Lesson 11:
Exodus chapters 20:22-23:33
The Book of the Covenant Parts I - III

Beloved Father:
You gave the Law of the Sinai Covenant to Israel as a preparation for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It was, as Your servant St. Irenaeus wrote, "a pedagogy and a prophecy of things to come." Your liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt became the precursor to Jesus' work of salvation in liberating mankind from bondage to sin and death, and the story of Israel's Exodus experience provided the New Testament writers with images, types, and symbols for expressing "life lived in the Spirit" that would be Christ's gift to the New Covenant people of God. Send Your Holy Spirit to guide us in our study of how the Old Law became a guide and a tutor for the Old Covenant Church to prepare them, as a holy people, for the coming of the Redeemer-Messiah. We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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The day you stood at Horeb in the presence of Yahweh your God, Yahweh said to me, "Summon the people to me; I want them to hear me speaking, so that they will learn to fear me all the days they live on earth, and teach this to their children." So you came and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain flamed to the very sky, a sky darkened by cloud, murky and thunderous. Yahweh then spoke to you from the heart of the fire; you heard the sound of words but saw no shape; there was only a voice. He revealed his covenant to you and commanded you to observe it, the Ten Words which he inscribed on two tablets of stone. Deuteronomy 4:10-13

The Old Law is the first stage of revealed Law. Its moral prescriptions are summed up in the Ten Commandments. The precepts of the Decalogue lay the foundations for the vocation of man fashioned in the image of God; they prohibit what is contrary to the love of God and neighbor and prescribe what is essential to it. The Decalogue is a light offered to the conscience of every man to make God's call and ways known to him and to protect them against evil: "God wrote on the tablets of the Law what men did not read in their hearts.*" The Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1962 (*quoting St. Augustine)

When the Israelites reached Horeb God prepared the people for the divine revelation they were to experience on the third day after arriving at God's holy mountain "the same mountain where Moses first encountered Yahweh in the bush/tree that lived in fire. On that fateful day at Mt. Sinai Yahweh invited the Israelites to enter into a covenant relationship that would forever alter the destiny of the people. No longer would they be simply a community composed of twelve Canaanite tribes descended from Jacob son of Isaac son of Abraham. God's divine election elevated them to nation status "a nation that received a divine mission as Yahweh's priestly people and His emissaries to the other nations of the earth. In the invitation to covenant unity Yahweh and Israel agreed on a bilateral relationship: Yahweh would give them special status among the nations of the earth if they agreed to be obedient to Him (Ex 19:4-5).

The people willingly agreed to this special relationship by way of the mediator of the covenant, Yahweh's servant Moses. The people obediently followed Yahweh's instructions through Moses and prepared themselves by purifying their bodies and hopefully their souls for their momentous rendezvous with Yahweh on "the third day" after their arrival. In fire, smoke, lightening, thunder, earthquake and the sound of the ram's horn the gates of heaven opened and God descended in a dense cloud upon Mt. Sinai. God delivered His first words of the divine Law that was to guide Israel until the coming of the Messiah Redeemer. After receiving the main body of the Law in the "ten words" the people fearfully petitioned Moses to speak with God for them and to spare them from the terrifying experience of hearing the voice of God in the thunder. Despite Moses' assurance that God was testing them so that their fear and awe of Yahweh would encourage them to submit to the will of God and keep them from sinning, Moses submitted to their request: So the people kept their distance while Moses approached the dark cloud where God was (Ex 20:21).

Please read Exodus 20:22-26: The Laws Concerning Idolatry and Worship
20:22Yahweh said to Moses, 'Tell the Israelites this, "You have seen for yourselves how I have spoken to you from heaven. 23You must not make gods of silver to rival me, nor must you make yourselves gods of gold. 24You must make me an altar of earth on which to sacrifice your burnt offerings and communion sacrifices, your sheep and cattle. Wherever I choose to have my name remembered, I shall come to you and bless you. 25If you make me an altar of stone, do not build it of dressed stones; for if you use a chisel on it, you will profane it. 26You must not go up to my altar by steps, in case you expose your nakedness on them."'

Exodus 20:22-26 essentially summarizes Israel's religious requirements under the covenant. As a people they have been, like Adam, "created" to worship only Yahweh according to His commands and at a site He designates at which heavenly and earthly worship will be joined. The commands are simple and the description of acceptable worship portrays the essence of the exercise of religion during the Age of the Patriarchs where whole burnt offerings were given to God and where communion sacrifices were eaten in a sacred meal in God's presence (Gen 4:3-4; 8:20; 12:7; 15:9; 22:7; 26:25; 31:54; Ex 17:12). Verses 22 and 23 are in the plural and are addressed to the community as a whole while verses 24-26 are presented in the singular and pertain to each individual covenant member. The theme of this section is authentic worship of Yahweh.

Question: List the requirements for authentic worship.

Answer: Beginning with the prohibition against idolatry or creating images of Yahweh, the instructions for right worship include:

  1. Simple altars of beaten earth and stone not shaped by tools and suitable for burnt offerings and communion sacrifices.(1)
  2. A simple ramp leading up to the altar instead of elaborate stone steps like pagan altars.
  3. A command concerning the modesty of the priests in covering their nakedness.

No image of Yahweh was ever to be created. Although the Theophany at Sinai was public and communal, the people never saw God. They only heard His voice speaking from heaven. The non-corporal nature of God's self-manifestation was apparent to everyone who heard and saw the event. Since the witnesses to the event perceived no shape or form they could not associate God with any shape or idol as the pagan peoples represented their gods (see Dt 4:12, 15-18, 36).

The command concerning the construction of Yahweh's altar of packed earth and stone not dressed by iron tools will be repeated in Deuteronomy 27:5-6. This prohibition was strictly observed by Joshua when he erected a temporary altar on Mt. Ebal where he had the twelve tribes of Israel swear obedience to Yahweh after taking possession of the Promised Land (Josh 8:30-31). When King Solomon built Yahweh's Temple in Jerusalem in the 10th century BC the stones were all cut and finished at the quarry so no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard within the sacred space while the Temple was being built (1 Kng 6:7). In the 2nd century BC when Judah Maccabaeus built a new altar after liberating Jerusalem from Syrian domination and destroying the defiled altar, he only used uncut stones (1 Mac 4:47), and Flavius Josephus recorded that in the reconstruction of the Second Temple by King Herod the Great in the late 1st century BC into the 1st century AD (46 years) no iron tool was used in the construction of the altar (The Jewish Wars 5.5.7 [269]; Against Apion 1.22 [243]).

Question: What is the significance of the command for the priests to cover their nakedness? See Gen 3:7, 21; Ex 28:42-43.

Answer: Man's nakedness has been a sign of sin since the Fall, and God's priests must maintain a state of ritual purity and holiness that is both externally visible and internally lived.

All these commands are contrary to the signs of pagan worship the children of Israel observed in Egypt (where priests offered sacrifice only in a loin cloth). A significant change from the exercise of religion during the reign of the Patriarchs is the command to only establish a national altar where God will choose to have "my name remembered." The Patriarchs built altars and sacrificed burnt offerings wherever they wanted to offer God worship (Gen 8:20 twice; 12:7-8; 13:4, 18; 22:9; 26:25; 33:20; 35:1, 3, 7).(2)

The prohibition of idolatry followed by instruction on the proper forms of worship will be repeated in Exodus 23:13-19. These themes will frame forty-two (7 = spiritual perfection x 6 = number symbolic of man) covenant judgments in Exodus 21:1-23:12, providing a prologue and an epilog to the forty-two judgments:

Idolatry prohibition and proper forms of worship
Ex 20:22-26
42 judgments
Ex 21:1-23:12
Idolatry prohibition and proper forms of worship
Ex 23:13-19

(Inspired by a chart in Sailhamer, Exodus, page 289).

