Exodus: What God Says About Dogs, Cows and Property Rights

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on August 7, 2002

Exodus 21:33-22:15

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Exodus 21:33-22:15
What God Says About Dogs, Cows & Property Rights

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn to Exodus 21:33 as we continue our study of the Book of the Covenant, that the name given to this section of Scripture by Moses himself in Exodus 24:7. It refers basically to end of Exodus 20 through the end of Exodus 23:33. And the code of law, or case laws contained in this section, begins in Exodus 21. There is a preface, the end of Exodus 20, which deals especially with worship. But beginning in Exodus 21, there is an application of some of the laws that we studied in our study of the 10 Commandments. Then, beginning in Exodus 21:1, there is an application of second table laws.

So far we have looked not only at the subject of worship, we have also looked at the subject of slavery and, in fact, it struck us that the very first set of laws in the covenant code were about slavery, but there weren't about the rights of master, they were about the rights of slaves. The whole of their thrust was the protection of those who had the least ability to protect themselves. It was designed to ameliorate the state of those who were lowest on the societal rung. We also saw laws dealing with murder and manslaughter, and how to distinguish those things, and what the appropriate penalties were in each case. And, as we studied that section, we saw a biblical rationale set forth for the death penalty. And we also looked at laws about bodily injuries and the responsibility of care to our neighbor and the due penalties that were associated with the various types of non-lethal injuries.

Now, we come to a set of laws that deal with theft, negligence, and the laws of restitution. I want you to understand that these laws, all of them as different as they are, and there are roughly nine general case laws set forth in this section, are all applications of the eighth commandment. The eighth commandment, as we studied the Ten Commandments together earlier, not only requires us to refrain from the physical act of stealing someone else's property, it also requires us to take care of that which belongs to our neighbor–or, if I could put it this way, to take care of that which belongs to our neighbor. It requires us to look out for the interests of our neighbor, especially regarding his material property, domestic animals, and all that is under his care.

So let us hear God's word, beginning in Exodus 21:33 and we’ll read to Exodus 22:15:

"If a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it over, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restitution; he shall give money to its owner, and the dead animal shall become his. If one man's ox hurts another's so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide its price equally; and also they shall divide the dead ox. Or if it is known that the ox was previously in the habit of goring, yet its owner has not confined it, he shall surely pay ox for ox, and the dead animal shall become his. If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. If the thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no blood guiltiness on his account. But if the sun has risen on him, there will be blood guiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If what he stole is actually found alive in his possession, whether an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double.
If a man lets a field or vineyard be grazed bare and lets his animal loose so that it grazes in another man's field, he shall make restitution from the best of his own field and the best of his own vineyard. If a fire breaks out and spreads to thorn bushes, so that stacked grain or the standing grain or the field itself is consumed, he who started the fire shall surely make restitution. If a man gives his neighbor money or goods to keep for him and it is stolen from the man's house, if the thief is caught, he shall pay double. If the thief is not caught, then the owner of the house shall appear before the judges, to determine whether he laid his hands on his neighbor's property. For every breach of trust, whether it is for ox, for donkey, for sheep, for clothing, or for any lost thing about which one says, 'This is it,' the case of both parties shall come before the judges; he whom the judges condemn shall pay double to his neighbor. If a man gives his neighbor a donkey, an ox, a sheep, or any animal to keep for him, and it dies or is hurt or is driven away while no one is looking, an oath before the LORD shall be made by the two of them that he has not laid hands on his neighbor's property; and its owner shall accept it, and he shall not make restitution. But if it is actually stolen from him, he shall make restitution to its owner. If it is all torn to pieces, let him bring it as evidence; he shall not make restitution for what has been torn to pieces. If a man borrows anything from his neighbor, and it is injured or dies while its owner is not with it, he shall make full restitution. If its owner is with it, he shall not make restitution; if it is hired, it came for its hire.”

Amen. Thus ends this reading of God's holy and inspired word. May He add His blessing to it. Let's pray.

Lord, as we come to a strange and obscure passage again, as we study these laws, remind us that this is Your word, that it is for our edification, and then we pray that You would surprise us by the very relevance of this truth, this ancient truth, for us today. In Jesus' name, Amen.

