercy. This impression is derived partly at least from the summary way in which in several instances he dealt with rebellion. To this kind of argument there is one brief and sufficient answer: All bodies of men are acknowledged to have the right to resort to severe penalties when encompassed by extraordinary dangers. The children of Israel were in a position of great peril, and their safety depended on the wisdom and firmness of one man. Never had a ruler a more difficult task. Moses did not legislate for the ideal republic of Plato, a community of perfect beings, but for a people born in slavery, from which they had but just broken away, and that were in danger of becoming ungovernable. Here were two millions and a half who had not even a settled place of abode, mustered in one vast camp, through which rebellion might spread in a day. Moses had to govern them by his single will .... To preserve order, and to guard against hostile attacks, all the men capable of bearing arms were organized as a military body .... He suppressed rebellion as Cromwell would have suppressed it: he not only put it down, but stamped it out; and such prompt severity was the truest humanity. But it is not acts of military discipline that provoke the criticism of modern humanitarians, so much as those religious laws which prescribed the God whom the Hebrews should worship, and punished idolatry and blasphemy as the greatest of crimes. This, it is said, transcends the proper sphere of human law; it exalts ceremonies into duties, and denounces as crimes acts which have no moral wrong. Was not, then, the Hebrew law wanting in the first principle of justice — freedom to all religions? Now it is quite absurd to suppose the Hebrews had conscientious scruples against this worship, or seriously doubted whether Jehovah or Baal were the true God. They had been rescued from slavery by a direct interposition of the Almighty, they had been led by an Almighty Deliverer; and it was His voice which they heard from the cliffs of Sinai. But it was not merely because their religion was true, and the only true worship, that they were required to accept it; but because also of the peculiar relation which its Divine Author had assumed towards the Hebrew state as its founder and protector. They had no king but God; He was the only Lord. As such, no act of disobedience or disrespect to His authority could be light or small. Further: the unity of God was a centre of unity for the nation. The state was one because their God was one. The worship of Jehovah alone distinguished the Hebrews from all other people, and preserved their separate nationality. Admit other religions, and the bond which held together the twelve tribes was dissolved. How long could that union have lasted if the prophets of Baal had had the freedom of the camp and been permitted to go from tribe to tribe and from tent to tent, preaching the doctrine of human sacrifices? Hence Moses did not suffer them for an hour. False prophets were to be stoned to death .... Such was the Hebrew commonwealth, a state founded in religion. Was it therefore founded in fanaticism and folly, or in profound wisdom and far-seeing sagacity? "Religion, true or false," says Coleridge, "is, and ever has been, the centre of gravity in a realm, to which all other things must and will accommodate themselves." Would it not be well if some of our modern pretenders to statesmanship did not so completely ignore its existence and its power? The religion which Moses gave to the Hebrews was not one merely of abstract ideas; it was incarnated in an outward and visible worship by which it addressed the senses. Even in the desert the tabernacle and the altar were set up, and the daily sacrifice was offered; the smoke and the incense below ascending towards the pillar of cloud above, and the fire on the altar answering to the pillar of fire in the midnight sky. This daily and nightly worship made religion a real because a visible thing; it appealed to the senses and touched the imagination of the people, and held their spirits in awe. The feeling that God dwelt in the midst of them inspired them with courage for great efforts and great sacrifices.

(H. M. Field, D. D.)

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