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Exodus 22b-23a: Worship & Social Justice Laws

For several weeks the Cutting Room Floor has been comparing Exodus’s Covenant Code with similar laws in the Ancient Near East (ANE). We will continue that exploration today as we look at laws on worship and social justice. (All Bible translations are in ESV, and all ANE law codes are from Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament [ANET] by Pritchard, 3rd ed.).




Exodus 22:16 “If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. 17 If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins.


Sumerian Laws Exercise Tablet 7-8: If (a man) deflowered the daughter of a free citizen in the street, her father and her mother not having known (that she was in the street), and she (then) says to her father and her mother: “I was raped,” her father and her mother may give her to him (forcibly) as a wife. (8) If (a man) deflowered the daughter of a free citizen in the street, her father and her mother having known (that she was in the street) but the man who deflowered her denied that he knew (her to be of the free-citizen class), and, standing at the temple gate, swore an oath (to this effect, he shall be freed).


First, a word on the title “Property Virgins.” This is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the nature of the location of vss 16-17 in Exodus 22. The majority of commentators would place these verses with the unit that precedes (Ex 21:33 – 22:17), since the entire unit deals with damage to another’s property. By including it there, they are basically saying that they believe a virgin to be the “property” of her father. As crass as that might sound to us, it is not too far off the truth.

When we compare the law in Exodus with other laws in the ANE, such as the one above from the Sumerians, we see that an unwed daughter was indeed considered the property of her father. The laws we see above are quite harsh – even in a situation of rape, the father might decide to give the daughter to the rapist forcibly in marriage. The daughter does not have a say, apparently.

We might wonder: what father in his right mind would do this? The answer might be: a father that is quite upset about losing out on his portion of the bride-price. This may suggest too that the shame of having an unwed daughter would be greater than the shame of giving her away to a rapist. Again, this is harsh, and I do not suggest that it is right, and I also am not sure that many fathers would be so cold-hearted to do such a thing, but this at least gives us some perspective into the minds of those in the ANE.

Exodus 22:16-17 doesn’t address rape (though other passages do; cf. Deut 22:28-29), but the comparative laws simply illustrate that a virgin was widely considered to be “owned” by her father until she was given away in marriage. This does not mean that the Bible only sees her as property; certainly we have seen that the biblical law code upholds the sanctity of marriage and the worth of all individuals – women included – in much higher regard than other law codes.

It may be worth noting that a few other law codes address the issue of premarital sex. The Middle Assyrian laws (56) and Laws of Eshnunna (31) both stipulate that a sum of money is paid to the father (or owner) and the father has the right to determine whether the girl marries her seducer or not. This is much in line with the biblical law.




Exodus 22:18 “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.


Middle Assyrian 47: Put to death any making up magical preparations.


Hittite 170: If a free man kills a snake while pronouncing another man’s name, he will give 1 mina of silver. If he (the offender) is a slave, he shall die.


Hammurabi 2: If a seignior brought a charge of sorcery against a(nother) seignior, but has not proved it, the one against whom the charge of sorcery was brought, upon going to the river, shall throw himself into the river, and if the river has then overpowered him, his accuser shall take over his estate; if the river has shown that seignior to be innocent and he has accordingly come forth safe, the one who brought the charge of sorcery against him shall be put to death, while the one who threw himself into the river shall take over the estate of his accuser.


The Bible clearly forbids any kind of sorcery or occult/magical practices, by penalty of death for any violators. The Middle Assyrian laws seem to agree. Hittite law stipulates a menial fine for the offender (though if he’s a slave, he will be killed).

Hammurabi, on the other hand, may not only shed light on the biblical text, but also on a holy grail of a different kind: Monty Python! Hammurabi 2 describes what happens if someone is suspected of sorcery: take the supposed sorcerer to the river, throw him in, and if he drowns, then he’s definitely a sorcerer.

Honestly, I’m not sure why this text says what it says, and what the superstition was behind it. But personally, I’d like to think that this is a precursor to Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail. If she’s a witch, she’s made of wood, and she’ll float like a duck. Or something like that. Either way, it makes just about the same amount of sense.




Exodus 22:19 “Whoever lies with an animal shall be put to death.


Hittite laws 187-188 and 199 stipulate that if a man has sex with a cattle, a sheep, a pig or a dog, that man shall be put to death, unless the king otherwise decrees. However (and this is a big however!), a man may have sex with a horse or a mule without punishment (law 200)!

This may be shocking to us, but what is even more shocking to me is the absence of any such laws in other law codes. It is an argument from silence, but with such obvious parallels in nearly every other area of the law, it is hard not to conclude that lying with an animal was not an offense in surrounding civilizations. Many commentators have pointed out that bestiality was practiced as an occult ritual in many ANE religions. It is a grave and disgusting sin and Israel’s laws left no wiggle room for exceptions by a king or exceptions depending on which type of animal was involved.




Here again this may be an argument from silence, but it is noteworthy that the other law codes are practically absent on the penalty for harming a foreigner. Exodus directly links the offense to the Israelites’ times as oppressed sojourners in Egypt (Ex 22:21-24). This unique aspect of their law code stands out for good reasons.




Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8 deals with false testimony and perverting justice in the courts. Other law codes have much to say about such issues. Hammurabi 3-5 assigns the death penalty to a perjurer in a case that involves the death penalty. For other cases, the perjurer would pay whatever penalty the victim on trial would’ve had to pay. If it is a judge that is the cause of injustice, the penalty increases twelvefold and he is fired.

The laws of Ur-Nammu (25) impose a fine of 15 shekels for the perjurer. As for bribes, we have the Instruction of Amen-Em-Opet 20 to compare, an Egyptian law code that is usually compared to Proverbs 22:17 – 24:22 for its use of wisdom literature, but here is comparable to the order of court. The Instruction reads in part, “Give not thy attention (only) to him clothed in white, nor give consideration to him that is unkept. Do not accept the bribe of a powerful man, nor oppress for him the disabled.” Just as Exodus 23 discourages discrimination in court to the rich, poor, or influential, the Instruction has similar regulations. If even the Egyptians understood what justice should look like, how much more the people of God?




Exodus 23:4-5 gives regulations that demonstrate how we are to love our enemy. If we find his donkey or ox straying or trapped, even though we don’t like the individual, it is the godly thing to do to help the animal get returned to the owner safely.

Other law codes have no such regulation for the enemy, but the Hittite Laws (71 and 79) do mention what to do in the case of a straying animal. If a man finds a straying animal, the elders may assign it to him without suspicion of theft. If the original owner comes to reclaim it, he may do so. If an ox roams into someone’s field, the owner of the field can yoke them for a single day, then he must drive it back to its owner (assuming he knows the owner).

Again, there is a lack of language about your enemy here. The biblical law code sets the standard higher than the rest.


One final note: you may have noticed a curious lack of penalties in much of the Israelite law code that we looked at in this morning’s sermon (besides the three death penalty laws). Joe Sprinkle, in his The Book of the Covenant: A Literary Approach, argues that the lack of penalty likely indicates that Israel’s laws were not to be looked at primarily as a law code as much as they were a code of moral conduct. I would agree that this is the primary thrust, but we cannot divorce the law aspect of the code from this either (neither does Sprinkle). We must remember that these laws were moral, civil and ceremonial, all bunched up together.


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