Exodus 20(18)–23(19)


Last week we were studying the Ten Commandments; and I explained how they reflect the glory of heaven, because in heaven, there’s only one God; and in heaven, there are no idols to bow down to; and in heaven, nothing profane is every said; and in heaven, all of God’s people enjoy an eternal Sabbath rest; and in heaven, everyone receives the honour they deserve; and in heaven, there is no murder; and in heaven, there is no adultery; and in heaven, there is no theft; and in heaven, no false witness is ever given; and in heaven, the angels and the saints in glory only ever desire the glory of God and every desire for earthly things will have passed away.

The Ten Commandments reflect the glory of heaven; and since we’ve been raised with Christ to the heavenly realms, and since we’ve become citizens of heaven, so that heaven is now our true home, then we’ll want to keep the commandments so that our life here on earth reflects the glory of heaven. And with the help of the Holy Spirit we’ll become more and more willing and able to do God’s will here on earth just as it’s done in heaven.

And so, having heard that, perhaps you went home, all inspired and full of zeal and with a fresh new perspective on all of these laws and commandments which we find in the Old Testament:

Yes, I want to reflect God’s glory in my life. Yes, I want to live this heavenly life. Yes, I want to do all of these things which the Lord commanded.

So, perhaps you went home inspired. And perhaps, because you were inspired by what you heard, you decided to read more of the book of Exodus to see what else the Lord commands. And perhaps, you turned to Exodus chapters 21 and 22 and 23, the chapters we’re just read — which contain what is known as the Book of the Covenant — and perhaps you scratched your head and said to yourself:

Huh? What’s all this about slavery? I don’t have any slaves. What’s all this about putting to death the child who curses his parents? Really? What’s all this about bulls goring a person to death? There are no bulls where I live. And what’s all this about cooking a young goat in its mother’s milk? I don’t have a goat; and if I did why would I want to cook it in its mother’s milk? And even if I did want to cook it in its mother’s milk, what’s so wrong with that?

So, if you went home last week, all inspired and full of zeal and eager to do all that the Lord has commanded, you may be very puzzled about these chapters today and you may be wondering how they apply to us. So, what are we to make of these commandments?

The Moral Law

This is where I need to remind you of a useful distinction which can be made between three kinds of law in the Old Testament. There’s the moral law; and there’s the ceremonial law; and then there’s the civil or the judicial law.

God’s moral law is set out briefly in the Ten Commandments which summarises our duty to God and to our neighbour. And these commandments are for all people everywhere. And so, it’s the Lord’s will that all people everywhere should worship him alone, and worship him without using idols, and are careful not to misuse his name and are careful to remember the Sabbath Day. And it’s the Lord’s will that all people everywhere should honour their parents and whoever else has authority over them; and they should not hurt or murder anyone; and they should not commit adultery or any other sexual sin; and they should not steal; and they should not bear false witness or ruin another person’s reputation; and they should not covet. God has given us the Ten Commandments to make known his will for us and to reveal to us how he wants all people everywhere to live. That’s the moral law: and it’s for all people everywhere and it’s for all people at all times. So, the Jews in Israel at the time of Moses were to keep it; and everyone in Belfast in 2016 is meant to keep it as well.

The Ceremonial Law

Then there’s the ceremonial law. So, we’re to think about all the religious ceremonies the Israelites were commanded to perform. Think of the various religious festivals they had to keep: the Passover; and the Feast of Weeks; and for the Feast of Tabernacles.

Think of the sacrifices they had to offer to the Lord: burnt offerings; grain offerings; fellowship offerings; sin offerings; guilt offerings. Think of the instructions about what kinds of animals were acceptable and what was to be done with the meat and what was to be done with the blood.

Think of the priests who were to serve in the temple and who had to be from a certain family and who had to wear certain clothes.

Think too of some of the various laws which were to do with ceremonial washings which the Jews had to perform.

Think of the tabernacle and the temple they had to build and all the laws and instructions about how it was to be set up. In the centre was the Most Holy Place, where the Lord was said to dwell. And then there were various courts around it where different people could gather. And there was the ark of the covenant which was left in the Most Holy Place. And there needed to be an altar where the sacrifices were killed and burned; and there need to be a table and a lampstand and an altar of incense and a basin for washing.

Read through the rest of Exodus, and into Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy and you’ll come across all these ceremonials laws. Well, they all pointed in some way to the gospel of Jesus Christ: the priests in the temple pointed to Christ who is our Great High Priest; the sacrifices they offered on the altar pointed to Christ who died on the cross as the once-for-all, never-to-be-repeated, perfect sacrifice for sins. The ceremonial washings speak to us of how, through faith in Christ, we’re cleansed of our guilt. And even the temple pointed beyond itself to heaven where all of God’s people will one day come.