Forty-two is a number associated with trial and judgment in the Book of Revelation. The forty-two judgments in Exodus 21:1-23:12 are meant to test Israel's obedience and to make Israel sensitive to sin.(3) The judgments are listed in the next three chapters and contain the first body of the Torah legislation known as sefer ha-berit ("Book of the Covenant"). It is a title based on Exodus 24:4-7 which records that Moses put the divine commands into writing and then read the covenant document aloud to the people in the ratification ceremony. The number forty-two is apparently connected to the first words that announce this section "And these," which in the Hebrew letter/number equivalents adds up to the number forty-two (Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, page 298).

That these events and laws were put into writing for future generations occurs eight times in the Pentateuch:

Exodus 17:17 Write this down in a book to commemorate it...
Exodus 24:4 Moses put all Yahweh's words into writing...
Exodus 24:17 Then taking the Book of the Covenant, he read it to the listening people, who then said, 'We shall do everything that Yahweh as said; we shall obey.
Deuteronomy 28:58 If you do not keep and observe all the words of this Law, which are written in this book, in the fear of this glorious and awe-inspiring name: Yahweh your God...
Deuteronomy 29:20-21 ...every curse written in this book will fall on him, and Yahweh will blot his name out under heaven. Yahweh will single him out of all the tribes of Israel for misfortune, in accordance with all the curses of the covenant written in the book of this Law.
Deuteronomy 29:28 Things hidden belong to Yahweh our God, but things revealed are ours and our children's for ever, so that we can put all the words of this Law into practice.
Deuteronomy 30:10 ...if you obey the voice of Yahweh you God by keeping his commandments and decrees written in the book of this Law, and if you return to Yahweh you God with all your heart and soul.
Deuteronomy 31:24 When Moses had completely finished writing the words of this Law in a book, he gave this command to the Levites who carried the Ark of Yahweh's Covenant: 'Take the book of this Law and put it beside the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh your God.'*

*The two stone tablets of the covenant treaty document (Dt 4:13) with the Decalogue, words written with the finger of God (Ex 34:28) on the tablets front and back (Ex 32:15), were placed inside the Ark of the Covenant/Ark of the Testimony (Ex 31:26; 40:20; Dt 10:2) while the law of the Book of the Covenant was placed beside the Ark (Dt 31:24).

The Book of the Covenant can be divided into four parts:

  1. Exodus 21:2-22:16/17: Relates to civil and criminal matters. These laws are not presented as abstract legal principles but as specific rulings on hypothetical cases whose rulings are to be the jurisdiction of the courts. An important addition is the statement of imposed punishments equal to the damage caused.
  2. Exodus 22:17/18-23:19: Encompasses a wide variety of topics but the main focus is on humanitarian considerations which are not enforced by the courts but are left to the disposition of the individual's conscience, assuming the individual is committed to a life of holiness dictated by divine law.
  3. Exodus 23:20-33: Affirms Yahweh's divine promises to His covenant people and warnings of the dangers being seduced by paganism.
  4. Exodus 24:1-18: The ritual of covenant ratification and the sacred meal.

With the completion of the written record of the Book of the Covenant Moses was called to the mountain summit to receive the instructions for building the earthly Sanctuary, for the investiture of the priesthood, for the covenant people's communal sacrifice, and the two stone tablets of the covenant treaty document.

The Book of the Covenant Part I (Ex 21:2-22:16/17)

All this is no other than the Book of the Covenant of the Most High God, the Law that Moses enjoined on us, an inheritance for the communities of Jacob. Sirach 24:22/23/32


Please read Exodus 21:1-11: Laws Concerning Hebrew Slaves
21:1'[And] These are the laws you must give them: 2When you buy a Hebrew slave, his service will last for six years. In the seventh year he will leave a free man without paying compensation. 3If he came single, he will depart single; if he came married, his wife will depart with him. 4If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children will belong to her master, and he will depart alone. 5But if the slave says, "I love my master and my wife and children; I do not wish to be freed," 6then his master will bring him before God and then, leading him to the door or the doorpost, his master will pierce his ear with an awl, and the slave will be permanently his. 7If a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not leave as male slaves do. 8If she does not please her master who intended her for himself, he must let her be bought back: he has not the right to sell her to foreigners, for this would be a breach of faith with her. 9If he intends her for his son, he must treat her as custom requires daughters to be treated. 10If he takes another wife, he must not reduce the food, clothing or conjugal rights of the first one. 11Should he deprive her of these three things she will leave a free woman, without paying compensation.'
[..] = literal translation (Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, page 196; JPS Commentary: Exodus, page 118).

Exodus 21:1: [And] These are the laws you must give them: Knowledge of the law of the Torah is not restricted to the judiciary elite but is the obligation and prerogative of the entire covenant community: You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven; you gave them right rules, reliable laws, good statutes and commandments (Neh 9:13). Please keep in mind that the formulation and application of these laws were meant to address the judicial needs and provide an ethical system of social laws for an ancient people and were uniquely suited to the customs and conditions under which they lived. Also keep in mind that courts of law have already been established by Moses to judge the people's legal disputes and crimes against both individuals and the community as a whole (Ex 17:19-26).

The first ten laws are for regulating the institution of slavery (Hebrew slaves) and a male or female slave's right to emancipation (a fellow Hebrew, even a slave, is considered to be a "brother"): For they are my servants whom I have brought out of Egypt, and they may not be bought and sold as slaves. You will not oppress your brother-Israelites harshly but will fear your God (Lev 25:42-43; also see Lev 25:35-41; Dt 15:12; Jer 34:9, 14). The Sinai Covenant is the only ancient Near Eastern law code that opens with the ethical treatment of slaves (JPS Commentary: Exodus, page 118). The codified law probably begins in this way because Israel's historical experience with slavery in Egypt should make them compassionate to the condition of slavery. In fact the Pentateuch will continue to remind the Israelites of this former condition (Ex 20:2; Dt 5:6; 6:12; 8:14; 13:5; 26:10). Laws concerning non-Israelite slaves are found in Leviticus 25:44-55.

  1. When you buy a Hebrew slave, his service will last for six years.
  2. In the seventh year he will leave a free man without paying compensation. Emancipation was the right of Hebrew slaves and therefore no compensation was required (Dt 15:12-15 requires the master provide the slave with a "separation allowance" when leaving his service). He had to be freed in the beginning of the seventh year of service unless a Jubilee year came before his seventh year, in which case he had to be released in honor of the 50th year Jubilee in which every Israelite was to show the same mercy and compassion to their countrymen that God had showed to them (Lev 25:40).
  3. If he came single, he will depart single; if he came married, his wife will depart with him. During his years of service the master was also responsible for the maintenance of the slave's family.
  4. If his master gives him a wife [woman] and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife [woman] and her children will belong to her master, and he will depart alone. It was common for a Hebrew male slave to have conjugal relations with a non-Israelite foreign-born female slave and to have children with her; in such cases the woman and her children remained the property of the master. A Hebrew slave woman was eligible for emancipation in the seventy year like a male
  5. But if the slave says, "I love my master and my wife and children; I do not wish to be freed," then his master will bring him before God and then, leading him to the door or the doorpost, his master will pierce his ear with an awl, and the slave will be permanently his. If the Hebrew slave formed an emotional attachment to the bondwoman he could remain in the master's household, but he must surrender his right to freedom in front of witnesses in a formal ceremony (see Dt 15:16-18).
  6. If a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not leave as male slaves do. Hebrew fathers sometimes sold their young daughters into slavery because they could not afford to feed and care for them. These girls were protected under the law and the master was expected to care for the girl like a daughter, a prospective bride or a daughter-in-law intended as a wife for a son. If the girl was not married into the family she could claim her freedom and be released in the beginning of the seventh year of servitude (Dt 15:17).
  7. If she does not please her master who intended her for himself, he must let her be bought back: he has not the right to sell her to foreigners, for this would be a breach of faith with her. No Israelite woman slave was to be sold outside the community of her people and no Israelite was ever to marry a foreigner who did not convert to the covenant with Yahweh (Dt 7:1-3).
  8. If he intends her for his son, he must treat her as custom requires daughters to be treated.
  9. If he takes another wife, he must not reduce the food, clothing or conjugal rights of the first one.
  10. Should he deprive her of these three things she will leave a free woman, without paying compensation. Any of these possibilities (marriage to the master, to his son, or deprivation of the basic necessities of life) allowed her to be redeemed.

