The next group of laws relate to property rights. Property ownership was a basic right in Israelite society. Built upon the concept of personal ownership, Israel was given a new development in the common laws of the ancient Near East. The new idea was that the loss of property would be made right by equivalent payment. Other ancient law codes provided for vengeful retaliation and even bodily mutation of the thief or responsible person. The concept of indemnification was similar in purpose to the earlier lex talionis. For Israel, justice would be the rule of the day.
Further set forth was the principle that, as important as property was, human life was more important. In the darkness, a thief may have been accidently killed. There was no such justification for this if such an act happened in the daytime.
Animals were the basic source of wealth in a nomadic society. Stealing another’s animal to kill or sell indicated some degree of premeditation and planning, therefore a major repayment was assessed. While it is just as wrong to steal and keep an animal, it was more likely to have been an impulsive act and the fine was not as severe. Never was a man allowed to profit from a crime. Upon these principles, the laws themselves can be understood.
Laws relating to one man’s animals grazing over the land of another had no real significance for the wandering Hebrew nation. Once they settled in Canaan they became intensely significant. Once the Hebrews settled the problems of land usage became more intense as many used their land to farm. Further, the problem of fire was of prime significance to Israel. The Mediterranean summer was dry, and a wildfire could cause untold havoc and loss. He who kindled the fire was responsible for it. The responsibility was theirs regardless of the intent.
The stewardship on another man’s property was not to be taken lightly. Upon this concept they later developed their belief of the seriousness with which they must take their stewardship of God’s gifts. Also, lost property still belonged to its owner. In the case where one man claimed that another had his property they both were to be brought “before God”. This apparently refers to taking an oath in the sanctuary. The priest or elders apparently sat in judgment of such claims. Whoever was found to be in the wrong was to be treated as a thief by being required to repay double.
Natural dangers of animals kept in the wilderness were not the responsibility of the shepherd. On the other hand, if he allowed an animal to be stolen, he was responsible. Further, though he might not be able to prevent attack by wild beast, he was responsible for making an attempt to do so. In the event of his failure, he was expected to produce the carcass as evidence.
The set of laws regarding the seduction of a virgin are based on the concept that such a girl was the property of the father. When the daughter was given in marriage, the father expected to be given a “marriage present” for her. If the daughter had been seduced then she no longer had this value. If a man took a girl in marriage without paying the marriage price, he must do so. The expression “pay money” literally means to weigh silver. Actual money as a medium of exchange had not yet been invented. Payment was made by weighing up a specific amount of gold or silver.
The principles of justice here were the basis for the high sense of justice the prophets possessed. To them, injustice was a sin against God and a violation of the covenant.
At first look these three offences seem to be completely unrelated. But they are each aimed at keeping the worship of Yahweh pure.
Sorcery was a common practice in the ancient Near East. Even as the specific command was aimed at the “sorceress,” the Old Testament also speaks of sorcerers. The prohibition is aimed at any form of sorcery. Throughout the Bible its practice is clearly identified with paganism. This condemnation was aimed eliminating the paganizing influences in Israel. Sorcery continued to be a problem as can be seen by the prophets who attacked the practice later. (Isaiah 8:19 Micah 5:12 Malachi 3:5)
There is an obvious difference between “You shall not allow a sorceress to live” and the expression “put to death” and “shall be utterly destroyed.” Sorcery was to be dealt with drastically and the intent was aimed at keeping it from getting started and stopping it if it did.
The prohibition against sexual intercourse with an animal is a more significant perversion than we may normally see it as. This practice was used as a form of magical worship in several nations of the ancient word. Therefore this command was not only aimed at sexual perversion but also at false worship. Any such practice was punishable by death.
Further, any worship of any other god than Yahweh was prohibited. The verb translated “utterly destroyed” has religious overtones difficult to translate. The word refers to the through extermination of the offender and all he possessed, since they had been devoted to another god. Egypt of the past and Canaan of the future both worshiped many gods. It would have been natural for Israel to have worshipped Yahweh along with other gods. This command was seeking to prevent this from happening. Its necessity is seen in the fact that Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah consistently condemned Israel because they tried to integrate the worship of Yahweh with the worship of the Canaanite Baals.