When you read through long passages like this you do begin to wonder, “What am I supposed to get from this? How is this supposed to convict me, how is it supposed to comfort me, how is it supposed to instruct me, where do I find Christ in this, where is the gospel, is this totally ungermane, irrelevant to our day and life?” And the answer is, “No.” In fact, I would like to show you, before we plunge into the particular of this passage, three specific things that we learn over and over in these obscure case laws which we learn here.

I. We are accountable to God.
First of all, we learn that we are accountable to God. Over and over, in what anyone would simply consider secular, domestic business transactions, over and over in these laws we are reminded that God cares about our conduct. He cares about our ethics. He cares about how we treat our neighbors. He cares about how we look out for the welfare of our neighbor. He cares about our witness. We are always accountable to God.

You’re scratching your head already, “Where do you see that in this passage?” Chapter 22 verse 11. What's to happen in a circumstance where there's no way to verify whether a man is actually telling the truth or not? He's to be taken before the judges, and he is to testify before the Lord, we're told, that he is innocent. Now, a man in this life can lie before the Lord, happens all the time, people take false oaths. But the passage requires that to be done, because there will be a day when every man stands before the Lord, and on that day no one will get by with untruthfulness. This pledge in the present life that one is telling the truth before the Lord is a reminder that everything that we do is before the Lord and will be brought before His searching judgment. This is emphasized throughout the covenant code. Over and over, the law reminds us that all that we do in life is before the Lord; not just the things that people see but even the things that people can't see. If it's done before the Lord and we must act with integrity in the public view because it's all before the Lord. That's one thing that is emphasized throughout the law of God in this passage and it's so important for us today because there are so many opportunities for us to act today in things that we don't think anybody else will ever see or know. And we are tempted to act without integrity in those areas, but in all those areas we do them before the Lord. And so this ancient law meant for an agrarian society with case laws that seem so out of touch with where we are day to day, speaks to us at least in that way.

II. We are to be concerned for the welfare of our neighbor.
Secondly, we are told over and over in these laws that we are to be concerned for the welfare of our neighbor. In this very passage, if you dig a pit, whether it is for a grainery or to hold water or for whatever reason, and you don't do due diligence to protect it from injuring someone else–to mark it to prevent them from falling into it unawares–you’re responsible. Why? Because you are your brother's keeper; you are your neighbor's keeper. Your neighbor's welfare is your concern. You must do due diligence because you are to be concerned for the welfare of our neighbor. And none of the crazy abuse of liability standards today, and we do see crazy abuses of liability standards today. I understand that. No crazy abuses that we see in our own time. You know, when the person pours the cup of coffee on his lap at McDonald's and then sues McDonald's because the coffee was hot and he got burned and the cup says: caution: contents hot. No crazy abuses of those sorts of standards ought to undercut the importance of this principle that we are to be concerned for the welfare of our neighbor and that we should do due diligence to protect it and this passage tells us that when we don't, as far as God is concerned, we are liable to put our neighbor right.

III. Personal holiness involves all of actions, personal and public.
Thirdly, this passage reminds us again that holiness, as far as God is concerned, is more than private piety. It involves public morality. It involves the way we relate to one another. It involves the way we deal in ethical intercourse in public business transactions–in whatever else. Our morality, our ethics, our public behavior matters to God, and the law teaches us that over and over. All three of our truths come out in the passage that we are studying tonight. All the laws here have to do with depriving others through negligence or theft and then what is to be done when that happens.

There are nine general cases listed here, and by the way, the general cases and the types of cases that are listed here provide us yet another example that this law which God is giving from Exodus 21:1-23:3 is illustrative of how God wants His moral principles, and the Ten Commandments, to be applied in life. It is not a comprehensive set of civil laws; it simply gives you some examples of the general principles of the moral commands of God found in Exodus 20 applied to life situations and it expects judges, but also citizens, to draw the other implications.

Isn't it interesting that even in Exodus, when we think of the church in its infancy, God is requiring believers to consciously think as believers about the way they conduct their lives, because He doesn't spell out everything that they need to do. He expects them to think about what their responsibilities are and to apply the general principles of His word to the every day circumstances of their lives and to do God's will in a spirit which is well pleasing in His sight.