Please read Exodus 21:12-17: The Laws Concerning Capital Offenses
21:12'Anyone who by violence causes a death must be put to death. 13If, however, he has not planned to do it but it comes from God by his hand, he can take refuge in a place which I shall appoint for you. 14But should any person dare to kill another with deliberate planning, you will take that person even from my altar to be put to death. 15Anyone who strikes father or mother will be put to death. 16Anyone who abducts a person "whether that person has since been sold or is still held "will be put to death. 17Anyone who curses father or mother will be put to death.'

Question: What offenses were designated as capital crimes?

Answer: Murder, kidnapping, striking a parent, and cursing a parent.

Violation of these next five laws required the death penalty, except for manslaughter. In the cases of homicide three parties were involved:

  1. God
  2. The dead man/woman as represented by kinsmen
  3. The murderer

The murderer violated God's right of ownership of His servant the dead Israelite and also violated the dead person's right to life which was a gift from God. Only God had the right to give and take a human life (as in an accidental death; see verse 13). The rights of the kinsmen of the dead person were also violated in that they are now deprived of a loved one and the support and services he contributed to his family. Unlike the judicial system in western civilizations, in the ancient world the victim's family was actively involved in the judicial process. A designated kinsman was even given the right to participate in the execution of a condemned murderer of his family member. Death by stoning was the usual penalty (Dt 17:2-7; Lev 24:10-16; Num 15:35-36), and in the case of homicide it was the duty of the kinsmen as the go'el haddam, "redeemer of blood" to cast the first stone that struck the murderer of his family member (Num 35:19-25; Dt 19:12).

Cases of homicide fell into two categories:

  1. Premeditated murder
  2. A killing without premeditation, or what we would determine as manslaughter.

In the case of manslaughter cities of refuge were established to provide asylum from the victim's family pending disposition of the case in a court of law (Num 35:6-32; Dt 19:4-13).(4) The same laws concerning homicide appear in Leviticus 24:17, 21, Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15, stipulating that capital punishment is to be carried out only on the evidence of two or more witnesses who testify in a court of law. Numbers 35:30-31 stipulates that monetary compensation to the victim's family cannot purchase the murderer's freedom, a provision that has no parallel in other ancient Near Eastern codes which viewed murder only in terms of the economic loss to the victim's family or clan. Nor could the sanctity of Yahweh's altar become a means of escape for someone guilty of willful murder in the ancient custom of claiming asylum by seizing the horns (projection on the corners) of the altar (1 Kng 1:50-53 and 2:28-34).

Kidnapping was a capital offense under the Sinai Covenant no matter what the economic status of the person abducted; however, other ancient law codes, like the Code of Hammurabi and Hittite laws only prescribed the death penalty if the victim was the young son of a free man, defining abduction as an economic crime (The Law of Hammurabi #14, Hittite Laws #19-24).

The penalty for dishonoring parents either by striking a parent or cursing a parent was death. As has been the practice in Exodus when the inspired writer wants to emphasize a point or focus on the significance of an event, the subject of abuse of parents is referred to twice, framing other ordinances (i.e. ordinances concerning the first-born in Ex 13:1-2 and 11-16; laws concerning idolatry and the altar in Ex 21:22-26, and Ex 23:13-19). Continue to watch for this reoccurring pattern.

Please read Exodus 21:18-27: The Laws Concerning Physical Abuse, Personal Injury and the Principle of Lex Talionis
21:18'If people quarrel and one strikes the other a blow with stone or fist so that the injured party, though not dead, is confined to bed, 19but later recovers and can go about, even with a stick, the one who struck the blow will have no liability, other than to compensate the injured party for the enforced inactivity and to take care of the injured party until the cure is complete. 20If someone beats his slave, male or female, and the slave dies at his hands, he must pay the penalty. 21But should the slave survive for one or two days, he will pay no penalty because the slave is his by right of purchase. 22If people, when brawling, hurt a pregnant woman and she suffers a miscarriage but no further harm is done, the person responsible will pay compensation as fixed by the woman's master, paying as much as the judges decide. 23If further harm is done, however, you will award life for life, 24eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25burn for burn, wound for wound, stroke for stroke. 26If anyone strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys the use of it, he will give the slave his freedom to compensate for the eye. 27If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he will give the slave his freedom to compensate for the tooth.'

This section offers hypothetical cases that deal with personal injury and abuse.

Question: What are the penalties for personal injury cases?


  1. The aggressor must reimburse the victim for loss of income and personally see to the care of the individual until he has recovered.
  2. In the case of a master injuring his slave (legally considered as personal property), if there was only injury the master paid no penalty, but if the slave died the court must decide if the crime was manslaughter or premeditated murder.
  3. In the case of a miscarriage suffered by a female slave, the price of the value of the child was owed the master, otherwise if a pregnant woman was injured (for example if trying to stop an argument) and there was no death the woman's husband would determine the nature of the punishment with the judges would make the final decision.
  4. If a slave was permanently disabled by his master's beating, including the loss of a tooth, the penalty imposed on the master was loss of the slave's services in the emancipation of the slave.

In the Code of Hammurabi if a man of rank struck the daughter of a man of equal rank and caused her to have a miscarriage the offender had to pay ten shekels of silver for her fetus. If the woman died, however, the daughter of the offender could be put to death (Hammurabi Code law #209). This was an extreme version of the lex talionis (law of exact equivalents) that was not a practice in the Sinai Code.

Exodus 21:23-25: 23If further harm is done, however, you will award life for life, 24eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25burn for burn, wound for wound, stroke for stroke.

These verses refer to the law of lex talionis, or the "law of exact equivalence." The intention of the law was not to inflict harsh punishment; on the contrary the law was intended to ensure that the punishment did not exceed the damage done in the crime. For example, a man cannot be killed for stealing a loaf of bread. The oldest example of this legal principle is found in the Code of Hammurabi. The same legal principles that are found in the Code of Hammurabi are present in the Law the Sinai Covenant in the Pentateuch/Torah where the formulation of lex talionis is found three times (Ex 21:23-25; Lev 24:17-22; Dt 19:18-19, 21).

In the Law of the Sinai Covenant the statement of lex talionis that "you shall award for life" or sometimes translated as "a life for a life" is a stylistic formula and was not to be take literally since equivalency of bodily injury was inherently unattainable and unjust. How can a blue eye be equal to a brown eye, how can justice for a broken arm be attained by breaking someone's arm? In cases of bodily injury the only available and just verdict was a monetary compensation suggested by the injured party but decided by the judges of the courts of law (21:22). For example in the case of the pregnant woman's miscarriage (21:22), the restitution was a monetary judgment for the woman's master if she was a slave or her husband if she was a free woman; in the case of permanent injury to a slave (21:27), the penalty was to give the slave his freedom, even for the loss of a tooth (a law which supported the ethical and humane treatment of slaves), and in Leviticus 24:18 the penalty for one who killed a beast was to make monetary restitution or the restitution of the animal. However, the exception was the phrase "life for life," in cases of homicide. In premeditated murder the murderer must forfeit his life (Gen 9:6; Ex 20:13; Dt 5:17).

Question: Why is the law of "exact equivalence" taken literally in the case of homicide in the law of the Sinai Covenant?