The purpose of these three commands was to see that Israel’s faith remained pure both outwardly and inwardly. They were not to worship any foreign gods and they were to avoid anything that might give the appearance of such worship.
The Israelites had responsibilities to the underprivileged in their society. They were commanded to show justice tempered with mercy to the weak, the helpless, and the underprivileged of their society. Unique to Israel was the expressed concern of their God for such people.
Their first responsibility was directed to the stranger. The term here was aimed specifically at a stranger who was a permanent resident on the community, not one who was just passing through. In the ancient world strangers rarely had any legal recourse to mistreatment. God was reminding Israel that in Egypt they had experienced what could happen to such people. It was to be their responsibility to see that similar things did not happen to anyone who lived among them.
God’s laws contained protection for widows and orphans. Without husbands and fathers, such people in Israel’s society belonged to no one and therefore faced extreme hardship. In the Bible they were considered the most helpless of society. In most ancient societies the gods were concerned with only the strong and powerful. In Israel God expressed his prime concern with the weak and helpless.
The laws concerning borrowing and lending may give difficulty to us in our present day society. It is hard for us to see how we could exist without credit, banks, and savings and loan institutions. Are these wrong? Before we can answer that we must look at the culture in Israel’s background. In Israel’s world money was not used yet. Precious metal was occasionally used as a medium of exchange. But most exchange was done by barter or by labor. This law must be seen against that kind of social structure.
Like the preceding laws these were aimed at protecting the weak. It prohibited taking advantage of another’s misfortune. If disease or a wild animal had killed a man’s ox he would have no way of getting another except by trading sheep for one or working for it. The one who furnished the ox was prohibited from making a profit from the others misfortune. The word translated “interest” literally means to bite or sting.
Further, in those days, since the community was not settled, there was little which any man had in the way of “pledge” or collateral. About the only thing a man had was his cloak or tunic. It served as a coat on the cold days and as a blanket at night. The creditor could hold it during the day, but it had to be returned at night when he slept. This practice made it of little value as a pledge but it did serve to remind that a debt was owed. Such concern for the less fortunate in God’s laws of the Israelites was because God was “compassionate”. The word would be better translated as merciful or gracious. Because God was of this nature, Israel would be also.
The following commands have religious overtones. It may seem strange to us to combine cursing God and cursing a ruler in the same verse, it is not. In Israel’s early days, the “ruler” appears to have been the tribal chief who was assumed to have been appointed by God. To “curse” such a person would be to curse the one who appointed him. To the Hebrew mind, an attack upon God or upon the divinely appointed leader would have been the same thing, blasphemy.
The next command literally says, “You shall not delay the offering from your harvest and your vintage.” The Israelites were being commanded to bring their offerings from God’s abundant blessings at the earliest possible moment. There is never an excuse for delaying the bringing of the offering to God. Although the tithe was practiced earlier (Genesis 14:20) and commanded later, (Leviticus 27:30) the first officially commanded offerings were these. The idea not to put off or to delay our offering to God is that once we have we tend to continue. God is faithful and blesses us daily; we should bless him with his portion of that blessing without delay.
The concept of the firstborn belonging to God was a common throughout the ancient Near East. This principle was not too binding upon Israel. It had been earlier stated (Exodus 13:2) that the firstborn were to be consecrated to God. Now as a part of the covenant law, this possession was set forth as an actual gift to God.
The fundamental assumption of the covenant law was that the Israelites were “You shall be holy men to Me.” They were all responsible for functioning as priest. (Exodus 19:6) As such, they were not to eat anything that had not been properly killed. The blood of an animal, which was the symbol of life, had to be handled correctly. The flesh of any animal that had not been so killed was prohibited to them. As men were set apart for God, they had special obligations to fulfill.
Isaiah 8:19, Micah 5:12, Malachi 3:5, Genesis 14:20, Leviticus 27:30