Let's walk very quickly through these nine general laws. Let me divide them up for you so you see where we are going. Let's look at verses 33 and 34 in chapter 21. There the first law has to do with the loss of livestock. In verses 35 and 36 there is a second case law; it has to do with the loss of livestock in a case of negligence. Then in verse 1 of Exodus 22, we have a law regarding theft and restitution. In Exodus 22:2-3, we come to a fourth case law having to do with a thief breaking in at night as opposed to breaking in during the day when he can be identified, and his responsibility of restitution if caught and the liability that he has to death if he breaks in at night. Then in verse 5, there is a law about negligence of animals as they graze another man's field; in verse 6, there is yet another law about negligence and an outbreak of fire which ruins a neighbor's field. In verses 7-9, there is a law about lending or leasing or bailment regarding possessions and then, in verses 10-13, there is a law about lending or leasing or hiring out of domestic animals and what happens if there is loss. And finally, in verses 14-15, there is a law about borrowing from the neighbor and restitution in certain cases relating to that. So those are the nine specific laws. Let's walk through them quickly in this passage.

IV. How God applies basic biblical principles.
First look at verse 33-34. “If a man opens a pit and digs it and does not cover it over and an ox or a donkey falls in it, the owner of the pit shall make restitution.” So negligence which results in the loss of an owner's livestock requires restitution of the value of the animal. He shall make restitution. He shall give money to its owner and the dead animal shall become his. So he gets the dead ox, he pays the owner the equivalent value whether its ox or donkey or whatever, so that he can be made right. Because of his negligence, he ends up with a dead ox, and because of this experience the other owner is put right. Think of it. In these times, a poor subsistence farmer's family's life–or at least, freedom–might depend on having a live ox. A live ox was as important to a subsistence farmer in Israel then as a water buffalo is to a family in southeast Asia today. Without that water buffalo, that family may die of starvation. It takes years to train that ox or water buffalo, and that loss of it requires something dramatic to be done. The law says, “You put it right.” You give him the money for another ox; you put him right–concern for the welfare of neighbor and carefulness in the treatment of the neighbor.

Second case law. Verses 35 and 36. This is the case in which your animal harms another person's animal. It is a situation which couldn't have been foreseen. There is no track record on this animal; this animal has never done this before and it just happens. Even in that case where there is no negligence involved, notice, that the responsibility of one's domestic animals require that there be some form of restitution done. There's been no negligence, but the consequences of the actions of one's own domestic animals demands that something be done. In that case what has to happen is this: Your ox, which is still alive, is sold. Your neighbor gets half of it and you get half of it, and then you divide the dead animal and do whatever you want to do with it. You sell it for meat, or eat, it or whatever you want to do with the dead animal. You split it down the middle. The person who was injured isn't whole and there is not apparent negligence in the situation; it was just one of those things, ‘An act of God,” an insurance agent would call it.

But if there is negligence, look at verse 36, in the case of this animal's death, then the full value of the animal is to be paid. The owner of the ox who gores the other man's ox is to put him right. He gives him a new ox and he ends up with a dead ox and he is out the money for a live one. And so he has done restitution for the negligence of not penning up his ox. In both of these laws we see a concern for the welfare of our neighbor and a concern for the protection of that which is his. It is an application of “You shall not steal.” You shall not take something that is your neighbor's or be negligent in such a way as it results in the loss of the neighbor.

Look at verse 1 of chapter 22. If a man steals an ox or sheep and slaughters it or sells it, that shows his intent. He didn't accidentally walk home with sheep that weren't his and sell them. It shows that he meant to steal them, he meant to sell them, and he meant to reap the benefit. He shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. As I mentioned before, oxen took a long time to train. They were a more valuable animal and so the restitution is higher–five oxen for the ox, four sheep for the sheep. The caught thief does five-fold restitution or four-fold restitution. What is the thief trying to do? The thief is trying to enrich himself at the expense of the impoverishment of his victim.

Now notice what the law says has to happen in this case. The law says that theft should result in the enrichment of the victim and the impoverishment of the thief. The law is designed to exactly counteract the intention of the thief's crime. What a tremendous deterrent to the crime itself. The law is designed to ameliorate the harm that has been done to the victim, and to bring upon the perpetrator the same harm that he was ready and willing to bring upon his victim.

In verses 2-4, we have this law that says, if the thief is breaking in in the night, then his life is up for grabs. If the owner of the house kills him, that's just too bad for the thief, even though all he meant to do was steal, he wasn't trying to kill anyone, he was trying to break in and steal. Why? Because the owner couldn't know. It could have been someone breaking in to do harm to his family and, in that case, life takes precedence, and the owner of the house has the right to protect his family at the expense of the life of the intruder. But if it's daytime, and the man sees that it's a thief breaking in, then he doesn't have the right to do homicide to protect property.