Answer: In the case of homicide the law was taken literally because it could be implemented literally since all human beings are created equal.

In the law code of the Sinai Covenant class status did not determine punishment. In the other Near Eastern law codes, like the Code of Hammurabi, there were careful class distinctions under which the penalties were determined, and if a man was wealthy enough he could purchase his way out of any penalty, including murder, by paying compensation to the man's family (Davis, Exodus, page 233). This was not permitted in the law of the Sinai Covenant.

Differences between the Law of the Sinai Covenant and the Code of Hammurabi:

  1. Judgments and verdicts were not determined by social class in the Law of the Sinai Covenant as they were in the Code of Hammurabi.
  2. The whole tone of the Sinai Covenant was religious "civil law was determined by and cannot be separated from religious principles based on the holiness of Yahweh (Lev 11:44; 19:2; 20:7-8), the oneness of Yahweh (Ex 20:3; 22:20; Dt 6:4-5), and the unchangeableness of Yahweh (Num 23:19-20; Mal 3:6).
  3. The orientation of the Code of Hammurabi has an economic and cultural focus as the basis for governing a moral and ethical society: there were numerous laws governing the duties and rights of soldiers, regulating trade and merchants, laws concerning adoption, physicians, boat builders, house builders, etc.
  4. Unlike the Code of Hammurabi, the emphasis of the judicial code of the Sinai Covenant was on fair and equal justice and not on the application of justice based on one's social standing, or on vengeance as just retribution. In the Sinai Covenant vengeance was only God's prerogative (Dt 32:35; Heb 10:30-31).

Please read Exodus 21:28-32: The Laws Concerning Injury or Death Caused by Animals
21:28'If an ox gores a man or woman to death, the ox will be stoned and its meat will not be eaten, but the owner of the ox will not be liable. 29But if the ox has been in the habit of goring before, and if its owner has been warned but has not kept it under control, then should this ox kill a man or woman, it will be stoned and its owner put to death. 30If a ransom is imposed on the owner, he will pay whatever is imposed, to redeem his life. 31If the ox gores a boy or a girl, it will be treated in accordance with this same rule. 32If the ox gores a slave, male or female, its owner will pay the price "thirty shekels "to their master, and the ox will be stoned.'

This section contains three hypothetical cases involving an animal attacking and injuring or killing human beings.

Question: What are the three examples presented and what determines the penalty?

Answer: The penalty is determined on the owner of the animal's knowledge of the animal's vicious nature.

  1. The animal has no previous record of vicious behavior.
  2. The animal has a previous history of viciousness and the owner knows the animal is dangerous.
  3. The animal that gores a slave.

Any animal that causes the death of a human is to be put to death and a master who has willfully disregarded the dangers posed by his animal will also be put to death. Both man and beast are tainted by "blood guilt" in the taking of an innocent human life. Judges do have some discretion, however, and can under certain circumstances demand the master ransom his own life by payment of a monetary penalty that will compensate the family of the deceased. The owner of an ox that gores a slave must pay the slave's master thirty shekels, compensation that is intended for the loss of the slave's labor and if the slave survives the attack for medical expenses.(5)

Please read Exodus 21:33-36: The Laws Concerning Injury to Animals
21:33'If anyone leaves a pit uncovered, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or donkey falls into it, 34then the owner of the pit will make good the loss by compensating its owner, and the dead animal will be his. 35If anyone's ox injures anyone else's ox causing its death, the owners will sell and share the money for it; they will also share the dead animal. 36But if it is common knowledge that the ox has been in the habit of goring before, and its owner has not kept it under control, the owner will repay ox for ox, and will keep the dead animal.'

It is assumed that the pit in question was available to public access and not on private property.

Question: What principle of law have the last two sections shared in consideration of what if any penalty will be imposed?

Answer: Foreknowledge of the animal's behavior is germane to the penalty imposed.

Please read Exodus 21:37 (22:1)-22:3 (4): The Laws Concerning Theft of Livestock
21:37 / 22:1If anyone steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters or sells it, he will pay back five beasts from the heard for the ox, and four animals from the flock for the sheep. 22:1 / 22:2If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck a mortal blow, his blood may not be avenged, 2 / 3but if it happens after sunrise, his blood may be avenged. He will make full restitution; if he has not the means, he will be sold to pay for what he has stolen. 3 / 4If the stolen animal is found alive in his possession, be it ox, donkey or animal from the flock, he will pay back double.

This section is concerned with violations of property rights: burglary and theft of property including livestock. Whether or not the burglary takes place at night or in the daytime was important. A break-in at night presupposes the intruder was prepared to physically harm the members of the household and the homeowner could kill the thief without incurring blood guilt. You will notice that while theft is a serious sin the Law takes into consideration the humanity of both the owner and the thief.

The reason for the difference in compensation for oxen or sheep in verse 21:37/22:1 is a mystery, but it may be because the ox was more valuable because it was a draft animal.

Please read Exodus 22:4 (5)-14 (15): Offenses that Require Restitution
22:4(5)If anyone puts his animals out to graze in a field or vineyard and lets them graze in someone else's field, he will make restitution for the part of the field that has been grazed on the basis of its yield. But if he had let the whole field be grazed, he will make restitution in proportion to the best crop of the field or vineyard. 5(6)If a fire breaks out, setting light to thorn bushes and burning stacks, standing corn* or the field as a result, the person who started the fire will make full restitution. 6(7)If anyone entrusts money or goods to someone else's keeping and these are stolen from that person's house, the thief, if he can be discovered, will repay double. 7(8)Should the thief not be discovered, the owner of the house will come into the presence of God, to declare that he has not laid hands on the other person's property. 8(9)In every case of law-breaking involving an ox, donkey, animal from the flock, clothing or lost property of any sort, the ownership of which is disputed, both parties will lay their case before God. The party whom God pronounces guilty will pay back double to the other. 9(10)If anyone entrusts a donkey, ox animal from the flock or any other animal to someone else's keeping, and it dies or breaks a limb or is carried off without anyone seeing, 10(11)an oath by Yahweh will decide between the two parties whether the keeper has laid hands on the other's property or not. The owner will take what remains, the keeper will not have to make good the loss. 11(12)Only if the animal has been stolen form him, will he make restitution to the owner. 12(13)If it has been savaged by a wild animal, he must bring the savaged remains of the animal as evidence, and will then not have to make restitution. 13(14)If anyone borrows an animal from someone else, and it breaks a limb or dies in the owner's absence, he will make full restitution. 14(15)But if the animal's owner has been present, he will not have to make good the loss. If the owner has hired it out, he will get the cost of its hire.'

* In the Bible "corn" is the English word for any multi-grained cereal like barley or wheat. What Americans call "corn" is maize and was strictly a New World plant.

This section is concerned with damage to crops and guardianship of another's property.

Question: Concerning the destruction of crops what two examples are given as hypothetical cases?

Answer: (1) destruction by livestock and (2) destruction by fire.

Verse five gives the example of a fire that is started for the legitimate purpose of burning thorn bushes to clear a field but the wind spreads the fire to a neighbor's field. In such cases the man who started the fire and was responsible for controlling it must make restitution.

Verses 6-10 are concerned with issues of justice where it is not clear who is the offending party and who is telling the truth. In such cases God will be the ultimate judge, even if His representatives, the earthly judges, cannot discern the truth.

Exodus 22:8/9 In every case of law-breaking involving an ox, donkey, animal from the flock, clothing or lost property of any sort, the ownership of which is disputed, both parties will lay their case before God. The party whom God pronounces guilty will pay back double to the other. This verse addresses a hypothetical case where the allegation has been made that another has wrongfully taken possession of the claimant's property and the accused has contested the right of ownership. The judges of court of law, as God's representatives in legal matters, will hear the evidence and will determine the guilt or innocence of the claimant and the accused.

