Other nations of the ancient world at times show a sense of justice. But only Israel from the beginning felt a divine compulsion toward justice for all. This was one of their national characteristics. The priest sought it as a matter of course. The Prophets proclaimed it. The wise men taught it. God’s people were and are expected to practice justice.
The first set of stipulations deal with legal justice, justice within the law courts. They begin with a statement of truthfulness. The phrase “join hands” refers to the handshake following a legally binding agreement. They were prohibited from entering into such agreements with “wicked men” or from perjuring themselves. Neither were they to become a part of the majority when they were wrong. The will of the mob was never to become confused with justice.
The last stipulations have given interpreters trouble over the years. The Israelites were prohibited from “be partial to a poor man in his dispute.” We might expect such warnings to be made in the case of great or wealthy men. However, the unexpected here really makes more sense. Everyone was aware of the tendency to be partial to the great man. But the tendency to be partial to a poor man is no less real and more subtle.
We also see commands relating to the treatment of “your enemy’s” animals and property. These commands are not specifically related to the courts, there may be a legal background. The enemy may be referring to one who is the adversary in a lawsuit. Whether or not this is so, the obvious sense here was that responsibility for justice must always be placed above personal or legal relations. It was not far from this to the concept of “love your enemies” proclaimed by Jesus. (Matthew 5:44) The second instance would have required a greater commitment than the first. In the second case they were required to help an animal while the enemy was present. They could not leave “him with it.” They had to help “him to lift it up.” It is easier to be good to an enemy when he is not around but it is more important when he is.
The stipulations on justice give the other side of the rich-poor controversy. There is a different word for poor in verse 6 than that in verse 3. The first meant the man was impoverished. The one in verse 6 is usually used to refer to the “pious poor.” Therefore this command had the purpose to see that the poor man who was right got justice.
Israel was also warned against leveling false charges, for such could bring about the death of one so charged. The term “wicked” here refers to the one who brought such a charge. Bribery was also identified as corruption, a pollution of the cause of justice.
Earlier Israel had been warned against wronging or oppressing a stranger, (Exodus 22-21) they were here commanded to see that the stranger had the same justice that anyone else got. As a foundation for this command they were reminded of their own experience in Egypt. “since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger.” From the beginning to the end Israel was expected to practice justice in all of their dealings.
The world in which Israel lived in, proper ritual demonstrated the people’s devotion to their God. It was principle based that if one was going to serve God, he should do it worthily, in a manner which would bring glory to His name.
We now set forth three sacred festivals. Passover was not mentioned. This may be because it was assumed to be the first day of “unleavened bread.” The “Feast of Harvest” was fifty days after Passover and later became known as Pentecost. (Called Shavuot, the Jewish festival also known as Pentecost means “fifty” and designates the fiftieth day after Passover.) Its purpose was to celebrate the beginning of the harvest. The third was the “Feast of Ingathering” which was later called the ‘Feast of the Booths” and finally as the “Feast of the Tabernacles.”
The blood and fat of an animal was considered to be sacred and required special handling. The “first fruits” of the earth were considered to be Gods, just as the first born of man and beast.
The Israelites were prohibited from boiling “You are not to boil a young goat in the milk of its mother” was for a long time considered to be an inhumane practice. However, since archaeologist discovered and translated the great library of Canaanite at Ras Shamra, we now know that such a practice was a form of worship to a Canaanite god. Therefore the prohibition was a warning against doing anything that might be interpreted as having pagan overtones. It set forth the principle of avoiding any appearance of evil. The concept is still applicable to God’s people today.
The covenant code comes to an end with both promises and exhortations. The basic promises from God concerned His leadership, guidance, fruitfulness, and ultimate victory.
The word translated as “angel” literally means messenger. The messenger was from God and was to guide Israel in following God.
We also have some basic warnings as well. Israel was not to rebel against God’s messenger but to hearken to him. They were also warned against having any involvement with the inhabitants of Canaan. That Israel failed here is amply illustrated by the later messages of the prophets, condemning then for their Canaanite involvements.
The ultimate promise was the assurance of victory coupled with a warning that it would be slow in appearing. We are called upon to be obedient and faithful. We can only follow where he leads, waiting for his victory
Click this link to advance to Exodus Chapter 24.