Morning Sermon: Exodus 21:1-23:19, Civil Laws For Israel: An Introduction

Old Testament Reading: Selections From Exodus 21:1-22:27

“Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing.” (Exodus 21:1–2, ESV)

“Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:12, ESV)

“When men quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist and the man does not die but takes to his bed, then if the man rises again and walks outdoors with his staff, he who struck him shall be clear; only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall have him thoroughly healed.” (Exodus 21:18–19, ESV)

“When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:28–29, ESV)

“When a man opens a pit, or when a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restoration. He shall give money to its owner, and the dead beast shall be his.” (Exodus 21:33–34, ESV)

“If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.” (Exodus 22:1, ESV)

“If a man gives to his neighbor a donkey or an ox or a sheep or any beast to keep safe, and it dies or is injured or is driven away, without anyone seeing it, an oath by the LORD shall be between them both to see whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor’s property. The owner shall accept the oath, and he shall not make restitution.” (Exodus 22:10–11, ESV)

“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. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins.” (Exodus 22:16–17, ESV)

“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.” (Exodus 22:21–27, ESV)

New Testament Reading: James 1:27

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27, ESV)


Please excuse any typos and misspellings within this manuscript. It has been published online for the benefit of the saints of Emmaus Reformed Baptist Church but without the benefit of proofreading.


We have come now to what is probably the most neglected portion of the book of Exodus. The narrative of Exodus 1 through 18 is well known and much loved. The story contained there of the birth and deliverance of Moses, his forsaking of Egypt, his encounter with God in the burning bush, his commission, the ten plagues, the Passover, the parting of the Red Sea, and God’s leading of Israel into the wilderness, is truly epic. Chapters 19 and 20 are also well-known and much loved. There God appears to Israel at Sinai and begins to enter into a covenant with them. He appears to them in a most awesome and glorious way. He speaks his moral law to them with a thunderous voice. The people tremble, fear, stand afar off, and beg that no further word be spoken to them, requesting that Moses mediate between them and God. 

Chapters 21 through 24, which we are just now being to study, go together with chapters 19 and 20. All together Exodus chapters 19 through 24 tell us about the covenant that God made with Israel through Moses. The covenant was introduced or proposed in chapter 19. In chapter 20 God spoke his moral law from Sinai with his own voice – this moral law served as the foundation for all other laws in this covenant. But in Exodus 20:22 through 23:19 God gives more laws to Israel to govern them as a society. These laws are about worship and civil affairs. Finally, the covenant is confirmed in Exodus chapter 24. 

I’ll admit, this portion of Exodus is not nearly as exciting as the story which preceded it – at least not on the surface. And not only is this portion of scripture less exciting, it also seems very foreign to those of us living so long after the Old Mosaic Covenant has passed away, having been fulfilled by Christ. 

So it is somewhat understandable that this section of the book of Exodus is neglected by those who live now, not under the Old Covenant, but under the New. Notice I said “somewhat”. Also, I said “understandable”, not “acceptable”. In a moment I will tell you why we ought to pay very careful attention to these civil and ceremonial laws given to Old Covenant Israel. But for now, I wish to acknowledge that there is a sense in which these laws are not for us. 

These laws were given to Old Covenant Israel to govern them as a nation. Old Covenant Israel was not a common nation, but a holy nation. There are some civil laws that God gave to Israel which were unique to them, therefore, and should not be adopted by common nations. Sabbath-breakers were to be put to death in Old Covenant Israel. So too were idolaters and false prophets. Here I am simply saying that this law code along with its punishments was given by God through Moses to Israel to govern them as a nation under the Old Covenant. It would be wrong to assume that God’s intention was for the civil laws of Israel, along with their civil penalties, to be adopted without alteration by all nations. Nowhere does the text say this. Nowhere is this suggested in the scriptures. In fact, the context in which these laws were given to Israel makes it quite clear that these laws were given to govern them as God’s special people. Israel is here entering into a special covenantal relationship with YHWH. No other nation on earth before or after could claim this. As I have said, these civil laws were given by God, through Moses, to Israel, to govern them under the Old Covenant. Just as we are not obligated to obey the laws given to Israel pertaining to worship at alters (20:22-26), the observance of festival days (23:10-19), or worship at the tabernacle through the priesthood (25-30), neither are we obligated to take these civil laws and to apply them with exact strictness in the common nations in which we now live. This would be a grave mistake. I belabor this point a little because there is a movement known as theonomy which is currently gaining popularity amongst the Reformed which makes this error. It is a misinterpretation of scripture, and it is contrary to our confession of faith (see Second London Confession Of Faith chapter 19).  