Question: If the guilt of the accused was established what was the penalty?

Answer: He guilty party was required to pay double.

Verse 12/13 concerning the loss of animals entrusted to a herdsman: If it has been savaged by a wild animal, he must bring the savaged remains of the animal as evidence, and will then not have to make restitution. This was an issue when Jacob was in charge of his father-in-law's animals. In Jacob's dispute with Laban over the care and ownership of the flocks, Jacob, in defending his care of Laban's animals, testified that he made restitution for animals that were savaged even when he wasn't required to make such restitution (Gen 31:39). Also see 1 Sam 17:34-35 and Amos 3:12

Please read Exodus 22:15 (16)-16 (17): The Law Concerning the Violation/Seduction of a Virgin
16(75)'If a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged to be married, he will pay her bride-price and make her his wife. 17(18)If her father absolutely refuses to let him have her, he will pay a sum equivalent to the bride-price of a virgin.'

The Torah narration of the Law now moves from "the case of stolen property to that of a stolen heart" (Rabbi Ibn Ezra). This law addresses the condition of a virgin who was not betrothed but was seduced and robed of her virginity by persuasion and not by force. In the case of rape the man received the death penalty but the girl was declared innocent (Dt 22:25-26).

Laws concerning marriage are not addressed in the Book of the Covenant because those laws had long been established over the generations. The laws of the Sinai Covenant were amendments to existing practices. Other ancient codes addressed the crime of rape but none except the Law of the Sinai Covenant specifically dealt with the violation/or seduction of a virgin (JPS Commentary: Exodus, page 134).

In the case of a formal marriage betrothal it was customary for the bridegroom to pay the father a bride-price as compensation for the loss of his daughter's services to the family. In Hebrew the bride-price was called the mohar and the amount of the payment was predicated on the girl's virginity, which was essential morally and socially to the marriage contract. The loss of a girl's virginity caused the loss of the value of her social status as a perspective bride and her father's loss of the mohar (bride-price). Therefore, in cases of seduction, the seducer had to give the father the value of his daughter's virginity whether the father permitted him to marry the girl or not.

Question: What additional penalties were later imposed for the seduction of a virgin that were intended to have a chilling effect on a man's temptation to seduce a young woman? See Dt 22:28-29.

Answer: If a man was caught seducing a virgin who was not betrothed he must marry the girl, he must give the father a bride-price of fifty silver shekels, and he could never divorce her as long as he lived.

The penalty for seduction of a betrothed girl was the same as the violation of another man's wife and the charge was adultery for which the penalty was death. If the betrothed girl was a willing participant both the girl and the man were to be stoned but if the woman was proved innocent only the man died (Dt 22:23-29).

The Book of the Covenant Part II (Exodus 22:17/18-23:19)

Please read Exodus 22:17/18-26/27: A Collection of Moral and Religious Law
22:17(18)'You will not allow a sorceress to live. 18(19)Anyone who has intercourse with an animal will be put to death. 19(20)Anyone who sacrifices to other gods will be put under the curse of destruction. 20(21)You will not molest or oppress aliens, for you yourselves were once aliens in Egypt. 21(22)You will not ill-treat widows or orphans; 22(23)if you ill-treat them in any way and they make an appear to me for help, I shall certainly hear their appeal, 23(24)my anger will be roused and I shall put you to the sword; then your own wives will be widows and your own children orphans. 24(25)If you lend money to any of my people, to anyone poor among you, you will not play the usurer with him" you will not demand interest from him. 25(26)If you take someone's cloak in pledge, you will return it to him at sunset. 26(27)It is all the covering he has; it is the cloak he wraps his body in; what else will he sleep in? If he appeals to me, I shall listen. At least with me he will find compassion!

The second section of the Book of the Covenant comprises a collection of social, ethical, moral and religious obligations that are divine commands. This collection of nine laws begins with three death penalty offenses that are defined in the Hebrew as to'evah, "something utterly abhorrent" (JPS Commentary: Exodus, page 136), and then turns to laws that protect the disadvantaged.

Question: What are the three death-penalty offenses?

Answer: Sorcery (the condemnation of necromancy/magic), bestiality, and apostasy (turning away from Yahweh to offer worship to false gods is covenant rebellion).

Sorcery was a by-product of polytheism and was universally practiced in pagan societies. A sorcerer was someone who claimed supernatural knowledge or power which they used to cast spells against other people or to influence the gods. The guilty party in verse 17 is literally identified as a woman who performs pagan magic, but the same penalty applied to males. It is assumed that women were mentioned because the practitioners of sorcery were mostly women (i.e. the witch of En-Dor in 1 Sam 28:7-25).

The perversion of bestiality is also condemned in Leviticus 18:23; 20:15-16 and Deuteronomy 27:21 where it is listed as one of the abominations of the Canaanites. In the ancient Near Eastern law codes only the Hittites (a people who occupied the territory of modern Turkey and northern Syria) legislated against bestiality which they also condemned as a death penalty offense.

Exodus 22:19/20: Anyone who sacrifices to other gods will be put under the curse of destruction. The Decalogue's prohibition of idol worship is now more specifically defined as offering zevah, "the sacrifice of a shared feast," to other gods " sacrifice is always defined as worship in the Bible but the zevah was a communion sacrifice in which parts of the animal not burnt on the altar were eaten by the worshiper in the presence of the deity, a practice that was common in religions of the ancient Near East including the communion sacrifices offered to Yahweh (like the sacred meal the Moses and the elders ate with Jethro in the presence of God in Ex 17:12). To make a sacrifice and to partake of a communion meal with another god was the sin of apostasy (etymology = Greek apostasies, to revolt, literally, a standing-off; Hardon, Catholic Dictionary, page 25) "a covenant member only shared this sacred intimacy with Yahweh. To share communion with a pagan god was to be in open rebellion against the one true God (Dt 13:1-16).

Question: What was the penalty for apostasy according to verse 19?

Answer: The curse of destruction.

In verse 19 (in some translations this is verse 20) the Hebrew verb yaharam is formed from the noun herem. It is a term which implies a greater annihilation than the ordinary death penalty, extending not only to the person's life but the destruction of everything associated with that person so that his/her "footprint" on earth would be totally erased and offered in justice to Yahweh (JPS Commentary: Exodus, page 137). It is the same penalty that will be imposed on the Canaanites who oppose Israel's conquest of the Promised Land (i.e., Dt 13 (12):16-19 (18); Josh 6:17-21; 7:24-26). This penalty provides another example of God's abhorrence of the sin of idolatry.

The main body of the law in this section concerns the stranger and the disadvantaged of society: widows, orphans and the poor. The Israelites are commanded to be sensitive to the plight of the stranger and the disadvantaged because they were defenseless strangers in Egypt. The Israelites' compassion was to be not only out of humanitarian concern but by divine command because God will hold His people accountable as a nation and as individuals; the people are addressed in both the plural and singular in this passage. The vulnerable elements of society are always God's special concern and this theme is consistently revisited throughout the Old and New Testaments (see Jesus' teaching in Lk 6:20-23).

Exodus 22:26b/27b: If he appeals to me, I shall listen. At least with me he will find compassion! Jesus set a high standard for how His disciples must image the Father in the depth of compassion they must demonstrate towards their fellow man. It is a standard which echoes the spirit of this part of the Old Covenant Law: Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged: do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; forgive and you will be forgiven. Give, and there will be gifts for you: a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap; because the standard you use will be the standard used for you (Lk 6:36-38).

Please read Exodus 22:27/28-30/31: Laws Concerning Duties to God
22:27(28)You will not revile God, nor curse your people's leader.' 28(29)'Do not be slow about making offerings from your abundance and your surplus. You will give me the first-born of your children; 29(30)you will do the same with your flocks and herds. For the first seven days the first-born will stay with its mother; on the eighth day you will give it to me. 30(31)You must be people consecrated to me. You will not eat the meat of anything in the countryside savaged by wild animals; you will throw it to the dogs.'