And here’s the thing: now that Christ has come, there is no need for any more sacrifices, since he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice. And there is no need for an earthly priest, since is our Great High Priest who lives for ever to intercede for us at his Father’s side in heaven. There’s no need for any ceremonial washings, because the blood of Christ cleanses us from all our guilt. And there’s no need for an earthly temple, because the temple in Jerusalem was only a copy of the real, heavenly temple; and every Sunday God speaks to us from his heavenly temple through the reading and preaching of his word.

In other words, all the Old Testament laws and commandments about religious ceremonies and sacrifices have been discontinued. We no longer need to keep them because Christ, their fulfilment, has come. And so, when we read these ceremonial laws, we’re not to put them into practice: we’re not to set up an earthly temple with an earthly altar and offer earthly sacrifices. But instead, when we read about those things, we’re to give thanks to God for Jesus Christ, who is our Great High Priest who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice and who is now in God’s heavenly temple, where we will one day come.

The Civil Law

There’s the Moral Law which is for all people everywhere. Then there’s the Ceremonial Law which was for the Jews in the days of the Old Testament and which pointed to Christ who was coming into the world. And then there’s the Civil Law. And these are the laws which God gave to the Israelites to govern them as a nation at that time. So, just as we in the UK have laws to govern us, and the people of France have laws to govern them, and the people of the USA have laws to govern them, so the people of Israel had laws to govern them. These are laws which were for them as a nation at that time. And like the ceremonial laws, they no longer apply to us today. And they no longer apply to us today, simply because they were for the nation of Israel at that time. They were for the Israelites; and they’re not for us.

And that’s really what we have here in these chapters from the book of Exodus. Some of the laws are ceremonial; they’re to do with the worship of the Lord at that time. However, most of them are to do with how the nation of Israel was to be governed at that time. And so, after verses 22 to 26 of chapter 20 which are about how the Israelites were to worship the Lord, verses 1 to 11 of chapter 21, contain laws about the treatment of servants. In verses 12 to 36 of chapter 21, we have laws about the various penalties to apply whenever humans and animals are injured. In verses 1 to 17 of chapter 22, we have laws concerning property. Then, from verse 18 of chapter 22 to verse 13 of chapter 23 we have various laws to do with social and religious responsibilities. And in verses 14 to 19 of chapter 23, the focus returns to how the Israelites were to worship the Lord at that time.

In other words, most of what we read this evening doesn’t apply to us directly because it contain ceremonial laws and civil laws for the people of Israel at that time. However, that’s not to say we can’t learn something from them. And so, let me try to run through these laws briefly to see what we can learn from them.


And our passage this evening begins with verses 18 to 21 of chapter 20 where we see the reaction of the people of Israel whenever they saw the thunder and lightning and when they heard the trumpet sound and when they saw the mountain covered in smoke. Whenever the saw and heard all the these things which accompanied the voice of the Lord, who spoke to them from Mt Sinai, they trembled with fear. And they said to Moses:

Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.

In other words:

It’s too frightening whenever God speaks to us directly. From now on, let God speak to us through you, Moses.

And if you look at verse 22, you’ll see that’s what happened: from then on, the Lord spoke to Moses and told Moses what he was to say to the people. Now, this is important because the way the Ten Commandments were conveyed to the people and the way the other laws were conveyed to the people reflects the difference between the moral law and the ceremonial and civil laws. The moral law was revealed to them directly by the voice of God; the ceremonial and civil laws were revealed to them indirectly through Moses. And that’s important, because it shows we’re not making it up when we say the moral law is distinct from the other laws. We’re not making it up because the distinction between them is underlined by the way in which they were revealed: one directly, the other indirectly.

Idols and Altars

God’s law to the nation of Israel begins with a reminder that they’re to worship him alone. They were to have no other gods alongside of him. And when they made an altar to the Lord, they were to ensure it was kept simple: so it should be made with earth; or, if they used stones, the stones should not be dressed. In other words, keep it simple. It’s not clear why it had to be simple like this, but perhaps there was a concern that a fancy altar might become an idol. Or perhaps it was to make the point that the most important thing was not the altar, but the sacrifice on the altar, because the sacrifice pointed to Christ the Saviour. The command in verse 26 meant that the priests had to be careful not to do anything to expose themselves accidentally whenever they approached the altar. That would be inappropriate, because the Lord should always be approached with reverence and awe.

Each of these laws is connected to the first and second of the Ten Commandments, which are about who we should worship and how we should worship them. And as we’ll see, most of the laws in today’s passage are connected to the Ten Commandments and show the Israelites what they were to do whenever the commandments were broken.