At this point, some may wonder how it is that we can claim that God’s moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments is still binding on us, whereas these civil and ceremonial laws are not. I’ve spoken about this issue before. Many arguments can be made for the permanence of the moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments, and the abrogation of the civil and ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant. The strongest of these arguments come from our consideration of the New Testament and the way in which Christ and his Apostle spoke concerning the law of Moses. Clearly, they taught that the moral law remains binding, whereas the civil and ceremonial have been fulfilled by Christ and thus taken away. For now, I wish only to draw your attention (once more) to the distinction that is made in the book of Exodus itself between the Ten Commandments and the rest of the laws given to Israel through Moses. God spoke the Ten Commandments with his own voice. He revealed them first. And later in Exodus, we will learn that he wrote the Ten Commandments with his own finger on tablets of stone to be kept in the ark of the covenant. The rest of the laws given to Israel were revealed in a different way. They were added later. They were revealed through Moses the mediator. This does not make them less inspired or less important. But it does make a distinction for us. God’s moral law is most fundamental. It is everlasting, unchanging, and universally binding. And to this moral God added ceremonial laws to govern Israel’s worship and civil laws government of the people. 

So, there is a good reason why when we read the Ten Commandments they seem so familiar to us, and when we read the ceremonial and civil laws that follow, they seem to be foreign. These civil and ceremonial laws that were given to Israel to govern them under the Old Covenant are foreign to us. The culture of Israel (and of the surrounding nations) is foreign to us. Their special covenantal relationship with God is foreign to us. But please hear me. It would be a terrible mistake to ignore the civil and ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant. There is so much to learn from them concerning matters of morality, justice, and even our salvation in Christ Jesus. For this reason, we will not skip over or rush through this portion of scripture but will come back to it next week to move rather slowly through the laws of Exodus 20:21-23:19.


The Structure Of Exodus 21:1-23:19

In this sermon today I would like to provide you with an overview of this portion of Exodus. And I think the best way to do this is to draw your attention to the structure of Exodus 21:1-23:19. I think knowing something about the structure of this large section will help us to better understand the individual parts. 

As you read Exodus 21:1-23:19 you can sense that there is a structure to it, but it is not immediately apparent what that structure is. I found David Dorsey’s book, “The Literary Structure Of The Old Testament” to be helpful here. He shows that Exodus 21:2-23:19 is divided into two large sections. 

Firstly, we find case laws in 21:2-22:27. In case law examples of legal cases are given which then serve as a precedent for future legal decisions. Case laws say, here is what you are to do in this situation. And then it is up to judges, governors, and kings to apply the principles in the one case to others as they arise. This requires wisdom. Case laws are typically presented with the language of “if/then” or “when”. You can clearly see that language in 21:2-22:27.  

Secondly, we find imperatival laws in 22:28-23:19. Imperitaival laws are stated with imperatives or commands. Imperatival laws are stated with the words, “you shall…”, or “you shall not…” If you look at 22:28 you can see the beginning of the “you shall…”, and “you shall not…”, imperatival formula. 

So there are two large sections within Exodus 21:2-23:19. The first contains case law, and the second contains imperatival law. And both of these sections are highly structured. I’d like to show you the structure of each, not to fill your minds with useless information, but one, to help you have a clear understanding of this portion of scripture, and two, so that you might see where the emphasis is placed in these laws which God gave to Israel. Literary structure is often used to bring clarity to a passage, and also to place emphasis on some things over others. 

Both of these sections containing case laws and imperatival laws are structured chiastically. This means that in each section the first part mirrors the last, the second part mirrors the second to last, the third part mirrors the third to last, and so on. Diagrammed out, the passage looks like a “V” laid down on its side so that it points to the right. In a chiastic structure, everything leads up to a central point, and then descendants back down from there in a symmetrical way. And so it is with the case laws of Exodus 21:2-22:27, and the imperatival laws of Exodus 22:28-23:19. 

Consider now the literary structure of the case laws of Exodus 21:2-22:27.

a Kindness to servants (21:2-11)

b Capital offenses: “he shall be put to death” (21:12-17)

c Noncapital bodily assaults requiring restitution (21:18-27)

d Death or injury of a person by an animal (21:28-32)

e Loss of property due to an accident (21:33-36)
e’ Loss of property due to theft (22:1-9)

d’ Death, injury, or loss of animal by a person (22:10-15)

c’ Noncapital bodily offense: the seduction of a virgin (22:16-17)

b’ Capital offenses: “shall be put to death” (22:18-20)

a’ Kindness to aliens, widows, orphans, poor (22:21-27)

We could probably spend a lot of time analyzing this structure. I’ll make only a few remarks, for the sake of time. 