The law commands that the people to show respect for God and for their leaders. That you shall not revile/curse God is also applied to the use of God's titles and His divine name.

This passage teaches that holiness not only encompasses acceptance of God's plan for His people in the selection of leaders but in generously giving back to God out of the abundance He has given His people. God requires a commitment to holiness that extends beyond one's ethical and moral commitment to society in general to the ethical treatment of animals and to an internal purity of body and soul. The required commitment to holy living will be revisited in more detail in Leviticus chapter 19.

Question: What does it mean to "revile" God and what is the implied sin associated with the command to respect Moses, Aaron and the elders?

Answer: Blaming God for the misfortunes in one's life one is accusing God of evil acts. When one curses a leader divinely appointed by God to be His representative, the offender is in essence in rebellion against the will of God for His people.

Verses 28-29 address in a general way the requirements for the individual covenant member and for the people as a whole to give to God a portion out of the abundance He has given to them.

Question: What must this grateful donation include? See Ex 13:2, 12; 23:10, 19; Lev 2:14; Num 15:19; 18:12-13; Dt 18:4; 26:1-11.

Answer: A portion of the first fruits of the harvest, the first-born (males) from the womb of every human mother and the first-born (males) from the female animals of the flocks and herds.(6)

At this time the first-born males served a priestly function in offering sacrifice to Yahweh. Mishnah: Zevahim 14:4 records: Before the creation of the Tabernacle, shrines were permitted and the worship was performed by the first-born; once the Tabernacle was erected, the shrines were prohibited, and the worship was performed by the priests [of the tribe of Levi].

Exodus 22:29b: For the first seven days the first-born will stay with its mother; on the eighth day you will give it to me.

The offering of the first fruits of the soil must not be delayed, but the dedication of the first-born of the animals required a waiting period of seven days and prescribes that no animal is fit to be offered to Yahweh until it is eight days old (see Lev 22:27).

Question: The offering of the animal after the seventh day suggests that the newborn animal has completed a seven-day unit of time corresponding to the seven-day order of Creation. What other offering of a life has the same seven day waiting period? See Gen 17:12; Lev 12:3.

Answer: The circumcision of the male infant on the eighth day of life.(7)

This requirement may also be intended to foster humane treatment of the beasts of the earth that are also God's creatures. This is suggested by the special mention of the newborn animal's mother and the Levitical laws that will prohibit slaughtering both the young animal and its mother on the same day, not boiling a slaughtered young animal in its mother's milk, taking a fledgling or eggs from a nest in which the mother bird is present, helping a donkey who has fallen under a heavy load, yoking together an ox and an ass (animals of uneven strength) and muzzling an ox while it is threshing (Ex 23:5, 19; 34:26; Dt 14:21; 22:6-7, 10; 25:4).

Exodus 22:30: You must be people consecrated to me. You will not eat the meat of anything in the countryside savaged by wild animals; you will throw it to the dogs.

To be consecrated to Yahweh usually involved both a purification ceremony (Ex 19:10-15; 29:1-4, Lev 8:6-12) and an induction rite (Ex 24:1-11; 29:5-9, 35; Lev 8:13-9:24). The former required ritual bathing, wearing freshly laundered clothes, and abstaining from those things that could cause ritual defilement. The second part of the consecration required an investiture ceremony performed by a duly authorized representative of God ( Ex 19:10-11, 14-15, 22; 28:3, 41; 29:1, 33, 36, 44; 30:30; 40:13; Lev 8:12, 30; Num 11:18) and signified the ending of an old life and the beginning of a new life in special service to God.

Question: Why were the people forbidden to eat the meat of animals that had died a natural death or been killed by wild animals? See Lev 17:15-16; Dt 14:21.

Answer: As a holy people the Israelites were required to only eat animals that were ritually "clean." Any animal inflicted with a defect, a mortal injury or a fatal disease was ritually unclean and would therefore render anyone who ate it ritually impure.

Please read Exodus 23:1-9: Laws Concerning Judicial Integrity, Humane Treatment of Animals, the Poor and Strangers
23:1'You will not spread false rumors. You will not lend support to the wicked by giving untrue evidence. 2You will not be led into wrong-doing by the majority nor, when giving evidence in a lawsuit, side with the majority to pervert the course of justice; 3nor will you show partiality to the poor in a lawsuit. 4If you come on your enemy's ox or donkey straying, you will take it back to him. 5If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen under its load, do not stand back; you must go and help him with it. 6You will not cheat the poor among you of their rights at law. 7Keep clear of fraud. Do not cause the death of the innocent or upright, and do not acquit the guilty. 8You will accept no bribes, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and is the ruin of the cause of the upright. 9You will not oppress the alien; you know how an alien feels, for you yourselves were once aliens in Egypt.'

This section includes laws that address actions that contribute to the corruption of the judicial process, prevention of cruelty to animals no matter what the circumstance (even if the animal belongs to your enemy), and humane treatment of the disadvantaged and the stranger.

Question: List the five prohibitions in verses 1-3 that forbid behavior in courts of law that would jeopardize the integrity and impartiality of the judicial process.


  1. You will not spread false rumors.
  2. You will not give false testimony or evidence.
  3. You will not be led into the wrong by following the crowd.
  4. You will not subvert justice by siding with the majority in a court case.
  5. You will not be swayed by pity for the poor at the expense of justice.

The Torah repeatedly warns the faithful to have compassion for the poor (i.e., 23:9), but compassion is misdirected when emotion is allowed to pervert judgment. The same warning is found elsewhere in the Law (Lev 19:15 and Dt 1:17).

Question: What is the focus of verses 4-5?

Answer: Verses 4-5 concern the ethical treatment of animals even if the animal belongs to one's enemy. A member of the covenant must put humanitarian considerations and the humane treatment of animals above personal feelings of animosity towards an enemy.

The next six miscellaneous prohibitions concern justice and ethical living.

Question: List the last six laws.


  1. You will not cheat the poor of their rights.
  2. You will not engage in fraud.
  3. Do not cause the death of the innocent and upright.
  4. Do not acquit the guilty
  5. Accept no bribes.
  6. You will not oppress the alien/stranger living among you.

This section concludes with another command not to oppress the stranger or resident alien (repeated from 22:21) but in this section the reference is probably directed to the just treatment of foreigners in Israelite courts of law as opposed to the previous command that individual Israelites must show compassion for the stranger living among them.

Please read Exodus 23:10-12: The Sabbatical year and the Sabbath

10 'For six years you will sow your land and gather its produce, 11 but in the seventh year you will let it lie fallow and forgo all produce from it, so that those of your people who are poor can take food from it and the wild animals eat what they have left. You will do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. 12 For six days you will do your work, and on the seventh you will rest, so that you ox and your donkey may rest and the child of your slave-girl have a breathing space, and the alien too.

Unlike the preceding series of laws, the laws in this section apply to the entire covenant community and concern the observance of the Sabbath and the Sabbath year. The Sabbath is part of the structure of creation (Gen 2:1-3). The command for Israel to keep the Sabbath rest places Israel into the cosmic hierarchy as God's personal possession and therefore Israel's rest is analogous to God's rest.

Question: How is the blessing of the Sabbath rest which images the Creation cycle also extended to the Promised Land?

Answer: In the weekly cycle the people are to labor for six days and enter into God's rest on the holy seventh day which is the Yahweh's Sabbath (Saturday). This cycle is to also be observed in a yearly cycle where the people will sow the land and reap the harvest for six years but in the seventh year the people are forbidden to sow the land or reap what the land may produce naturally.

Question: What are the benefits from the seventh year Sabbath "rest"?