Moving on, verses 1 to 11 of chapter 21 are concerned with how they treated servants. They weren’t to be like the Egyptians who enslaved them permanently and who mistreated them badly. Instead, if one of the Jews hired himself out as a servant, he was to serve his employer for only six years and in the seventh year, he should be allowed to go free. If he was married when he began his work, he should be allowed to leave with his wife and children.

However, it was slightly different if his employer gave him a wife. In those days, marriages were arranged and it’s possible that an employer might give a male servant a female servant to marry. Well, the female servant had a duty to continue to work for her employer until her six years were up and she couldn’t leave her post early. Verse 5 cover the case of a servant who might be very happy working for a particular employer; if so, the law allowed him to stay permanently. And the laws in verses 7 to 11 protect the rights of female servants who become wives. The point of these laws is to teach the people that servants — including female servants who were often abused in other societies — are not to be mistreated, but they are to be given certain rights.


Foom verse 12 of chapter 21 to the end of the chapter, we’re dealing with the various penalties that ought to be imposed whenever a person or an animal is injured. So, according to verse 1, the penalty for murder was death. If someone killed a person by accident, then, according to verse 2, the perpetrator could flee to one of the cities of refuge which were located throughout the land of Israel. But verse 3 reiterates that the death penalty should be imposed on whoever commits murder.

Verses 15 and 17 refer to crimes against parents: a person who struck their parents deserved the death penalty. ‘Striking’ here means beating the parents so badly they could die. Cursing parents also required the death penalty. ‘Cursing’ here means publicly renouncing your parents and refusing to look after them in their old age. If you think of the Lord’s parable of the prodigal son, the son in that parable was probably guilty of this crime. Sandwiched between these two laws is a law about imposed the death penalty on whoever kidnaps another person. All of these laws show the importance the Lord placed on human life. They also show the importance he placed on parents and how necessary it is for children to keep the fifth commandment to honour their parents.

There follow laws about what to do when one person injuries another person. And in general the penalties follow the principle of life for life, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. One of the commentators explains that there is no evidence that if one person knocked another person’s tooth out, then the perpetrator’s tooth was also knocked out. In other words, they didn’t follow the principle that literally, but understood that the idea behind these laws was that the punishment should fit the crime. So, no one should get away easily whenever they commit a crime; however, the penalties should not be excessive, but fair. Interestingly, verses 26 and 27 show that if someone abused their servant, the servant would be allowed to go free.

And then we have laws about what to do when an animal harmed a human or another animal. In verse 28, if a bull gored a person, the bull must die, but the owner of the bull was not held responsible. Presumably the thinking is that bulls can be unpredictable and how could the owner be blamed for what his bull did? However, according to verse 29, if the bull was in the habit of attacking people, then the owner was deemed to be responsible and was liable to the death penalty as well. However, verse 30 allows for a fine to be paid instead. If a slave is killed by a bull, the owner of the bull needs to pay compensation to the slave’s owner.

If someone’s animal falls into a pit, then the person who dug the pit is at fault and must compensate the animal’s owner. If two bulls fight and one is killed, the surviving one needs to be sold and the proceeds shared equally, because who can say who is to blame? But if one bull was in the habit of attacking other bulls, then that bull’s owner is to blame.

Well, the sixth commandment forbids murder and it forbids us from harming one another in any way. Most of these laws work out the implications of that commandment and were designed to show the people of Israel what must be done whenever that commandment is broken.


Verses 1 to 17 of chapter 22 are to do with property. So, if a man steals an animal and it cannot be recovered, the man must repay five ox for one ox that is stolen or four sheep for one sheep that is stolen. If the animals are recovered, then the thief had to pay back double what was stolen. If one person damages another person’s field by letting his animals graze on it or by burning it, then he is responsible to compensate the owner of the field. Verses 7 to 15 are about what to do when one person borrows something from another person and it goes missing or is damaged. For instance, something you loaned me goes missing; did I steal it or did someone else? Your animal died in my possession: am I responsible or not? Sometimes it’s not clear; on those occasions, they were to leave it to the Lord to punish the guilty.

Verses 16 and 17 should probably be taken under this section to do with property, because, although daughters were not regarded as property, nevertheless, in those days, parents would expect to receive a bride price whenever their daughter was married. So, if a man seduces a woman, then the man was to pay the bride price to the father. If the father thinks the man is unsuitable for his daughter, the man must still pay the bride price.

The eighth commandment forbids theft and all of these laws are about what to do whenever the eighth commandment is broken and what penalties should be imposed on those who are guilty.