One, notice that this section containing case laws is divided into ten parts. This matches the Ten Commandments. I think we are to see that these civil case laws are rooted in God’s moral law. 

Two, in his book on the literary structure of the Old Testament, Dorsey notes that when a passage is structured in a symmetrical or chiastic way and consists of an even number of parts (like this one does), then the emphasis tends to be placed, not in the middle (or peak) of the chiasm, but at the beginning and end of the symmetrical pattern. This makes sense, doesn’t it? When the symmetrical pattern consists of an odd number of parts, the whole thing comes to a sharp point (a, b, c, b’, a’). The emphasis is often placed upon what is said in the middle of the chiasm. But when there are an even number of parts, the passage does not really come to a point or peak but is blunted (notice how in this passage e and e’ (prime) share the middle). And indeed, when we consider the content of this section we find that the emphasis is placed at the beginning and end of this chiasm. Notice how things move from most serious (crimes punishable by death) to less serious (the loss of property due to accident) in points b through e, and then from less serious (the loss of property due to theft) back down to most serious (sins punishable by death in Israel) in parts e’ through b’. 

Three (and this is the thing that I really wanted to show you), this even-numbered chiastic structure of Exodus 21:2-22:27, which places the emphasis (or stress) at the beginning and end, starts by demanding that kindness be shown to servants and ends by demanding that kindness be shown to aliens, widows, orphans, and the poor. 

This might sound strange to you, but this brought tears to my eyes when I saw it. The first set of civil laws which God gave to Israel as a nation begin and end with this emphasis – you must care for the weak and vulnerable among you. Treat them justly. Do not oppress them, but seek their well-being. Remember that you were slaves and sojourners in Egypt. Do not oppress or mistreat the slaves and the sojourners who dwell in the midst of you, therefore.   

Laws concerning the just and kind treatment of slaves, aliens, widows, orphans, and the poor are mentioned first and last. In other words, they are stressed or emphasized.  Again, the pattern in this chiastic structure is clearly from most serious to least, and then back down again from least to most serious. And what is emphasized as being the most serious thing of all for Israel as it pertains to their treatment of one another in society? Do not take advantage of the weak and vulnerable among you! Care for them! Seek their prosperity. Threat them justly! Do not oppress.  

As I have said, the imperatival laws of Exodus 22:28-23:19 are also structured as a chiasm. This section is made of seven parts, though (an odd number), and so we will find that the emphasis is placed, not at the beginning and end, but in the middle.

Consider now the literary structure of the imperatival laws of Exodus 22:28-23:19.   

a Responsibilities to God (22:28-30)
(tribute from crops and herds; no other gods)

b Do not eat meat torn by wild animals (22:31)
(do not scrounge for food; God will provide for you as his holy people) 

c Justice upheld (favoritism not to be shown to the poor in a lawsuit) (23:1-3)

d CENTER: Kindness to personal enemies (23:4-5)

c’ Justice, especially for the poor (23:6-9)

b’ Do not eat sabbath year produce (23:10-12)

(leave it for animals; Sabbath rest; God will provide)

a’ Responsibilities to God 23:13-19)

(tribute from crops and herds; no other gods)

Please allow me to say just a few words about the structure of this section, before concluding with suggestions for application. 

One, this section follows the pattern of the Ten Commandments moving from laws pertaining to the worship and honoring of God to the honoring of our fellow man. Do you see it? Love God. Honor him with your produce, your children, and your flocks. Trust him to provide as you keep his commandments. And your love for God must manifest itself also in your love for neighbor. Uphold justice for both the rich and the poor – show no partiality. Yes, even do what is right to those you consider an enemy within society. “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him” (Exodus 23:4, ESV).

Two, I have said that stress is placed here, not on the responsibilities we have before God, but on the love we are to show to our fellow man – yes even our personal enemies. By that, I do not mean that love for man is to have priority over love for God. No, what I mean is that in this section of scripture which is about the civil laws given to Old Covenant Israel, stress is placed upon the proper and just treatment of others within society. Do you love God? Then you must fulfill your obligations to him, and you must also love your neighbor by doing what is just and right no matter if they are high or low, friend or foe. That is where the laws the imperatival laws of Exodus 22:28-23:19 take us.    