And, it goes on to say, in verse 4, that the caught thief, assuming daytime and a caught thief, must do restitution. The same principle obtains. Even if what he was trying to steal was found in his possession, he still has to do double restitution, verse 4 says. Again, this passage shows that life is more valuable than property, but that a thief in the night forfeits his right to life, and so we see principles again for carefulness for our neighbors life and property.

Then again, in verses 5 and 6, we see and fifth and sixth case laws, one having to do with the care of your grazing animals and another having to do with care in not starting fires. In each case, restitution is required when there is negligence. The principle again is that negligence which results in the loss of your neighbor's property or animals or welfare or livelihood requires restitution on your part because you’re to be careful for your neighbor.

In verses 7-13, we have cases that are slightly more complicated. In these cases, it is not certain what happened to the person who is the victim. In both these cases, they are to be brought before the judges and oaths are to be taken before the Lord, but in both cases, the neighbor keeping money or goods, or the neighbor using a donkey or an ox or sheep and the animal being harmed, there are stipulations being made to protect the investments and the property and the animals owned by the one who is victimized. Again, the principle is our carefulness with the animals and property of our neighbor.

The same thing in the ninth case law in verse 14, “If anyone borrows anything from his neighbor, and it is injured or dies while its owner is not with it, he shall make full restitution.” So each of these laws provides for the protection of property and is an extension of the eight commandment, “You shall not steal.”

V. Why these principles are important for Christians.
Now, given the principles, that we do everything that we do before God, that we are to be concerned for the welfare of our neighbor, and that our morality is to be not only private piety but also public in our ethical dealings, is there anything in this passage for us as Christians which leads us to Christ? Yes.

What leads a person to steal actively, or to be negligent in the care for other's property? Well, there are several answers to that question. One thing that leads people to steal is a failure to believe in God's providence, that God will not provide for you what you need and therefore you need to go out and take it even if it's wrong. Another thing that leads people to steal or to not look out for the welfare of their neighbor's property is greed or envy or a sense of entitlement, “Well, they have it. I deserve it too.” And it makes you either lax about protecting your neighbor's property or it may even give you a sense of entitlement that you can take your neighbor's property. Another thing that leads people to break this commandment is a failure to appreciate the image of God in man, that when we are stealing that which is our neighbor's, or failing to protect that which is our neighbor's, that offense is against someone who is in the image of God and in that sense is a sin against God Himself. Because we don't think enough of God to treat His image with respect. Another reason why this commandment is broken is because of that instinctive self-interest which is built into us and often times in a moment of panic, we choose self over neighbor. Another reason this commandment is broken is because we often place self over the welfare of the community. We think that the needs of this one outweigh the needs of the many, and therefore we are ready and willing to hurt the needs of the many in the interest of the needs of this one. This is a classic case, in for instance, insurance fraud. And then there are those perverse folks who just have shear desire to do something illegal. Do you ever wonder why stealing is often factored into gang initiations? I think it's just the perversity of wanting to do something illegal. Just to cross the barrier.

Well, how do you combat these things? How do you combat those motivations and reasons? Well, the only solution to these things, and this is how Christ factors into the Law, is in hearts changed by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Theft, like all outward sin, is indicative of a heart problem, and is never dealt with until the heart is changed. Jesus said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts and thefts.” And the answer is to pursue Christ for grace.

And you’ll remember that there was a thief on the cross that did that precisely. On the cross, at some point during the day, there were two thieves, both hurling abuse at Jesus Christ. Sometime during that afternoon, the heart of one of those thieves was changed, and he sought the grace of Christ, and his life was changed, and Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise.” The man who has the heart problem of theft, will only find an ultimate solution to it by seeking the same Savior that the thief on the cross sought. Let's seek Him now.

Lord, most of us are respectable thieves, the stealing we do isn't seen, it's not as obvious as man breaking through a mortar wall at night to steal another man's goods, it's not as obvious as shoplifting, it may not even be as obvious as stealing from the government in falsifying income tax returns, but we are thieves nevertheless. Having seen the glory of Your Law, having looked in the mirror of that royal Law, having seen our own sin, move us to hate that sin and to run to our Savior who can wash us clean, who can forgive us, and who can make us into that which we are not, holy, upright, well pleasing in Your sight. This we ask in Jesus' name, Amen.

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