Answer: The poor and the wild animals were to benefit from what grew naturally on the land in the seventh year and the land benefited in the rest from depletion of its nutrients and loss of productivity. The land's fertility was preserved for the future.

The command to keep a Sabbath year will be expanded in Leviticus 25:1-7, 18-22 (with special emphasis on the humanitarian aspects of the seventh year Sabbath and Deuteronomy 15:1-10 which extended the provisions of the Sabbath year to include remission of all debts within the covenant community.

The command to enter into God's rest on the seventh day, repeated in the Pentateuch ten times ( Ex 16:23; 20:8-11; 23:12; 31:12-17; 34:21; 35:1-3; Lev. 19:3; 23:3; Nb 15:32-36; Dt 5:12-15), connects Israel's liberation and "rest" from slave labor in the Exodus experience to Israel's divine election as the nation God created . Each Israelite had been a slave and was now personally liberated and transformed by Yahweh in the Exodus experience into a holy nation. This memory of personal liberation was to be commemorated each and every Sabbath as part of the covenant obligation of Israel as the obedient vassal of Yahweh the God-king of the nation of Israel: Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Dt 5:15). In this verse the verbs "remember" and "(He) delivered you" are addressed in the singular to each individual Israelite who was now part of the covenant cosmic experience. This is why the covenant command to keep the Sabbath will be repeated after the sin of the Golden Calf. The fall from grace of Israel as a nation necessitated covenant renewal in the form of the repeated command to keep the Sabbath.

The Sabbath is a central feature of the Covenant at Sinai (Ex 20:8-11; 35:2-3; Dt 5:12-15); this special day set aside for God and his people will be understood to be a way in which God honors His covenant people: "great is the honor which the Lord gave to Israel" (Jubilees 50:10). God's command to keep the Sabbath not only looks backward in time to the Creation event but also points us forward in time. The Sabbath became a reminder of how God created for six days and then rested on the seventh, but if God's work culminated in a "rest" at the dawn of time, it then follows that God's work will culminate in a Sabbath rest at the end of time. The Sinai Covenant's stipulation for a Sabbath rest foreshadows the climax of God's plan of salvation under the New Covenant when a New Creation will require a new Lord's Day of Holy Communion with God. In Hebrews the inspired writer envisions a time when the faithful will "rest from his works just as God did from His" (Heb. 4:10), and the final Sabbath rest will be the fulfillment of God's promises "in the world to come" (Heb 2:5).

This is the last of the forty-two judgments of Exodus 21:1-23:12. The epilog to the forty-two judgments is a repeat of the warning to avoid idol worship and instructions on proper worship which concludes Part II of the Book of the Covenant.

Please read Exodus 23:13-19: The Command to Keep the Three Pilgrim Feasts
23:13Take notice of everything I have told you and do not mention the name of any other god: let none ever be heard from your lips.' 14Three times a year you will hold a festival in my honor. 15You will observe the feast of Unleavened Bread. For seven days you will eat unleavened bread, as I have commanded you, at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in the month you came out of Egypt. No one will appear before me empty-handed. 16You will also observe the feast of Harvest, of the first-fruits of your labors in sowing the fields, and the feast of Ingathering, at the end of the year, once you have brought the fruits of your labors in from the fields. 17Three times a year all your menfolk will appear before Lord Yahweh. 18You will not offer the blood of my victim with leavened bread, nor will the fat of my feast be kept till the following day. 19You will bring the best of the first-fruits of your soil to the house of Yahweh our God. You will not boil a kid in its mother's milk."

The warning to be obedient to these commands is followed by the warning to avoid idol worship, including the command to not even speak the name of a false god aloud (a command that may have been meant to prohibit intermarriage with pagans performed in pagan ceremonies in which the husband and wife spoke the name of the false god in asking a blessing). After taking possession of the Promised Land all pagan altars were to be torn down and all idols were to be completely destroyed (Dt 12:3; Josh 23:7); there was to be no temptation for an ecumenical compromise with the pagan inhabitants of Canaan.

The warning against false worship was followed by establishing right worship in three annual holy days of obligation for the entire covenant community.

Question: What are the three holy annual feasts? See Ex 34:18-23; Dt 16:16; 2 Chr 8:13.

The three annual feasts are Unleavened Bread, Weeks (Pentecost), and Shelters (Tabernacles), falling in the early spring, late spring, and in the early fall. Later the three annual feasts will be expanded to seven annual festivals, but only these three were designated as "Pilgrim feasts" (see Lev. 23 and Num 28-29).

Question: Why are these three appointed feasts designated as "Pilgrim feasts"?

Answer: They are called the "Pilgrim feasts" because no matter where in the world a man of the covenant was living he had to travel to the Promised Land and present himself and his offerings to the Lord on those feast days.

Each of the feasts is associated with reliving the Exodus experience and with the offering to God of the first fruits of the harvest:

  1. Feast of Unleavened Bread " remembering the eating of the first sacred meal of the Passover and the barley harvest in the early spring.
  2. Feast of Weeks " remembering the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai, the formation of the Sinai Covenant and the wheat harvest at the end of spring.
  3. Feast of Shelters/Tabernacles " remembering the building of the Sanctuary at Sinai and the grape and fig harvest in the fall.

Please note that the annual observance of the Passover on the 14th of Abib/Nisan was not one of the Pilgrim feasts. It was not necessary to be present at the sacrifice of the Passover victims on the 14th but it was necessary to be present to take part in the sacred meal on Abib 15th on the first night of Unleavened Bread.

Question: How is the covenant obligation of this first holy day similar to our covenant obligation to take part in a sacred meal?

Answer: It is not necessary for us to have been present for the sacrifice of Jesus the Lamb of God when His sacrifice took place in the spring of 30 AD, but it is a necessary obligation "a precept of the New Covenant Church, for covenant members to be present for His sacred feast in the offering of His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Most Holy Eucharist on every Lord's Day (Sunday). This is our first and foremost "pilgrim feast" (CCC 2041, 2181).

Exodus 23:18-19: You will not offer the blood of my victim with leavened bread, nor will the fat of my feast be kept till the following day. 19 You will bring the best of the first-fruits of your soil to the house of Yahweh our God. You will not boil a kid in its mother's milk."

Verses 18-19 contain four laws regulating ritual worship which pertain to the previously mentioned feasts:

  1. The slaughter of the Passover victim, which is eaten in a sacred meal on the first night of Unleavened Bread, must not take place while any leaven is in the home of the offerer (this same prohibition is repeated in Dt 16:2-4).
  2. The fatty portions of the Passover sacrifice (those attached to the stomach and intestines) must be burnt before the dawn after the eating of the sacred meal.
  3. On the feast of Unleavened Bread, Weeks (Pentecost), and Shelters/Tabernacles the best of the first fruits of the harvests during those feasts must be brought to the Sanctuary of the Lord (described more fully in Lev 23:10-22; 33-38; Num 18:12-13 and Dt 26:2-11).
  4. A slaughtered animal cannot be boiled in its mother's milk. This law may refer to the communion offerings eaten daily by households of the congregation during the week long feasts of Unleavened Bread and Shelters (Tabernacles). The communion sacrifices, called the Hagigah (Chagigah), were sacrificed at Yahweh's altar, the blood and fatty portions were offered to God by being burnt on the altar while the animal was skinned and its body taken back to homes to be eaten in a communal meal. Only the eating of the Passover victim on the first night of Unleavened Bread was to be roasted over the fire, but the same restriction did not apply to the communion/festival sacrifices in other meals except that the yearling lamb or kid could not be boiled in its mother's milk (this prohibition is repeated in Ex 34:26 and Dt 14:21).

Included in these instructions for right worship is the command: No one will appear before me empty-handed. As this command pertained to the Pilgrim feasts the offerer was required to bring the appropriate sacrifices and offerings. In the Second Temple period these were:

  1. The whole burnt offering (in Hebrew olat re'iyyah)
  2. The festal communion offering (shalmei hagigah)
  3. The offering of rejoicing (shalmei simhah).