Three, taken together these two sections (the case laws and the imperatival laws) do away with every excuse that men and women may give for the unjust treatment of another human being. Some might say,  I can oppress them because they are weak and I am strong. Or, I can act unjustly against them because I am poor and they are rich. Or, I am permitted to do him wrong because he is my enemy. When God began to give Israel her civil laws, he said “no” to all of this. He stressed that the weak and vulnerable in society are to be honored, not exploited; that justice is to be upheld always for the rich man and the poor man; and that we are to do what is right and good before God, even towards those we consider to be our personal enemies.    

I know that this sermon was a bit unusual in that I have dealt with a very large portion of scripture in a very general way. We will return to Exodus 21 and look a bit more carefully at verses 1-11 next Sunday, Lord willing. But hope you have benefited from this overview of the section of scripture that is before us. Having considered the whole, I do hope that we will be in a better position to consider the parts. And more than this, I hope you have been struck by the emphasis that is placed upon the obligation we have to care for the poor and vulnerable within our midst and to uphold justice within the societies in which we live. The civil laws that God gave to Israel demanded this, and I am saying that all nations have an obligation to do the same – to protect the vulnerable, cease all forms of exploitation, and uphold justice always. 


Suggestions For Application

So how, in particular, are we to apply this portion of Holy Scripture to our own lives today? I will make suggestions for application under two headings: First, politically. Second, personally. 


First, let us seek to apply the truths of Holy Scripture politically, that is to say, within the context of our own society. 

Some of you may be thinking to yourselves, did he forget what he said earlier about these laws being for Israel and not for us, and his strong opposition to the theonomists who wish to take these laws and apply them in exhaustive detail in our nation today? 

No, I have not forgotten about that. Though it is very important for us to remember that this law code was given to Old Covenant Israel, and not to any other nation on earth, it is also important for us to consider the just and morally upright laws that were given to Israel so that we might formulate and uphold just and morally upright laws of our own in this nation – laws that are fitting to our particular circumstances and our status before God as a common (not a holy) nation. 

Great care must be taken as we contemplate these things. 

One, we should remember that in Old Covenant Israel church and state were united together by the command of God in a way not true of any other nation on earth. This is why external violations of the first table of the moral law were considered to be civil crimes punishable even by death.  Sabbath-breakers, false prophets, and idolaters were to be put to death in Old Covenant Israel. We ought not to seek to impose these laws in this common nation, or any other, where church and state, elder and Emporer, are given distinct spheres of responsibility and jurisdiction by God.  

Two, some of the laws given to Old Covenant Israel were given to them to govern the realities of the world in which they lived. In the ancient world, for example, slavery or servitude was a reality. We will come to talk about this in detail next Sunday, Lord willing. Here I am simply saying that the existence of laws regulating slavery in Old Covenant Israel does not mean that slavery ought to be instituted in our society. No, these laws regulated slavery (which was different from the form of slavery that existed in this country not long ago), to ensure that it would be just, for the betterment of the poor, and to forbid all forms of abuse and exploitation. Again I say that the laws concerning slaves regulated the way things were in the ancient world. That is how the economy worked, and these laws did not seek to change that but to ensure that justice would be upheld in Israel.   

Three, though we must take great care to see the uniqueness of Old Covenant Israel and her laws, we must also be careful to observe those moral and just principles contained within Israel’s laws so that we might grow in moral maturity ourselves and be useful in the societies in which we live as we seek to promote justice, peace, and prosperity among all men.  

Please hear me: The civil law code of the Old Testament is not binding on us, but it is of great use to us, for in it we see the holiness, wisdom, justice, and goodness of God displayed. This law code was for Old Covenant Israel only. Not even modern-day Israel should seek to implement it in exhaustive detail, for the Old is gone and the New has come. But all of the nations of the earth may learn from these civil laws, for they are rooted in truth, are morality pure, and perfectly just. 

These laws were given by God, to Israel through Moses. These laws are perfectly upright and just, therefore. The nations of the earth should take notice. 