Various Regulations

Verse 18 of chapter 22 to verse 13 of chapter 23 cover various social and religious responsibilities. So, according to verses 18 to 20, the death penalty should be imposed on sorceresses who corrupted true religion with magic; on those who commit bestiality, which was often connected to false religions in those days; and on those who worship false gods.

According to verses 21 to 24, the weakest members of society — aliens, widows and orphans — should not be mistreated. According to verses 25 to 27 the poor should be protected. So, if anyone loaned them money, they shouldn’t be charged interest. And if the person was so destitute that he had nothing else to give as a pledge apart from his cloak, it should be returned before the end of the day, because he’ll need it to keep himself warm in the night. In other words, don’t abuse the poor.

Verses 28 to 30 are about honouring the Lord with the right sacrifices, whereas verse 31 is a reminder to the people of Israel that they are to be his holy people; so they should not eat unclean food.

And verses 1 to 9 of chapter 23 are about honesty, justice and fair treatment to their neighbours. Verse 5 is particularly interesting because it reminds them that they’re to do good even to their enemies. So, if you come across your enemy’s lost donkey, return it to him.

And in verses 10 to 12 the Israelites were commanded to give their land a Sabbath rest. So, every seven years, they weren’t to plough their land or use it in any way; and they were to leave whatever grew on it to the poor who could take whatever still grew there. And, of course, they were to observe weekly Sabbaths to allow their animals and slaves to rest.

And verse 13 reminded them not to profane the name of the Lord.

The Ten Commandments are summarised by the two great commands to love the Lord and to love our neighbour. And these laws about social and religious responsibilities reiterate both of those two great commands. So, we’re to love the Lord by honouring him and by staying away from false religion. And we’re to love our neighbour, including the weak and the vulnerable and even our enemies, by being kind and generous to them and by not abusing them in any way.


Having begun with worship, today’s passage ends with worship. And so, in verses 14 to 19 of chapter 23, the Israelites were reminded they needed to gather together for the three great religious festivals: the Feast of Unleavened Bread, or Passover; the Feast of Harvest; and the Feast of Ingathering. The final law, forbidding the cooking of a young goat in its mother’s milk, is puzzling, but commentators think the practice of cooking goat meat like this was connected to pagan worship. —


These were laws for the nation of Israel at that time, but they reiterate in many ways the Ten Commandments. And therefore we ought to give thanks to the Lord that our own government has passed so many laws which reflect the will of the Lord and which are designed to protect life and property; and which are designed to protect the weakest members of society. Insofar as our laws reflect the will of the Lord, we ought to give thanks to the Lord.

But we should continue to pray for our own government and for governments around the world, praying that their laws will also reflect the will of the Lord and that law and order and justice are upheld and anything that is harmful to society is outlawed.

But, we shouldn’t be surprised when governments pass laws which are not right. The Israelites lived in a nation where the state and the church overlapped completely, so that to be a member of the church meant you were a member of the nation; and to be a member of the nation meant you were a member of the church. And the laws of the land corresponded exactly with the will of the Lord as revealed to the church.

However, since the Lord’s resurrection from the dead, the church is no longer confined to one nation only, but is found around the world in every nation. And that’s good, because we want people in every nation to believe. But as a result, the members of the church very often find themselves governed by those who do not believe. And very often the government will pass laws which grieve us or alarm us.

What should we do? We should obey the will of the Lord as revealed to us in Romans 13 where believers are told to submit themselves to the governing authorities. And remember: Paul wrote this to Christians who were governed by a pagan Roman Emperor. And Peter said the same thing in his first letter. Now, if the governing authorities command believers to do something the Lord forbids, then we must obey God rather than men. But in all other matters, we should submit to the governing authorities, for that is the will of the Lord.

Finally, though, we need to remember that all of these laws, and especially the laws concerning what penalties to impose on lawbreakers, are necessary because we’re sinners who live in a fallen, sinful world. Because we’re sinners, who live in a fallen, sinful world, we need laws to show us what to do whenever the law is broken. And so, as we read these laws, and realise why they’re necessary, it should make us yearn for the Lord to come again, because when the Lord comes again, the former things — this life of sin and sorrow — will pass away; and he will makes all things new. And in the new heavens and the new earth, where all of God’s people will live for ever and for ever, there will be no need for laws about what to do when someone does something wrong, because no one will ever do anything wrong. In the life to come, there will be no sin, because all who believe in the Lord will be glorified and made perfect forever.

And so, while we need such laws and penalties in this life, we yearn for the day when Christ appears and the need for such laws will pass away. And in the meantime, while we go on living on the earth, we should strive in the strength of the Lord to do what is right, so that our life here on earth reflects the glory of heaven; and we should pray for the Lord’s help to love him with all our heart and to love our neighbour as ourselves while we wait for our Saviour to come again.