(JPS Commentary: Exodus, page 145).

This concludes the Sinai Covenant Treaty formulary on the "ethical stipulations" (see the chart in Lesson 9, handout #1).

The Book of the Covenant Part III (Exodus 23:20-33)

Please read Exodus 23:20-33: Promises and Instructions for the Conquest of Canaan
23:20'Look, I am sending an angel [messenger] to precede you, to guard you as you go and bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21Revere him and obey what he says. Do not defy him: he will not forgive any wrong-doing on your part, for my name is in him. 22If, however, you obey what he says and do whatever I order, I shall be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. 23My angel will precede you and lead you to the home of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, whom I shall exterminate. 24You will not bow down to their gods or worship them or observe their rites, but throw them down and smash their cultic stones. 25You will worship Yahweh your God, and then I shall bless your food and water, and keep you free of sickness. 26In your country no women will miscarry, none be sterile, and I shall give you your full term of life. 27I shall send terror of myself ahead of you; I shall throw all the peoples you encounter into confusion, and make all your enemies take to their heels. 28I shall send hornets ahead of you to drive Hivite, Cannanite and Hittite out before you. 29I shall not drive them out ahead of you in a single year, or the land might become a desert where wild animals would multiply to your cost. 30I shall drive them out little by little before you, until your numbers grow sufficient for you to take possession of the land. 31And your frontiers I shall fix from the Sea of Reeds to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the desert to the River, for I shall put the inhabitants of the territory at your mercy, and you will drive them out before you. 32You will make no pact [covenant] with them or with their gods. 33They may not stay in your country or they might make you sin against me, for you would serve their gods, and that would be a snare for your!'

This is section IV of the covenant treaty formulary: The Sanctions.

In Exodus 23:20-33 Yahweh affirms the divine promises He made to the Patriarchs which His covenant people have inherited and He gives them dire warnings of the dangers of being seduced into the paganism of the Canaanites when they take possession of the Promised Land. In the formulary of the covenant treaty this is the Sanctions section "blessing for covenant obedience and warnings of judgments for covenant disobedience. The sanctions are divided by two warnings: 1) not to bow down to false idols (verses 24 and 33) and 2) not to make any covenants with the pagan inhabitants of Canaan (verse 32).

Keep in mind that the word translated "angel," in both the Hebrew (malak) and the Greek (angelos) means "messenger." This divine messenger appears to be distinguished from God himself (see Gen 16:7), but he performs Yahweh's function as guardian of Israel. This spiritual being is either the pre-Incarnate Christ or the guardian angel of the nation of Israel (Dan 12:1).

Make a chart of the sanctions in this passage, listing God's promised eight blessings if the people worship only Yahweh and are obedient to His messenger. The warnings in the sanction section are that God's messenger will not forgive any wrong-doing (verse 21) and the people must worship God alone, making no covenant with the pagan peoples of the region (verses 24, 32-33). A more complete list of covenant sanctions (blessings and judgments) can be found in Leviticus 26:3-45.


Promised Blessings
1. God's messenger will lead Israel to victory over her enemies
2. God will bless them food and water
3. He will keep them free from sickness
4. No woman will miscarry
5. Every woman will be fertile
6. He will drive away all their enemies
7. He will drive their enemies out little by little until Israel has sufficient strength
8. He promised generous boundaries

The blessings are double the warnings:

Warnings to avoid judgments
1. Revere God's messenger/angel and obey him.
2. Do not defy him; he will not forgive any wrong-doing.
3. You will make no covenant treaties with any of the inhabitants of Canaan or their gods
4. The inhabitants of Canaan may not stay in the land; you must drive them out or they will become a snare for you, making you sin by serving their gods.

Question: What are the boundaries that God promised the Israelites in verse 31 if they are obedient to the covenant and worship no other gods?

Answer: From the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea to the South, to the Mediterranean on the East, to the Sinai in the west, and to the Euphrates River in the North.

These will be the boundaries of the United Monarchy of Israel under the rule of kings David and Solomon (1 Kng 5:1-6; 2 Chr 9:26).

Question for group discussion:

Included in the instructions for right worship was the command: No one will appear before me empty-handed. This command is repeated in Deuteronomy 16:16c-17: No one must appear empty-handed before Yahweh, but each must give what he can, in proportion to the blessing which Yahweh your God has bestowed on you. Is this command valid today? What is your obligation to this command and what does failure to submit to this obligation reveal about your relationship with God and His Church?


1. Dt 27:5 and 1 Kng 6:7 specify no iron tool could be used to create the altar. The Jewish Mishnah explains: Iron was created to shorten man's days [it being used to fashion weapons of destruction], while the altar was created to prolong man's days [by effecting reconciliation with God]. It is unseemly that that which shortens [life] should be wielded against that which prolongs [it] (Mishnah: Middot 3.4). The rabbis suggest that the prohibition was meant to lessen the temptation to decorate the altar with images (JPS Commentary: Exodus, page 117). This requirement for building Yahweh's altar out of packed earth may be why the Syrian general in 1 Kings 5:17 requested two mule-loads of earth from the land of Israel to take back with him to Syria. His intention may have been to build an altar to Yahweh in Damascus, being unaware of the restriction to only worship at Yahweh's national shrine.

2. According to Dt 12:8-12, God planned to establish one national shrine for all the tribes after the Israelites took possession of the Promised Land. After entering the Promised Land a national shrine was established at different sites before David captured Jerusalem, the place God chose "as a dwelling place for my name" (1 Kng 11:36); other sites prior to Jerusalem were Shiloh (Josh 18:1) and Nob (1 Sam 21:2/1-5/4).

3. Forty-two is a number that appears to be associated with God's divine plan. It is a number connected with the Beast in the Book of Revelation.  An important part of his career is to last 42 months (Revelation 11:2; 12:5) or 3 ½ years.  Another number associated with the Beast is 1,260 (3 x 10 x 42). The number 42, or the relationship between 42 (months) and 3 ½ (years/ days or days of years), seems to be associated with God's divine plan especially climaxing in a short but intense period of tribulation/judgment as the numbers are used in Daniel and Revelation (see Daniel 7:25 & 12:7; see Revelation 11:2, 11; 12:14; 13:5).  The number 42 associated with 3 ½ years = 42 months = 1,260 days forms a chiastic pattern in the Book of Revelation:

A. 42 months = Revelation 11:2

B. 1260 days = Revelation 11:3

C. 3 ½ days = Revelation 11:9

C. 3 ½ days = Revelation 11:11

B. 1260 days = Revelation 12:6

A. 42 months = Revelation 13:5

4. At the time of the conquest six cities of refuge were established, three on the east side of the Jordan River and three on the west side (Josh chapter 20).

5. Thirty shekels is the same compensation imposed by Hammurabi's laws on the owner of an animal that kills a member of the nobility, but Hammurabi's Code only imposed a twenty shekel compensation for the goring death of a slave (the Code of Hammurabi #251-52). The Sinai Covenant does not discriminate according to social standing between commoner and aristocrat.

6. According to the Rabbis, those male children consecrated to Yahweh are the first-born of the mother and not the father because paternity could not be proved. Even today, in order to be considered Jewish, the child must have a Jewish mother (JPS Commentary: Exodus, page 65). The offering of the male animals was less of a hardship on the people since they were more likely to be expendable since animal breeding requires many female animals and few males.

7. The rites for consecration and initiation for Aaron and his sons to the chief ministerial priesthood of the Sinai Covenant took seven days (Ex 29:4-9, 35; Lev 8:33). On the eighth day after the ordination ceremony the men began their new lives as God's priestly ministers in offering sacrifice to Yahweh and leading the people in worship (Lev 9:1-2)

Catechism references for this lesson









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