Yes, the nations of the earth may also consider God’s moral law as revealed in nature when seeking to establish and uphold just laws of their own. All can see plainly that there is God who is to be worshipped, and that men should do unto others as they would have others do unto them. These obvious truths and their implications should be enough to provide societies with a foundation upon which to build their judicial systems, wherein men are left free to worship God, and wherein those who commit crimes against persons are punished with proportionate penalties – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life (or some other agreed-upon form of restitution). This is what we call retributive justice. Yes, there is enough light in the light of nature to enable societies to wisely build their judicial systems, leaving men and women free to worship and to provide a living for themselves, while also punishing evildoers. But here I wish to say to our fellow citizens, to our lawmakers, law enforcers, and politicians (as if any are listening), look to the Holy Scriptures. Consider the Ten Commandments in your quest for the truth regarding what is right and wrong, good and evil. The light of nature reveals it, but the light is so much brighter in the Scriptures. And consider how God applied these Ten Commandments to govern Israel as a society when he gave them their civil laws. You cannot adopt them in total as you make and enforce the laws of this land, for we are not Old Covenant Israel. But we can look upon them to consider them so that we might grow mature in matters of morality and justice.

I highly doubt that any of our politicians will ever hear my voice. But you are listening, brothers and sisters. And here is the challenge that I would give to you – learn to think biblically, carefully, and critically about matters of morality and justice and the political issues that we face in our day and age.  

I think it is especially important for Christians in this country today to break free from the partisan politics of left against right, Democrat versus Republican. Yes, at the end of the day we will likely be presented with one of these two options in the voting booth. And yes, the Republican Party does tend to stand for so-called Judeo-Christian values more than those who have “D” by their name. But really, this is a rather shallow way of looking at things. In my estimation, there is plenty of blame to go around. Both parties fall far short of God’s standards. Unplug from the partisan politics, brothers and sisters. Unplug from the propaganda. And become students of Holy Scripture as it pertains to matters of justice so that you might better pray for this nation, and if this Lord has called you to it, work for the betterment of this society in the political realm.

You know, I will admit that I feel a sense of frustration regarding the moral and political state of this nation. Evil is all around. The government has grown so big, so distant, and our laws so complex, that it feels as if very little can be done by the common citizen to bring about any real and lasting change. Two things comfort me, the first far more than the second.

One,  I serve a God who is Sovereign over all, who is working all things for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purposes. He is establishing an eternal kingdom than cannot be shaken. The gates of hell will not prevail against it. Through faith in Jesus Christ the Lord, I am a citizen of that kingdom now, and I await the consummation of all things, the new heavens and earth. Whatever happens here – no matter how good or bad things get – that will not change, for God is faithful, he will surely do it. I trust that you all have the same confidence.

Two, I do also take some comfort in the fact that I can, by the grace of God,  control what I think, say, and do. And I have some ability to impact those around me, perhaps even our local community. As it pertains to the betterment of society, the upholding of morality, and the pursuit of justice, this is where we must aim – not at the globalists; not at the elites in Washington; not even at the technocrats – they are so far beyond our range. We must focus our attention on those people and institutions right in front of us. 

Husbands, love and lead your wives. Parents, raise your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Brothers and sisters, love one another. Fellow citizens, love your neighbors as yourself. Do good to all, especially to those who believe. Yes, be aware of what is going on in the world. Do not be naive! And then focus your love and attention on what is right before you and within your reach. Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.     


So I have spoken a little to the political. Let me now offer some suggestions for personal application. 

Brothers and sisters, we should love and contemplate God’s law. All of it. The moral, civil, and ceremonial. I’m afraid God’s law has been neglected by many within the church today. But our opinion should be that of King David who loved God’s law deeply and cried out to God, saying, “Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments” (Psalm 119:5–6, ESV). Yes, David was under the law in a way that we are not. He was obliged to keep the civil and ceremonial. But we too should love God’s laws and fix our eyes upon them, not to be saved – for salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone – but so that we might grow in maturity, wisdom, and obedience. 

Secondly, as we consider the civil laws which God gave to Israel, we must be careful to treat others in a way that is good, right, and just, even if those in our society do not. There is a great deal for us to learn from the civil laws given to Israel. Yes, we should long to see our society embrace God’s moral law and to enact and enforce laws that are just. But even if they do not, we do have an opportunity to treat others in a way that is good, honorable, and just. As we do, we will shine as lights in the darkness more brightly, and the gospel we proclaim will be adorned with beauty as men and women observe our good deeds. 

Thirdly, do be especially mindful of the weak and vulnerable in our society and in our midst so that we might be careful to protect them, provide for them, so far as we are able. As I have demonstrated, concern for the oppressed and vulnerable was emphasized when God gave Israel her civil laws. Here again Exodus 22:21-27, and with this we close. “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate” (Exodus 22:21–27, ESV).

 Our God is kind and compassionate. May the Lord enable us to be kind and compassionate too. 

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